One Year After AOC, Tiffany Cabán Challenges Establishment in Outsider Bid to Be Queens DA

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It’s been nearly a year since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the 2018 Democratic primary, toppling Joe Crowley—one of the most powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives—and upending the political machine in New York City overnight. Since then, Ocasio-Cortez has gone from outsider to one of the most influential politicians on Capitol Hill. Now another young Queens candidate is trying to pull off a historic upset. Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old queer Latina public defender, is running for district attorney in Queens. She is running to end cash bail, stop prosecuting low-level offenses, decriminalize sex work, and go after bad landlords, cops and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Her election would mark a major shift in the Queens criminal justice system and yet again set an example for the country. To win, Cabán will have to beat out a crowded field of seven candidates who are all claiming they’ll reform the system, including Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who is backed by the Queens establishment. The Democratic primary is June 25. We speak with Tiffany Cabán in our New York studio.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it’s been nearly a year since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the 2018 Democratic primary, toppling Joe Crowley—one of the most powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives—and upending the political machine here in New York City overnight. Since that historic win, Ocasio-Cortez has gone from outsider to one of the most influential politicians on Capitol Hill.

Now another young Queens candidate is trying to pull off a historic upset. Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old queer Latina public defender is running for district attorney in Queens. She’s running to end cash bail, to stop prosecuting low-level offenses, to decriminalize sex work and to go after bad landlords, cops and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Her election would mark a major shift in the Queens criminal justice system and yet again set an example for the country. To win, Cabán will have to beat out a crowded field of seven candidates who are all claiming they’ll reform the system, including Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who is backed by the Queens Democratic Party establishment. This is Tiffany Cabán’s campaign ad.

TIFFANY CABÁN: If you have money, if you know how to game the system, you can do whatever you want in the city. If you’re a person of color, you’re poor, you’re an immigrant, no one’s on your side. My family is from Puerto Rico, and my parents worked hard to make ends meet. But no matter how hard they worked, the system cared more about protecting the wealthy. I’m a queer Latina from a working-class family. People like us are exactly who the system is trying to keep down. That’s why I became a public defender, to defend my community. I have defended over a thousand clients, who couldn’t afford to defend themselves, who were thrown on Rikers because they didn’t have money for bail, they jumped a turnstile, they struggle with mental health or substance use disorder. I am running for district attorney of Queens to bring justice to working people, to stop criminalizing poverty, to reduce recidivism, to decriminalize sex work, to end cash bail. But the corrupt Queens political machine doesn’t want me to win, because they get rich off of foreclosures, have taken millions from developers, and I can’t be bought and controlled.

AMY GOODMAN: Since announcing her campaign in January, Tiffany Cabán has gone from long-shot outsider to key contender in a race that’s garnered national attention. Progressive district attorneys Larry Krasner of Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins of Boston have endorsed Cabán. The New York Times just endorsed her, writing, “The success of any prosecutor, and of the city itself, depends on keeping people safe. Ms. Cabán is the Democrat best poised to become one of a growing number of prosecutors to show that can be done without infringing on civil liberties, criminalizing black and Hispanic Americans and mistaking punishment for the only form of justice,” the Times wrote. The Democratic primary is June 25th.

For more, we’re joined here in the studio by Tiffany Cabán.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

TIFFANY CABÁN: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have taken Queens by storm. Queens, really the most diverse borough in the world. You are the youngest in the crowded race for district attorney. You’re the only public defender. Talk about why you chose to run for district attorney, and give us your history.

TIFFANY CABÁN: Sure, absolutely. And thank you for having me. But, you know, one, I never thought it was something that I would be doing. When I talk about being a public defender, it’s just so tied to my identity. It’s just, I say—it’s the same way that I say, like, I’m a queer woman, I am a Latina: I am a public defender. And I think that’s what a lot of public defenders feel like. But, for me, we’re in a moment of time where running for district attorney, becoming the district attorney, very much so feels like a continuation of the work that I have always done.

And it’s certainly been informed by my personal experiences growing up. I grew up here in Queens. I grew up in South Richmond Hill, Queens. My parents grew up in the Woodside housing projects, in NYCHA housing. And so, certainly, my experiences in overpoliced, overcriminalized, resource-starved communities, you know, that has very much so shaped the work that I do and what I’ve been fighting for my entire career. It’s why I became a public defender. It’s why I’m running now.

But, certainly, every day in court was just a constant reminder that our justice system is the single most powerful driver of the continued oppression of our black and brown, our low-income, our immigrant, our LGBTQIA+ communities. But one thing that’s also glaringly obvious is that if you have money, if you have the right political ties, if you pad the right pockets, you can get away with doing a lot of harm in our communities.

So, you know, for me, one of the drivers for running also was we’re in this like third cycle of these so-called progressive prosecutor races. So the playbook is out there, right? And folks know the right things to say. And I’ve been practicing criminal law in Manhattan and seeing District Attorney Cy Vance sort of come out with these so-called progressive policies, and recognizing that, you know, there’s a big fat asterisk next to those policies. And my clients, who were the exception to the rule before, continue to be the exception to the rule afterwards. One of the things that stands out to me, or I’ve told a lot during this campaign, is, when he said he wasn’t going to prosecute turnstile jumps. You know, a week later, I picked up a turnstile jump that we litigated for a year and went to trial on. And it was a perfect example of what’s wrong with our justice system, that we’re making decisions that overcriminalizes our black and brown and poor communities, that doesn’t serve public safety. And so, for me, you know, this felt incredibly important to do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tiffany, I wanted to ask you about the race for district attorney. In New York, there’s been a sort of a tradition that people get into the district attorney’s position in—whether it’s Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan or the Bronx, and they stay for decades, whether it was Hynes in Brooklyn or Morgenthau in Manhattan. And Richard Brown, who died last year, was—or, this year, right? And he was there for over 25 years. I remember when he was appointed by Mario Cuomo. He was actually appointed to fill a vacancy. And the first act that he did was to vacate the charges against a group of police officers who had choked to death a young Puerto Rican, Federico Pereira, in Queens in an attempted arrest, the stepson of a famous singer, Tito Nieves, the salsa singer. And Federico Pereira was killed. And his first act—Richard Brown—was to vacate the charges against those cops, because he wanted the support of the police union when he was going to run for election, because he was only in an appointed position at first. So, this whole issue of district attorney’s relationships to the police, which they depend on so much, I’m wondering how you see that, and, if you’re elected, what you will be able to do to change the historic relationship between DAs and cops.

TIFFANY CABÁN: Absolutely. Again, I think that we’re in this really special moment in time where we’re seeing decarceral prosecutors, committed to keeping people rooted in their communities with access to resources and supports, be elected all around the country. We’re seeing defense attorneys being elected into these positions all around the country, and also being able to navigate relationships with police departments that, you know, coming in, were sort of adversarial, just based on the things that they were talking about.

But there’s a lot of common ground to be had. So, you know, we can say that we’re going to hold police officers accountable through having independent prosecutors, making sure that our assistant district attorneys, that are expected to work every day with the police, aren’t the people that are then prosecuting them when they step over the line, and then saying also we’re going to make it untenable for bad officers to stay employed, saying that if you have a long history of misconduct and a case is relying on your testimony, that we’re not going to take those cases, but then also finding ways to work in partnership, right? I mean, there is a real opportunity, which hasn’t been taken advantage of, where the DA’s Office can be keeping data and disseminating, sharing it not with just the community but with the police departments, to say, actually, when you make these kinds of arrests, they better serve public safety. You get better public safety and public health outcomes.

One of the things that I would love to work, because—understanding this is a system within which we’re working in—right?—that has its own constraints, we can talk about how our system of prosecuting and our system of policing is—has, again, historically, worked to oppress certain communities, namely, our black and brown and low-income communities, but recognizing that there are ways where we can start to dismantle that and do some better work. So, the idea that we could be partnering and working on LEAD initiatives, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, things that we’re seeing in Seattle, up in Albany, that are working, that give police officers the opportunity to make the decision not to make an arrest and just to provide support. And in places where they’re doing these things, they’re seeing violence between officers and civilians go down exponentially. So, there are places for partnership, and there are places for accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, WNYC hosted a debate between the seven Queens district attorney candidates. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz said she is the best candidate to pursue meaningful criminal justice reform.

MELINDA KATZ: It is so crucial to have a balance of criminal justice reform and safety. I’m the only candidate in this race that has worked top to bottom, east to west, in the borough of Queens with all of the Cure Violence groups, with the mental health clinics, with the drug abuse clinics, and gone borough by—neighborhood by neighborhood to make sure that we are actually keeping people out of the system before they get into the system. You can have justice for defendants, but the real secret here is to make sure that we are stopping anyone from going into the system.

AMY GOODMAN: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who you are running against. Can you respond to what she says, and also the endorsement of AOC, of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? You’ve said she has inspired you to run, coming from the same borough, and, of course, the powerhouse that she has become. And, you know, you said you thought of yourself proudly as a public defender. Crossing over, becoming the chief prosecutor, the district attorney, what made you decide you could do that? And what does it mean without the managerial—managerial experience that someone like Melinda Katz has?

TIFFANY CABÁN: Sure. So, a lot to unpack there. But, you know, even just to respond directly to Melinda Katz’s messaging, you know, I think when we talk about experience, what is the most important type of experience to have? In being on the ground in the court every day to see how these things play out. When we talk about our justice system being broken in so many ways, it also includes our approaches to alternatives to incarceration, to diversion programs.

I mean, Layleen Polanco’s story is a perfect example of that. She is somebody who died in custody, a death that was completely avoidable, where we were criminalizing the very things that made her just already so vulnerable. And she was somebody that was participating in an alternative incarceration or diversion. And when you’re on the ground in court every day, you recognize that some of these programs and the way that they are put into place do more to destabilize rather than stabilize and heal. And so, being able to kind of pinpoint those things and say sometimes it’s even better just to have people out of the system, period, so that we’re not criminalizing poverty, mental health, substance use, or criminalizing already marginalized communities, like our queer communities of color.

AMY GOODMAN: Polanco, a black trans woman.

TIFFANY CABÁN: Exactly, exactly. And so, having those experiences are incredibly important.

And then, just personally, being endorsed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you know, folks like her, like Senator Jessica Ramos, Senator Julia Salazar, for me, it moved me in a way that said, “Well, I can do this. I can enter this space and have an impact.” Because, you know, as a 31-year-old queer Latina from a working-class family, never in a million years did I think that I would be entering a space like this. But I feel not only that I have the right experience, but that we are so well equipped to get the job done.

I mean, I’ve talked about this before, the fact that this literally started with four women sitting around a table saying, “We are going to change the system.” And six months later, we have built something massive, and not just on a—I mean, not on a local level, right? Like, we’re doing a lot in Queens, but this is part of a bigger national conversation. We’ve grown to hundreds and hundreds of volunteers and just have such a beautiful—like, there’s such beautiful intersectionality when you talk about the folks that are supporting our campaign. A really powerful moment for me was we were doing this rally, and this was, you know, over a month ago, but formerly incarcerated folks and sex workers coming together, saying, “Hey, I’m going to support a district attorney candidate,” because we’re doing things so differently. But then, beyond that, you know, having the support of community-based organizations, having the support of elected officials, like Senator Ramos and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but, you know, also just national criminal justice advocates and progressive prosecutors.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’ll continue to follow all of this.

TIFFANY CABÁN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Tiffany Cabán, we want to thank you for being with us, public defender, outsider candidate running for Queens district attorney, has just gotten the endorsement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The New York Times. We’ll cover that race next Tuesday.

When we come back, we go to Phoenix, Arizona, to speak with an African-American family held at gunpoint by police because their 4-year-old daughter allegedly took a doll from a Family Dollar store. Stay with us.

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