Queens has not seen a contested primary for district attorney in over sixty years. That means the borough’s main legal decision maker—about who to charge with crimes, about whether social services or prison time would better serve communities, and about how to distribute $100 million in federal civil forfeiture money the office is sitting on—has not been subject to a public vote since before humans went to the moon.
That’s all about to change next Tuesday, as a smattering of voters head to the polls for what will certainly be a low-turnout June Democratic primary election. (Next week’s winner is expected to cruise through the November general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough.) That means each candidate is fighting hard for every last vote, as the race—which as a county election cannot go to a runoff, meaning whoever is chosen on the largest minority of ballots can win—might just be decided by a few hundred swing voters.
The heated race has been marked by a prominent sprint to the left by almost every candidate, in the wake of progressive prosecutors’ impressive run of victories nationwide, including just last week in Virginia. Queens candidates are offering radical new policies on the elimination of cash bail, decriminalization of sex work, closure of Rikers Island, and prosecution of those behind unsafe working conditions. As a result, Tuesday’s election will likely signal the end of decades of tough-on-crime policies in New York’s most diverse borough. (The former DA, Richard Brown, resigned shortly before passing away this spring after 28 years in office. His chief deputy, John Ryan, has replaced him on an interim basis, but is not running for the position.)
Queens has lagged behind Manhattan and Brooklyn, where prosecutors have begun to make incremental changes to the criminal justice system, including declining to prosecute people for low-level offenses, directing more people to mental health services instead of prison, and providing defense attorneys with evidence well in advance of trial. At the heart of this debate has been how to reckon with the institutions that drove “mass incarceration,” which refers to the massive rise in the U.S. prison population between 1980 and 2010.
As in many other counties in the country, Queens prosecutors began pursuing harsher sentences in the 1980s in response to rising crime rates, and haven’t taken their foot off the gas since then. Queens is the only borough that lacks a “Wrongful Conviction Unit,” to review past prosecutions for error, leads the city in prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession, and makes defendants turn down the chance to see the evidence against them if they want to secure a more lenient plea deal. In short, the Queens District Attorney’s office is, in the words of one DA candidate, “The Land That Time Forgot.”
With so many candidates vying for a position that voters haven’t had a real choice on for decades, it can be tough to keep track! Lucky for you, we have. In rough order of most- to least-prominent:
The 53-year-old Queens borough president is the only candidate in the field to have held countywide elected office. Katz was a city councilmember for central Queens from 2002 to 2009, then took a job as a real-estate lobbyist after losing her race for comptroller in 2009, eventually winning a hotly contested primary for borough president in 2013. Before announcing her run for DA, Katz had no trial experience and hadn’t shown much interest in criminal justice issues, but term limits have a funny way of suddenly developing one’s zeal for prosecution! (Katz is ineligible to run for reelection as BP in 2021.)
Since launching her campaign, Katz has edged toward more progressive stances on a number of issues, including backing away from requesting cash bail (after earlier hedging that she would only decline to ask for cash bail for non-violent offenses and misdemeanors), and from supporting new jails to replace Rikers Island (she initially endorsed the mayor’s plan to build a large new jail in Kew Gardens, but no longer does).
For the most part, Katz’s platform mirrors that of many “progressive” prosecutor candidates nationwide, in that she wants to reverse decades of policies that have led to “mass incarceration” by providing defense attorneys with crucial evidence more promptly, ending the prosecution of low-level offenses like marijuana possession, and ending the use of cash bail. (Many of these reforms, it should be noted, will be state law by the time any new DA takes office.)
Katz, who many view as the frontrunner, has the backing of the grievously wounded Queens Democratic Party, which after the brutal dethroning of party boss Joe Crowley by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year is looking to re-establish its dominance by determining the occupant of the borough’s most powerful office. More importantly for Katz, she has the backing of the SEIU labor union, which should do wonders for her in voter-heavy southeast Queens where many of its members live. Katz also has the most money of all the candidates, with her coffers filled with cash from the real estate interests she grew close with during her time on City Council. A win for Katz would surprise no one, besides those who thought the Queens machine could be dismantled with a single congressional win.
The 31-year-old public defender has garnered the most headlines in the race, running farthest to the left of all the candidates: She’s called for the decriminalization of sex work, the closure of Rikers without replacing it with new jails, and drastic reductions in the size and budget of the DA’s office. Crucially, she earned the support of the powerful alliance of longstanding immigrant-advocacy groups in northwest Queens, as well as the Democratic Socialists of America and a Working Families Party now officially untethered from caring about what Andrew Cuomo says or does. On Wednesday, she received endorsements from both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
In just the past year, that burgeoning alliance of WFP, DSA, and immigrant groups have sent both Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar to Albany (with wildly effective results) and Ocasio-Cortez to Washington (no comment needed). But can it work outside of its power base in Astoria and Jackson Heights? Cabán’s about to find out.
Cabán was born and raised in Richmond Hill, and has spent the past several years as a public defender in Manhattan. Right off the bat, she says, she would decline to prosecute a series of crimes, including those related to sex work, and would redistribute much of the DA’s budget to community groups that would work to head off more serious crimes before they happen, through outreach and social services. Cabán says she would treat drug addiction as a medical issue and prosecute Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who “exceed their authority.” She also opposes the construction of a new jail in Queens, and instead favors an approach where Rikers could be closed by radically reducing the number of people charged for crimes in New York City.
Since launching her campaign less than six months ago, with zero name recognition and no fundraising, Cabán has seen everything has go right: She’s been able to use small donors to power a canvassing operation that rivals Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, but on a borough-wide scale. Not only has Cabán won the coveted endorsement of AOC, but she has gotten support from City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner (who kicked off the “progressive prosecutor” movement with a shocking win in 2017). On Tuesday night, the New York Times endorsed Cabán, saying she would “bring a perspective suited to one of the world’s most diverse communities, one where elected officials have rarely reflected that reality.”
Still, while Cabán has rejected money from corporate PACs, her main opponents haven’t, and they have more cash on hand heading into the last week of the campaign. (Cabán did outraise everyone else during the final filing period of the campaign, however.) Without money to spend on endless TV advertisements and mountains of mailers, Cabán’s path to victory requires a strong turnout in western Queens, while stemming losses in the rest of the borough as the other candidates split votes among white ethnic enclaves in eastern and central Queens as well as black communities in southeast Queens. She has a real chance, but as with her campaign so far, everything has to go exactly right.
In the run-up to this year’s election, central Queens councilmember Rory Lancman did everything he could to position himself in the “progressive” lane for district attorney. From his perch atop the City Council’s Committee on the Justice System, Lancman pilloried both the mayor and the police department on a number of issues, including for repeatedly refusing to disclose statistics on fare evasion arrests by race, declining to discipline officers who lied under oath and on police reports, and declaring an alarmingly high amount of rape accusations by women as “unfounded.” Lancman was the first to declare his intent to run for DA back in September and fashioned his campaign as being the “Larry Krasner of Queens.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to Union Turnpike—Cabán took a lane even further to the left of Lancman on issues like sex work and Rikers Island, and gobbled up much of the progressive support that Lancman was counting on. Instead, the councilmember has found himself unenviably stuck between Katz, who has been criticized for being a lifelong politician with a centrist voting record (much like Lancman) and Cabán, who has been criticized for having no experience managing a large office (much like Lancman). Lancman has also remained supportive of the mayor’s plan to close Rikers Island and build a new jail in Queens, something that the rest of the field has soured on.
Still, Lancman has remained undaunted. He has campaigned tirelessly in southeast Queens and won the support of Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, and Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell. He’s spending his large campaign chest on mailers and television advertising, and is running on a platform of cracking down on hazardous job sites and refusing to prosecute low-level offenses. During his time in the city council, he’s also been instrumental in bringing to light conditions in the city’s correctional facilities and trying to make paying bail far easier and more accessible.
Lasak, who retired from being a judge last year, was nicknamed “Mr. Murder” during his time in the Queens DA’s office, where he oversaw the homicide division for more than two decades beginning in the 1980s. Known for his harsh sentences while a judge, Lasak is running as what passes for a “continuity” candidate, refraining from criticizing his predecessors and former colleagues at the Queens District Attorney’s office, and continuing to spout many “tough-on-crime” solutions during an extremely low-crime era. Buoyed by financial support from law enforcement unions, as well as endorsements from the city’s two tabloids, Lasak was the first candidate to run negative advertisements against his opponents and has condescended multiple times to his competitors, telling them to “do their homework,” during the seemingly endless string of debates leading up to the election.
While Lasak has not released a comprehensive list of policy positions, in debates he has agreed to many of the same progressive stances as his opponents—refusing to prosecute marijuana possession and establishing a wrongful conviction unit. His campaign itself has centered around efforts to free several wrongfully convicted men whose prosecutions he believed merited a second look. But—and a huge but—this isn’t entirely how Lasak has actually been campaigning, as evidenced by his most recent Chinese-language campaign literature.
Lasak has spent heavily on television advertising (just ask anyone who watches the Yankees) and is targeting the support of suburban eastern Queens, while letting everyone else split the vote across the rest of the borough. With the two tabloid endorsements, along with a slew of cash, and a very clearly illegal postering campaign, Lasak has a very real chance of winning, in which case progress in Queens will possibly be very incremental indeed.
On paper, this race would seem ideally suited for Malik. She’s a veteran prosecutor from Queens who helped the late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson design Brooklyn’s lauded Conviction Review Unit and was executive director of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, which reviews police misconduct. Malik has both the background and experience to appeal to voters looking for a prosecutor who knows the terrain of a big city DA’s office, but who has also helped spearhead substantive change.
Unfortunately, Malik’s campaign never quite got off the ground, mostly due to a late start and the abbreviated calendar created when the state legislature moved the primary date from September to June. Malik’s biggest donors have been her and her husband, and while she has quite a lot of money to spend on the race, she’s received no major endorsements from local politicians or community leaders (outside of Heems). Her campaign also tried to kick several other candidates off the ballot, which won her no goodwill among people sick of the old ways of Queens politics.
Nieves was most recently the deputy chief attorney general in the New York state attorney general’s office under Eric Schneiderman, and is a former Brooklyn prosecutor. He’s running a progressive campaign that’s very much in line with the rest of the field, but with a few standout positions, including starting a Vehicular Crimes Unit that would work with the NYPD to investigate crashes that cause injuries or death. Nieves is asking voters to “Vote for The Vet,” highlighting his time in the army.
With little money to compete countywide, Nieves has been a game and knowledgeable participant at almost every debate, and someone who could definitely figure into the leadership team of whoever takes over the office next. It’s just most likely not going to be him.
Lugo, a former Republican, is a former Long Island prosecutor who has consistently held the most conservative views in the race. At debates, she has gone on seemingly contradictory tangents about her views (she has proposed closing Rikers and also keeping it open), but has been consistent about placing crime victims and their needs as central to her platform. She’s currently being sued by one of her petitioners for allegedly withholding his pay. She has not ruled out also running as a Republican, if she were to lose.
So, Queens! If you care about the future of criminal justice in your borough, get out and vote on Tuesday… because you haven’t had a real choice since the year the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series.
The NY primary election is Tuesday, June 25th 2019. Find your poll site and a sample ballot here.