It was election night at La Boom, a Queens nightclub, and Tiffany Cabán’s supporters had something to say.
“Black Lives Matter!” they shouted, an extraordinary cry at the victory party for a district attorney candidate. “Black Lives Matter!”
Such was the scene as the night’s tally ended with Ms. Cabán 1,090 votes ahead of Borough President Melinda Katz in the Democratic primary. The final toll won’t be known until at least next week, when absentee and other paper ballots are counted.
If Ms. Cabán’s lead holds, New York is likely to be added to the list of cities that have elected district attorneys who want to remake the criminal justice system to undo two decades of policies that led to the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of black and Latino Americans, too often for minor crimes and drug-related offenses.
The election also affirms the growing power of a fairly new force in New York politics: a millennial-based coalition pulling the Democratic Party to the left, and challenging its leadership machine.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joseph Crowley, the Queens Democratic chairman and fourth-ranking House member, last June, she gained star power more akin to Beyoncé’s than that of a freshman member of Congress. The city’s political establishment thought it was a fluke.
Victories by reform Democrats in the New York State Senate primary elections in September threw shade on those doubts. This election should put to rest the idea that the coalition isn’t a sustainable force.
Conventional wisdom would have suggested that Tuesday’s election results were impossible. Months ago, few had ever heard of Ms. Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender with seven years’ experience. In her way stood the entirety of the county Democratic organization backing Ms. Katz, a longtime player in Queens politics. Powerful unions pledged to support Ms. Katz; the real estate industry provided plentiful donations. Gov. Andrew Cuomo endorsed her. So did prominent African-American elected officials like Representative Gregory Meeks, Mr. Crowley’s successor as head of the Queens County Democrats, who moved to get out black voters in southeast Queens.
Their ads and allies warned that Ms. Cabán’s inexperience and radical ideas would endanger people’s safety.
But in the end, Ms. Cabán’s message proved more compelling to her supporters than those warnings were to everyone else.
With the help of the Working Families Party and her fellow Democratic Socialists of America, she has shocked the state’s Democratic establishment, no matter the final outcome.
Who are these usurpers? Many are part of a generation still quite young when the crack epidemic swept the city in the 1980s and ’90s, but whose political consciousness was forged by the consequences of the brutal reaction to that era: decades of over-policing that criminalized blacks and Latinos.
It’s a generation that feels that the Democratic Party leadership has failed it, not only on criminal justice, but on issues from inequality to immigration to the Iraq war.
I am one of them. Many of us are highly educated, but struggle to get ahead after years of stagnant wages, student loans and rents that just keep going up. To these voters, the real estate money helping fuel Ms. Katz’s campaign probably didn’t help her case.
We talk openly about sexual harassment. We speak about gender and sexual orientation in fluid terms that even the most well intentioned in our parents’ generation struggle to understand. If we are not immigrants ourselves, we’re likely to be welcoming to them.
Ms. Cabán describes herself as a “queer Latina.” Her parents grew up in public housing. She went on to graduate from Pennsylvania State University and New York Law School.
We are the generation that watched our black and Latino classmates — mostly but not only the boys — thrown up against police cars on the way home from school, part of a stop-and-frisk practice that was later ruled unconstitutional. We remember how black men like Sean Bell, Kalief Browder and Eric Garner died at the hands of the police or by the cruelties of the corrections system, and we want this sort of injustice to end.
But Ms. Cabán’s apparent win was dependent not only on those voters who showed up, but also those who didn’t. In a different time, Ms. Cabán’s campaign promises to eliminate cash bail, decriminalize sex work and stop prosecuting most quality-of-life offenses might have conjured fears of rising crime, and drawn conservative voters to the polls.
Ms. Katz and her allies certainly tried to capitalize on those fears, releasing negative ads late in the race that sought to evoke the specter of a return to the “bad old days.”
With turnout at just over 11 percent — an abysmal showing — Ms. Cabán’s motivated voters had the edge.
To make a lasting impact, these liberal insurgents will have to do more than capitalize on voter apathy, as the machine before them so often did. They will need to build a much broader coalition — not only to keep winning elections, but also to succeed at governing. Especially important will be fighting to win over black New Yorkers in the areas of southeast Queens that Ms. Katz won, as well as those who are unsure about what this new vision of criminal justice reform, and other political changes, may mean.
The old kind of politics seems to be fading away. Whether what comes next is any better is up to all of us to decide.
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