Progressive women won historic upsets in Democratic primaries across the city last year.
By running unapologetically left-wing campaigns driven by dedicated volunteers and small donations, first-time candidates trounced longtime politicians with deep campaign chests.
And that’s exactly the strategy that public defender Tiffany Caban is using in the June 25 Democratic contest to replace exiting Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.
“We are entirely grassroots, people-powered,” she said in a sitdown interview with the Queens Chronicle last Friday, adding that she had around 70 volunteers working for her campaign, which officially launched on Jan. 25.
More boots on the ground are coming, too.
Following an earlier endorsement by its Queens branch, the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America voted to back Caban on Sunday. The group’s 5,000-plus members played a major role last year in sending Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-Queens, Bronx) to Congress and Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) to the state Senate.
A Richmond Hill native who now lives in Astoria, Caban is a staff attorney at New York County Defender Services.
Running as a criminal justice reformer, she’s calling for ending cash bail and mass incarceration, decriminalizing sex work, instituting discovery reform and other policy changes long sought by activists.
Her highest-profile rivals in the race are Borough President Melinda Katz, City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) and former Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak.
The three of them have each raised more than $1 million. The Board of Elections hasn’t yet published fundraising numbers for Caban.
But she has pledged to not accept corporate or real estate contributions. And the candidate contends competing dollar-for-dollar with her best-funded rivals isn’t necessary for victory.
“The Julia Salazars and the AOCs and the Catalina Cruzes and the Jessica Ramoses of the world, they didn’t have $1 million in the bank to win their races,” she said. “But what they did have was a changing electorate that has really been activated in ways that they have never been.”
Since Brown was appointed in 1991 by Gov. Mario Cuomo, much in Queens has changed. The district attorney is a frequent target of criticism from criminal justice advocates. And in recent years, candidates pledging to end overly carceral practices have been elected district attorney in cities like Boston and Philadelphia.
Hopefuls running to replace Brown have called for his office to be reformed but differ on exactly how.
Caban wants sweeping changes.
Saying the office’s culture defines convictions and sentences as the main measures of success, the candidate argues the office has totally ignored broader issues of justice.
“The two simple questions we should be asking on every single case are, ‘How do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?’ and ‘How do we make our communities safer?’” she said.
Success should instead be measured, Caban continued, by how successfully the office decreases recidivism, fairly applies the law to all classes and racial groups and helps reduce the city’s incarcerated population.
“And the amazing thing is that to me, these things seem so intuitive,” she said.
In general, she wants to bring a “trauma-informed, community solution-driven, harm-reduction philosophy” to Queens.
The candidate said she would immediately end Brown’s much-criticized policy of making defendants choose between waiving their speedy trial rights or not being able to later get a plea deal that does not include the top count on an indictment.
Sex work in Queens is heavily linked with human trafficking. Caban argues that fully decriminalizing the former will help law enforcement target the latter. Many advocates argue that prostitutes who are trafficking victims may be afraid to reach out to the authorities for fear that they themselves would be criminally prosecuted.
“By fully destigmatizing and decriminalizing, you are actually creating a space to be able to target trafficking,” she explained.
On other fronts, Caban wants tough prosecution. She mentioned having represented clients charged with taking “a little bit of money from their employer.
“But why aren’t we prosecuting the employer who has stolen their wages, who has misclassified their workers and has really done some significant harm across the board to folks?” she said.
Ending cash bail must be considered in some violent crime cases along with low-level, nonviolent ones, according to Caban. And when it comes to certain “offenses born of poverty, mental health and substance abuse,” her office would decline to prosecute.
She also promises to “go to every length possible to make sure that there isn’t the risk of a [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] contact” with defendants.
Caban pledges to hold ICE and NYPD officers accountable for any misconduct, too.
The candidate has spent her entire professional career as a public defender. But as a New York Law School student, one of Caban’s internships was at Brown’s office. She remembers it as a hypercompetitive space that lacked the “team mentality” she’d observed at other workplaces.
“At the end of that internship, they were like, ‘You were great, but I guess I’ll see you on the other side of that aisle,’” she said.