A man walks into a school June 25 at 8:35 a.m. and a poll worker says “four” to denote he is the fourth person in his election district to cast a ballot in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney.
No joke—just an early sign that turnout in the borough was going to be surprisingly low, given the stakes in a contest in which one of the two front-runners had declared that while she favored the closing of Rikers Island as soon as possible, she opposed resurrecting the Queens House of Detention to hold inmates once that happened.
At 11 p.m., with that candidate, Tiffany Cabán, having established a 1,090-vote lead over Queens Borough President Melinda Katz that figured to be tough to overcome even if absentee and affidavit ballots that were due to be counted July 3 approached 6,000, State Sen. Joe Addabbo stood outside Banter, a Queens Blvd. bar where Ms. Katz had just hung her hopes on that final tally and a potential recount.
See You in September?
“People will wake up tomorrow morning and say, ‘I thought the primary was in September,’” he remarked, noting that several voters he had encountered while campaigning with the Borough President had pledged they would be voting for her then.
A shade over 90,000 ballots were cast, including those that still have to be counted, in a borough with more than a million registered voters. Mr. Addabbo was asked whether, in a low-turnout election where there hadn’t been a huge amount of media attention aside from a debate televised on NY1 two weeks earlier, Ms. Katz shouldn’t have had a significant edge due to her support not only from the Queens Democratic Party and Governor Cuomo but a flock of unions that included noted vote-pullers like the United Federation of Teachers and two major Service Employees International Union locals, 32BJ and 1199.
“That would’ve been true if people were really interested in our District Attorney,” he replied. “People don’t realize how important the District Attorney is.”
He apparently was referring to those who would have been expected to vote for Ms. Katz. One of her backers inside the bar had spoken with wonderment about the wave of young people he saw on the streets of Astoria earlier in the day getting out the vote for Ms. Cabán. Others said that while the party establishment saw her coming, in contrast to its complacency before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blew past Joe Crowley—the highest-ranking young Democrat in Congress—in the primary a year earlier, it hadn’t had the resourcefulness to counter her in the western part of the borough, where she amassed more votes than Ms. Katz could in the organization’s stronghold in southeast Queens.
“We’re not doing enough at the grass-roots,” said Queens Councilman Peter Koo. “Their people can get out the vote by social media. We cannot win by the traditional race.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Maf Misbah Uddin, the treasurer for District Council 37, who said the Caban voters were “not listening to the Old Guard.”
“I think the Democratic Party must also bring the new into the fold,” he said, about 15 minutes before Ms. Katz addressed the crowd with 99 percent of the ballots tallied. “You have to change with the times. You cannot just write a letter; you have to do social media.”
There were other hurdles Ms. Katz faced. While Ms. Cabán has spent her entire career after graduating law school as a defense attorney, the Borough President’s resume consists primarily of holding political offices. The one candidate in the field who had the extensive criminal-justice prosecutorial background that normally would be a prerequisite for being elected DA was Gregory Lasak, who headed the Homicide Bureau under longtime DA Richard Brown before being elected a State Supreme Court Justice in 2003, a post he held until last year.
His announcement last October that he would run for DA was the first indication that Mr. Brown, who died two months ago, was not going to be seeking re-election, and Judge Lasak loomed as the early favorite to succeed him.
Some Compelling Credentials
Even in a climate where an old-fashioned law-and-order DA like Mr. Brown wasn’t what many voters were looking for, Mr. Lasak had some credentials to recommend him that should have had crossover appeal to those who did not resemble the kind of borough resident portrayed in TV shows like “All in the Family” and “The King of Queens.” Besides having overseen the investigations of notorious cases including the Howard Beach racial attack on three black men by a gang of white youths and the Wendy’s Massacre in which five people were murdered at a Flushing branch of the fast-food restaurant, he established a unit in the DA’s Office in the late 1990s to examine cases for possible wrongful convictions. More than 20 convictions were overturned as a result of its work.
His campaign commercial focused on one of the cases where he had a conviction overturned and featured him being embraced by the man who was freed as a result. At the time that he was elected to the bench more than 15 years ago, Ron Kuby, who had been the law partner of William Kunstler when the latter gentleman had some memorable court battles with Mr. Lasak, told the New York Times, “Greg is one of the few prosecutors who genuinely loses sleep over the prospect of convicting an innocent person.”
Another tribute to the prosecutor in that article came from U.S. Rep. Greg Meeks, who recalled their time together in the Queens DA’s Office as a kind of partnership, “sharing cases and trying cases together.”
That partnership did not extend to the primary, however. Congressman Meeks, in his first serious test as Queens Democratic Leader, put the organization’s resources behind Ms. Katz. He introduced her to the crowd at Banter after proclaiming, “First of all, this day ain’t over, folks. That’s the wonderful thing about democracy: you’ve gotta count every vote.”
It wasn’t clear why he had stepped away from Mr. Lasak and concluded Ms. Katz was more electable, although there were a few reasonable surmises to be made. Being too closely associated with Mr. Brown wasn’t necessarily an asset in a borough where black residents believed they had been unfairly targeted during the NYPD’s overuse of stop-and-frisk and the then-DA didn’t seem to have a problem with it.
Mr. Lasak, like Mr. Brown, was strongly supported by the police unions, which helped in some heavily white neighborhoods but may have been a detriment elsewhere, at a time when minority residents are waiting to see, nearly five years later, whether Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo will pay any price for his role in the death of Eric Garner. (Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, who was featured in a campaign commercial for Rory Lancman, switched her endorsement to Ms. Cabán after he dropped out of the race four days before the primary to back Ms. Katz.)
Subdued During Debate
And in the NY1 debate—the candidates’ one chance to make their case before a sizable audience—Mr. Lasak looked and sounded older than his 66 years. It wasn’t clear whether he had grown exasperated that his edge in experience wasn’t the asset he believed it should have been given his competition, or that he’d been deflated by failing to get the support of the Queens Democratic Party, but either way, he didn’t help himself even as high-energy performances by Ms. Katz and Ms. Cabán and attacks both endured from the other candidates suggested it was a two-woman race.
Unfortunately for the Queens Borough President, Mr. Lasak still had enough support to gain nearly 15 percent of the vote, most of which figured to have come at her expense.
Less than 20 minutes after the polls closed at 9 p.m., the TVs in Banter turned to NY1 showed that with 49 percent of the ballots tallied, the two front-runners each had 37 percent of the vote, with Ms. Cabán holding a 163-vote edge over Ms. Katz. Mr. Lasak had gotten 17 percent, and the other three candidates were lagging in the low single digits.
By the time 68 percent of the ballots had come in, Ms. Caban spurted away to a 1,105-vote lead. The count settled into a familiar rhythm: Ms. Katz would make up a few hundred votes, but just when it seemed the race might be turning in her favor, Ms. Cabán would have her lead expanded again. The Borough President got within 483 votes with 84 percent of the ballots in, but that would be the closest she came.
With 92 percent counted and Ms. Cabán leading by 984 votes, Assemblyman David Weprin, whose family has been a force in Queens Democratic politics going back to his father Saul, the late Speaker of the Assembly, was asked whether the contest had been decided.
“Not by any means,” he said. “There’s about 3,500 absentee ballots that favor Melinda, and I also heard that a lot of southeast Queens hasn’t come in.”
Not Just Senior Absentees
But the surge from the southeast never arrived, and Councilman Koo, asked about Mr. Weprin’s hunch that most of the absentee ballots would have been cast by senior citizens inclined to vote for Ms. Katz, replied, “Young people go on vacation and vote absentee,” and he speculated their paper ballots would favor Ms. Cabán.
“The situation is not good for Melinda,” he said. “But either way, we have to be self-critical” about not turning out a larger vote for her.
When Ms. Katz spoke at 10:45, she told the crowd, “We always knew this was gonna be tough, folks. This is a job that will dictate how our children are raised in this borough.”
She continued, “We are facing serious times in the United States of America. We are facing serious times in Queens. We’d better get it right, because the country is watching what we do. We need to make sure that we keep our families safe. We are going to recount, and God willing, I come out on top.”
Those assembled in the bar broke into a chant of “Count every vote!” But the comments by several elected officials suggested they weren’t holding out much hope that the still-to-be-counted ballots would produce a dramatic-enough swing for Ms. Katz to prevail.
The shock to the criminal-justice system in Queens figured to be powerful. Ms. Caban had made clear there were many quality-of-life crimes that she would not prosecute as DA, including prostitution, and would end cash bail for most offenses. She told her supporters at the club La Boom in Woodside a few minutes after Ms. Katz’s speech, “I ran because for too long too many communities in Queens haven’t had a fair shot in the criminal-justice system.”
But where a consensus had emerged that Mr. Brown had been too slow to adapt to the changing mood in the borough and—in contrast to the last two Brooklyn DAs—had not created a Conviction Integrity Unit to continue the kind of work Mr. Lasak did case-by-case before he left for the judgeship more than 15 years ago, there was reason for concern that the pendulum would swing too far the other way if Ms. Cabán made good on her campaign promises.
Second Shot With GOP?
By the day after the primary, the New York Post was reporting that Republicans—whose nominee for the November general election, Daniel Kogan, had told a reporter for the paper he was not sure he would mount a serious campaign—were reaching out to Ms. Katz to run on the party’s line instead, and if she declined, would try to persuade Mr. Lasak to take on Ms. Cabán one-on-one.
The urgency behind such maneuvering was not shared, however, by Peter Vallone Sr., the retired City Council Speaker, whose family has long wielded power in Astoria, a neighborhood whose changing demographics were highlighted by both Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and Ms. Cabán’s.
“It’s a wake-up call to the political parties,” he said in a phone interview about 12 hours after the primary tally was concluded. “I think it’s pretty much proof of the discontent that exists right now with young voters. They’re looking at Congress and asking, ‘Why can’t they get anything done together?’“
He said signs of the discontent with traditional politics could be seen in the Democratic presidential primary, where candidates are pitching programs like Medicare for All and college-loan forgiveness that, beyond the likely Republican opposition in Congress, would come with formidable price-tags, but resonate with “a lot of young people under 30 coming into places like Astoria.”
I asked him whether those newer residents wouldn’t nonetheless be wary of voting for a candidate who wants Rikers shuttered but rejects the idea that Queens will need a jail to house inmates if that happens.
“You’re talking like an over-40-or-50-year-old,” Mr. Vallone said, amusement in his voice. “You have headlines saying that an innocent person is convicted, and that registers with these young people.”
Did he think the discrediting of stop-and-frisk as an effective tactic due to continued drops in crime even as it was dialed back starting with the last two years of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure—making clear it had been badly overused for the previous decade—had worked to Ms. Cabán’s advantage?
“Yes,” said Mr. Vallone, who was a major player in obtaining funding through the “Safe Streets, Safe City” legislation for the build-up of the NYPD in the early 1990s that was a key factor in the crime decline since. “That is what the headlines say, absolutely.”
No Historical Perspective
He remarked, “When you’re under 30 years old, these things [judicious law enforcement] sound boring. They haven’t experienced any of the problems that we have. They don’t know what the city was like 30 or 40 years ago and how it got to be the place it is today.”
But he indicated that he had faith that if Ms. Cabán was elected in November, she would come to realize it would be a mistake to do a huge house-cleaning among the DA’s current prosecutors, saying that when he became Council Speaker in 1986, he had gotten rid of just one staffer because he discovered the remainder had both valuable institutional knowledge and that their loyalties were to the Council rather than his predecessor.
“She’s obviously a bright woman,” he said of Ms. Cabán. “She has to know you need jails, and there are certain people who are evil and have to be punished. She’s going to come into the DA’s Office and she may feel strongly that part of her role is to not convict innocent people. But she’s going to realize that part of your role is to convict the people that are guilty.”
During an interview that night on “Inside City Hall,” the presumptive Democratic nominee gave some indications that she understood those realities. But when host Errol Louis expressed skepticism that she could be serious about closing Rikers yet insist that the Queens House of Detention should not be resurrected as one place to put inmates who would be kicked off the island, she insisted that was more than just a “not-in-my-backyard” campaign position.
She contended that both the Brooklyn House of Detention and the Manhattan Detention Complex a few blocks northeast of City Hall were the likely spots to move the inmates, adding, “We are looking to de-carcerate as much as we can.”
And those who would still have to be placed behind bars, Mr. Louis mused, would wind up “someplace not Queens.”
That clearly was a position she was taking without considering what the reaction might be in Brooklyn or Manhattan, where residents might not be thrilled at extending the hospitality of their jails to inmates committing crimes in another large borough.
Not Unlike AOC
It brought to mind the experiences of the woman who was both an inspiration and a key endorser of Ms. Cabán, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, whose vibrancy and charisma have often found themselves undercut by her habit of taking positions and making statements whose ramifications she clearly hasn’t thought through. Those traits have bitten her in the original draft of the Green New Deal that proposed a guaranteed income for those “unwilling,” as well as unable, to work, her erroneous claim that the state’s deal with Amazon falling through would free $3 billion to be spent on more worthwhile projects, and her recent use of the phrase “concentration camps” to describe the detention centers where migrants and children who have tried to cross the southern border into the U.S. are being housed in often-deplorable conditions.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s unwillingness to admit her mistakes on any of those controversies hasn’t diminished her popularity on Twitter, but it has created an impression of someone whose exuberance sometimes exposes ignorance and immaturity.
As State Senator Addabbo indicated at the end of the primary tally, being a District Attorney may not offer the same kind of platform Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has created as a Congresswoman, but it carries a lot greater responsibility.
And so the best that can be hoped if Ms. Cabán continues down what seems a likely path to being the first woman to serve as Queens DA is that she comes to appreciate the wisdom in Mr. Vallone’s words about what she’s likely to experience, notwithstanding their different perspectives on the criminal-justice system.
“She’ll learn,” he said, not unkindly. “She’ll have to learn.”
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.