31-year-old Public Defender Tiffany Caban ran an AOC-style grassroots campaign calling for an end to mass incarceration and radical reform to the prosecutor’s office
TIFFANY CABAN They said we could not build a movement from the grassroots. They said we could not win. [crowd boos] But we did it, ya’ll.
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MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us. From Archie Bunker to Tiffany Caban, one of the most intriguing and important aspects of the growing power of the progressive political movements in this country has been the local district attorney races— like Larry Krasner in Philly and Kimberly Gardner in St. Louis, Rachel Rollins in Boston, to name just a few. They’ve now been joined by the woman we just saw in that video, Tiffany Caban— a 31-year-old, queer Puerto Rican public defender who looks as if she’ll be the next DA of the New York City Borough of Queens. She ran on ending mass incarceration, not arresting people for jumping subway turnstiles or for sex work or for most drug possessions. Only 1,090 votes separate her from Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who is not conceding until absentee ballots are counted, which won’t be until July, right around July 4th. She was endorsed by everyone in the Democratic establishment— from Governor Cuomo to New York City’s congressional delegation for the most part, and the king of Queens himself, Dennis Crowley, who Ocasio-Cortez defeated. Caban was endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, Warren, progressive DAs like Krasner and Rollins, and many others in that world.
We’re now joined by writer and journalist Ross Barkan, who wrote the article for The Nation, “Tiffany Caban Just Made History.” Ross, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.
ROSS BARKAN Thank you for having me. Great to be here.
MARC STEINER Good to have you here. So before we look at the complexity of the war within the Democrats, and how this affects mass incarceration, and what it portends for the progressive movement— all really important questions— I’m really interested in what it was like to cover this particular race, what her race was like. When I read, when I talked to friends of mine in Queens, they said it was almost infectious. The light—People were excited. There was this energy about this campaign. Just talk a bit about that. What was it like?
ROSS BARKAN Sure. So it was very striking how quickly it all happened. It was a campaign that really started from very little. Tiffany Caban entered the race in January. Even Ocasio-Cortez had been a candidate since almost a year before her election. So, Tiffany Caban goes from being this unknown public defender and just a few months later, she’s being endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren. And really, to be around it when it all came together was electrifying. She had many hundreds of volunteers, many of them from the Democratic Socialists of America, as well as other local grassroots organizations. It really was this progressive establishment, for lack of a better word, that rallied around her. Melinda Katz, her opponent, had the Queens Democratic establishment, real estate interests. Then Caban had this left coalition, and really by election day, you saw many, many young people especially volunteering for her. The party itself was one of the most raucous I have ever attended.
MARC STEINER [laughs] Do you have pictures?
ROSS BARKAN There were probably a thousand people there. We put some pictures on Twitter and it was a special moment just to see that many people and the excitement and the intensity and the nerves. It’s something you do not see typically in local races— certainly not for city council races, not for congressional races. It really felt like something bigger— not quite a presidential, but maybe not too far off. The stakes felt that high and, in many ways, they were that high.
MARC STEINER So let’s take a look at this race itself, how it ended. I mean, there are only a few votes to separate them— 1,090 votes— and it was a fraction of—It was squeaked through. So what happens now with Katz who is going to wait until all of the ballots come in, the absentee ballots come in, before she concedes, and she says she can win. That means, I read 3,400 ballots. Is this real? I mean, could Caban actually not win given the numbers of absentee ballots that exist?
ROSS BARKAN It’s highly unlikely that Katz wins, simply because there are six candidates in this race. If you have a little over 3,000 absentee ballots coming in, it’s statistically unlikely that Melinda Katz is collecting the vast majority of these. Usually what happens with absentee ballots is they reflect the outcome of the race. The percentages aren’t that far apart. So, it seems like the odds are very, very much in Tiffany Caban’s favor going into this. It’s not uncommon for politicians who finish slightly behind within one percent to ask for the paper ballots to be counted. That itself is not unusual, so I do expect Tiffany Caban to win. Of course, in politics you never know, but the fact that she’s gotten this far already is pretty remarkable and it appears that by early July she will be the Democratic nominee for District Attorney in Queens, which in essence makes you the next district attorney. The Republican opposition is nominal to a Democratic borough.
MARC STEINER Not to get stuck on the politics, I want to get into the heart of things, but you never know with absentee ballots because, A— they could be the very wealthy who might be going for Katz or some others. It could be folks in the military. It could be lots of different people who are in that absentee mix of 3,400 votes, but we’ll see. Hopefully for Tiffany and for the anti-mass incarceration [movement], she wins out. We’ll see how this goes, but I’m curious what you think this, you know, this is. What you see in New York State is one of the epicenters for the battle between progressive and establishment Democrats, and every establishment figure from Cuomo on down to most of the congressional delegation came out in support of Melinda Katz who is the Borough President. So, talk a bit about that. What does that set up in what you’ve been following?
ROSS BARKAN Sure.
MARC STEINER Because the race was tight. It was like a third and a third of the vote that each one of them got. It wasn’t like one of them got 51% of the vote.
ROSS BARKAN Well, this is definitely what I think of as a realignment election. Ocasio-Cortez was a part of that as well. New York politics really for a very long time wasn’t as liberal or progressive as advertised. We elected Rudy Giuliani twice. Michael Bloomberg was Mayor for 12 years. He’s a billionaire, an Independent, ran as a Republican originally. Certainly his politics were in the center, to say the least. New York City, while we also have this tradition going back to LaGuardia of this unabashed progressive politics, we also really since the 1970s I would say, moved toward the center. And now, you’re seeing this progressive spirit return— certainly with Ocasio-Cortez, now Caban. These remarkably young figures. We can’t forget Ocasio-Cortez is 29. Even more amazing, Caban will be 32. If she wins and becomes district attorney, I do not believe there’s ever been a younger district attorney in New York City history. We would have to look that up. I don’t know of any.
You’re seeing this new coalition being built. It’s being built in part by DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, which used to be more aligned with the organized labor establishment, but isn’t so much anymore. You’re seeing a lot of these other progressive, grassroots, smaller organizations getting involved, and the electorate is also getting younger. That’s something you’re seeing too. Younger people are starting to engage more in politics and there’s still certainly this divide between establishment elected officials, the real estate industry which has been a traditional driver of politics. They give a lot of money to campaigns. And also, a divide between the progressive grassroots and the large institutional labor union, which is very interesting. Melinda Katz in this race was certainly a candidate of labor. She had the teachers unions, the building workers unions, the Hotel Trades Council. The rank-and-file can be quite progressive; the leaders tend to be aligned with the politicians in power— in this case, Melinda Katz who is the Borough President, and Andrew Cuomo who is the Governor and is by far the most powerful figure in New York State.
MARC STEINER I want to share a couple of tweets with you now, so we can get a sense of the support she had and what Caban had to say, but also, the difficulties that she may encounter if she does assume office. This is a tweet from Caban and what she said about her campaign. She said, “We have built the most powerful, the most diverse, the most beautiful coalition that a borough-wide race has ever seen. From formerly incarcerated folks to sex workers to undocumented immigrants to community-based organizations & activists to local and national elected officials.” And on election night, Ocasio-Cortez also put up a tweet in support of Caban’s campaign and she wrote, “I’m so incredibly proud of @CabanForQueens and every single person who showed up for this election today. No matter how this ends, you’ll have stunned New York politics tonight.”
Having said that, having seen those tweets, there are a couple of things that are really important here. A— she has to step into an office with 700 employees, many of whom did not like her, nor did they support her campaign, and she’s going to have to deal and address that. And then the other part of that is, that this is where the rubber meets the road— progressives running for office, but now they have to manage as progressives, which is a very different ball game. We know that people are going to come after her like they did to State’s Attorney Gardner in St. Louis, who they went after tooth and nail because she took on the governor. Talk about that intricate problem.
ROSS BARKAN Tiffany Caban has a monumental challenge ahead of her. There’s no doubt about it. The Queens District Attorney’s Office is among the largest in America. Queens itself is a county of over 2 million people. That would make it one the five biggest cities in America. So really, you want to think of this as a big city DA. It’s not just one county in New York City. It really is its own city. Queens is incredibly diverse. So, a very large office. You are right. You’re going to have prosecutors— the line prosecutors they call them— who are not going to want to go along with the program. You’re going to have employees who are very resistant. The DA who was in office since 1991 and died in May, Richard Brown, as you said, was a very different type of DA, perhaps the most conservative of all five in New York City, was a tough-on-crime prosecutor. This really is a major cultural shift happening.
And you have police unions who did not support Tiffany Caban obviously and they’re going to make her life difficult, and the governor too because the governor controls the purse strings and funding for these offices. So, there is a lot that is going to happen and I’m sure she knows that as soon as she is certified the winner of this race, the work begins. If she wins in July, she’ll take office in January, and it’s different than winning a congressional race. Ocasio-Cortez— she won in June, she traveled the country with Bernie Sanders, she endorsed candidates, she had a great summer, everyone loved her. Being District Attorney of Queens County is a far more serious challenge. Put it that way. You’re not one of 435. You are an executive and Tiffany Caban will have to do a lot of work to achieve her goals— totally ending cash bail, the legislature has gone there, decriminalizing sex work, putting less people behind bars. It’s going to be very tough. She can do it, but there are going to be a lot of entrenched interests resisting change.
MARC STEINER So let’s take it from there. I mean, one of the things that if Tiffany Caban actually does take the reins and it looks as if she will—One of the articles in Vice and some of other places were really, kind of, talking about how prosecutors are the main reason we have mass incarceration, not just the laws, because even when states backed down from laws to end mass incarceration, prosecutors upped the game by charging more people with felonies and trying to put more people inside of prison. So the big trick here for her and for others is going to be how they change that paradigm, how they change that reality. And so, that will also lead to resistance, but that to me in some ways could be one of the biggest battles that she or any of these other new DAs face— how you stop the mass incarceration, how you change the nature of prosecution.
ROSS BARKAN Yes. So as Emily Bazelon has written in her new book, certainly prosecutors were a major driver of the mass incarceration boom. America is unique. We’re the only country in the world that elects its district attorneys. Most or if not all other countries appoint them. They’re government bureaucrats. They’re invested with far less power. We really make district attorneys into judge, jury, and executioner. They have tremendous leverage over defense attorneys, over defendants. They can really set the agenda from beginning to end. As you probably know, a vast majority of cases never go to trial. The DAs get a plea because they have the leverage to do that. Tiffany Caban is entering this paradigm like Larry Krasner did as well— public defender, and now prosecutor. She will have to restrain herself.
That’s really what progressive prosecution comes down to. It’s using less power. And long-term—And I have written an essay about this actually. It’s coming out in The Baffler very soon. There is going to have to be a discussion over restraining the power of the office itself, structurally, and you haven’t really heard that too much in the progressive movement. Right now, it’s about electing good people. What happens when cultures change? What happens if there’s a crime spike? What happens if the good people lose re-election, which can happen in a democracy? You are left with the same institution. So, Tiffany Caban, when she gets in there, her progressive prosecution will really be about prosecuting less. This is going to make a big difference in the lives of many thousands of people, especially poor people of color in Queens County. But as you said, is this going to be the ultimate solution? And that’s to be determined because it’s very hard to elect hundreds and thousands of district attorneys throughout America who all share these values. That just will not happen.
MARC STEINER Right. And what we’ll see in the coming years when these men and women are elected to these positions around the country, is what kind of change they do make, how they make that. Preaching progressive is different than managing progressive, and we’ll see where that rolls. But I really appreciate your article and the work you’ve been doing, Ross. Thank you so much, Ross Barkan, for being with us today. We look forward to more of your writing in The Nation and other places and having you back with us here on The Real News.
ROSS BARKAN Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
MARC STEINER Our pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.