The Small-Donor Model That Helped Ocasio-Cortez Win Is Aiding Another Progressive – The New York Times

Last month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez threw her weight behind a like-minded Democrat, endorsing Tiffany Cabán in Tuesday’s primary for district attorney in Queens.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez not only gave her endorsement, she also implored her legions of online followers to give Ms. Cabán money — and just like that, small cash contributions poured in from around the country.

The race represents the biggest test yet for the coalition of local activists, reform advocates and democratic socialists who elevated Ms. Ocasio-Cortez from obscurity to Congress — a run that was itself fueled by money from elsewhere.

This time, the coalition is hoping to prove that Ms. Cabán, a first-time candidate with deeply progressive views on criminal justice, can win in a borough that still retains much of its working-class roots.

They are doing it mostly with money from outside of Queens: Only about 15 percent of the $450,000 given to Ms. Cabán in individual contributions — $68,000 — came from donors who listed an address in Queens, according to an analysis by The New York Times of her filings dating back to January.

About 45 percent of her contributions came from outside of New York City. Nearly $100,000 came from California alone.

The race for Queens district attorney, a contest about criminal justice reform, has become a clash between competing visions of how to fund candidates in local elections: sizable checks from local business interests versus small online donations from out of state.

One of Ms. Cabán’s leading opponents, Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, has run a mostly traditional fund-raising effort in her candidacy. She has collected endorsements and cash from major labor unions and local politicians, while amassing a war chest of big donations for over a year from real estate figures and businesses.

That strategy was captured earlier this month at a steakhouse fund-raiser with labor leaders, landlords and lobbyists in Lower Manhattan. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was billed as a special guest.

Each side has portrayed the other’s donors as out of touch with average Queens voters in the primary battle, with the winner expected to be a heavy favorite in November’s general election against the Republican candidate, Daniel Kolgan, a lawyer.

“You could make your entire political career out of donors who can’t vote for you, but they’re typically going to be big donors,” said David Fontana, a professor of law at George Washington University, who has written on limitations to out-of-district donations. “Now it’s becoming true for smaller donors.”

Campaign cash flowing in from other states to influence local elections is nothing new: Wealthy donors in big cities have long supported both Republican and Democratic candidates. Activist billionaires like the Koch brothers and George Soros support local campaigns and issues they care about.

But now those with just a few dollars to spare are getting in on the act. Campaigns have taken notice in recent years, soliciting donations using massive email lists and appeals to a common purpose to fuel small-dollar fund-raising efforts on behalf of candidates in far away places — especially Democratic ones.

“It’s like discovering fire,” said Michael Casca, a Democratic strategist and veteran of Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 run. “The act of kicking in just a few bucks to candidates up and down the ballot in races across the country is creating an unseen level of solidarity in the movement.”

The approach was seen in Stacey Abrams’s run for governor in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke’s challenge to Senator Ted Cruz in Texas, both of whom received huge numbers of small-dollar contributions from around the country during their failed bids.

In the Queens race, Ms. Cabán has amassed by far the largest number of individual donors — more than 5,000 total and more than 1,100 in Queens — using regular email solicitations.

Ms. Cabán, a public defender, has refused money from New York City’s typical donor class — businesses, lobbyists and real estate interests — and made that a key part of her campaign. She has linked her run to a nationwide effort to reform prosecutors’ offices that has seen recent success in Philadelphia and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, in part with funds from Mr. Soros.

Monica Klein, a campaign spokeswoman, said it was “no surprise” that Ms. Cabán has attracted support from around the country: “there’s a national movement to transform a broken justice system.”

Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both Democratic presidential candidates, endorsed Ms. Cabán on Wednesday. Mr. Sanders did so in an email that also solicited donations for her.

On Friday, the criminal justice reform group funded by Mr. Soros, Justice and Public Safety PAC, entered the Queens race: a $70,000 contribution to the Working Families Party, whose members have been actively assisting Ms. Cabán.

The Working Families Party expects to spend close to $250,000 on the race, according to Bill Lipton, the party’s political director.

“Taking money from the real estate industry has become a fault line in politics for working class and progressive voters — a marker for who you can trust,” Mr. Lipton said.

Those comments were an unsubtle attack on Ms. Katz, the borough president. A veteran politician with deep Queens ties, Ms. Katz had been seen as such a front-runner that a local politics magazine, City and State, put her on the cover on Monday: “Katz in the bag,” the headline read.

CreditMary Altaffer/Associated Press

She entered the year with more than $850,000 on hand, and has raised about $1 million since. She has taken checks of $5,000 or more from developers and landlords; from unions for hotel workers, painters and police captains; from allies of Mr. Cuomo; from the political action committee of Carl E. Heastie, the State Assembly speaker.

The checks are large and largely local: 80 percent of the 390 individual donors who gave Ms. Katz money from mid-January through the latest filing had New York City ZIP codes. Slightly more than half were from Queens.

Grant Fox, a spokesman for Ms. Katz, said her support “among the working men and women of our city” and among many of the biggest unions “will make the difference on the ground in Queens.”

Another candidate in the race has received strong support from inside New York City and its suburbs: Greg Lasak, a former chief prosecutor in the Queens district attorney’s office and state court judge.

Nearly 97 percent of his donors listed an address in New York State. Mr. Lasak has raised more than $1.3 million, including large sums from law firms, the city’s largest police union and from associations for court officers and clerks.

Bill Driscoll, the chairman of Mr. Lasak’s campaign, attributed the support to the candidate’s experience.


CreditMary Altaffer/Associated Press

In the final days of the race, big checks have flowed mostly to Ms. Katz, who as of Sunday had taken in more than $235,000 in contributions over $1,000. The largest donations came from the United Federation of Teachers ($36,000), the real estate developer and financier Howard Milstein ($26,000), and Joe for NY ($12,500) — a state committee for the former Queens congressman Joseph Crowley, who lost his seat last year to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.

Since the latest filing, Ms. Cabán reported no check greater than $1,000 — and those under that amount are not reported in daily filings. But the Working Families Party, which is supporting her, received $125,000 as of Sunday. (Mr. Lasak collected an additional $85,000.)

Ms. Cabán is not bereft of large contributors, including $38,505 from Cale Bonderman, a Brooklyn-based 26-year-old son of a billionaire investor, and $38,000 from Elizabeth Simons, whose address is in California.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez helped raise $14,000 for Ms. Cabán in just a few hours on the day of her endorsement after she sent an email blast soliciting donations.

Ms. Katz, with her steakhouse fund-raiser, did far better. The invite list for that event, at Delmonico’s restaurant near Wall Street, included some prominent lobbyists in Albany and New York City, and the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group.

She raised over $50,000, according to her campaign, a sum perhaps driven by the top billing of Mr. Cuomo as the special guest — no doubt attracting some of his supporters and donors.

They would have left disappointed: The governor did not attend.