The New Machine

State News

When the last week of June rolls around next year, former congressman Joe Crowley and his friends in the Queens Democratic Party might want to just take the week off. Maybe hit the beach, or the mountains, or something—anything—that doesn’t involve electoral politics.

For the second straight year on a Tuesday night in late June, the rapidly decaying Queens machine took a huge blow at the hands of a young, once-longshot candidate. Last night, 31-year-old public defender Tiiffany Cabán, endorsed by the woman who ended Crowley’s career as well as presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, seemingly toppled Queens borough president Melinda Katz and four other candidates in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney, although Katz refused to concede and called for the counting of absentee ballots.

Right now, Cabán holds about a thousand vote lead, and looks to be in the driver’s seat to become the district attorney of a borough where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a lot to not very much.

By sheer numbers—Queens is home to 2.3 million people—Cabán’s apparent win is without a doubt the most important victory so far for the criminal justice reform movement, which has focused its efforts in the past few years on unseating and replacing seemingly immovable district attorneys and sheriffs all over the country in elections that had long been afterthoughts. Whoever ultimately wins this race will be just the third Queens district attorney in 42 years. In its surprising endorsement of Cabán last week, the New York Times said Cabán was “unencumbered by ties to the borough power structure and free to pursue her commitment to serve the community by doing more than just winning convictions.”

But this election has ramifications beyond the reform movement, and beyond Queens. As others have pointed out, the Democratic establishment in New York and Washington was shocked by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over Crowley last year; for much of the campaign, Crowley didn’t even bother to show his face. That was not true this time; the establishment aggressively backed Katz—the whole Queens congressional delegation endorsed her, except for Ocasio-Cortez—but it wasn’t enough to beat Cabán, who had an army of small donors behind her.

The Queens DA election should serve as a wakeup call to entrenched party machines all over the country that Ocasio-Cortez and 2018 weren’t flukes, and that complacency is no longer an option. But it’s also an authoritative statement that the electoral left is building a new kind of machine, which is its only hope at competing with the Democratic Party establishment and the immovable corporate interests that establishment represents. This network includes not only elected officials like Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Warren, but social justice activists, community groups, left-wing unions, socialists, progressives, abolitionists, reformers, and so on.

And unlike the traditional party machine, this machine isn’t confined to the boundaries of one neighborhood or city or county; Cabán, for example, picked up endorsements from other progressive DAs around the country, including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins in Boston, and just 15 percent of her donations came from Queens. It’s a genuine national movement rooted in the idea that inequality and injustice takes similar forms and shapes and must be eradicated no matter where you live. That’s exceedingly rare in America.

It remains to be seen, obviously, if this coalition can survive past the Trump administration, and how much structural reform it’s able to enact. For now, however, it’s accomplishing that most important first step: winning. And for that, it can’t be looked at as anything other than a resounding success.

Correction: A previous version of this article said Caban was 29. She is 31.

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