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Race For Queens DA Tightens As Lancman Quits, Backing Katz

Council Member Rory Lancman speaks during a Queens District Attorney candidates forum at St. John's University in New York on June 13th, 2019.
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Council Member Rory Lancman speaks during a Queens District Attorney candidates forum at St. John's University in New York on June 13th, 2019. Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock

Saying “the numbers are simply not there,” City Councilman Rory Lancman withdrew from Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Queens District attorney and said he would back Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. He made the announcement Friday morning after his decision was published in the Queens Daily Eagle.

The DA’s race is considered one of most important elections in the city this year, and whoever wins Tuesday’s Democratic primary is likely to win the November general election.

Until Lancman dropped out, seven candidates were vying to take over the seat DA Richard Brown occupied for more than 25 years until his death in May. All of the candidates portrayed themselves, to varying extents, as more progressive than Brown. Unlike other DA’s, he continued to prosecute low level offenses such as fare evasion and marijuana possession.

Lancman, who was the first to enter the race last fall, had proclaimed himself a criminal justice reformer by citing his experience on the Council pressing to end cash bail for everyone. But he was eclipsed by Tiffany Cabán, a public defender who entered the race this year and earned endorsements from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Phildelphia DA Larry Krasner and—more recently—presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. This week, Cabán also picked up the New York Times endorsement and support from musician John Legend.

Despite their similar views, Lancman said “being the District Attorney is not a philosophy class.” He said he couldn’t back Cabán because she had no experience in the borough (she was a public defender in Manhattan) and didn’t cast a wide enough net during her campaign.

“You've got to be able to go into the office and do the job,” he said, using language similar to Katz’s stump speech. “And you cannot do that if you don't know Queens, don't have relationships with Queens and, for all practical purposes, ignore the African American community, give no time or effort to reaching out to the Jewish community and just root your campaign in one narrow slice of the borough.”

Lancman was referring to Cabán’s support in Western Queens neighborhoods like Jackson Heights. He said she hadn’t done enough to court his supporters in South Queens, which include African Americans who are more likely to be affected by a criminal justice system he considers racist. Lancman’s own endorsements included several unions and the mothers of Sean Bell and Eric Garner, black men who were each killed by police.

“If I do not have the ability to cross the finish line first on election day, I have an obligation to let people know and make sure the African American vote, the South Queens vote, is not split between me and Melinda Katz.”

Cabán spokeswoman Monica Klein issued a brief response. "It’s no surprise that the establishment is closing ranks as Tiffany surges,” she stated. “There’s only one independent candidate in this race fighting for real justice for working people — and that’s Tiffany.”

Lancman’s decision to back Katz represents a sharp turnaround. During the campaign, he criticized her as a latecomer to criminal justice reform because she switched positions on the death penalty and ending cash bail for all. He also called her out for not having enough courtroom experience. On Friday, he said it was natural for him to attack her because she was seen as the front-runner. He denied making any deals with the Queens Democratic party or Governor Andrew Cuomo, who also endorsed Katz.

His decision disappointed his chief of staff and legislative counsel, Rachel Graham Kagan. She resigned from the councilman’s office on Thursday, and her resignation note was circulated Friday by others who asked to remain anonymous.

Kagan wrote that she “fully and enthusiastically” supported Lancman’s work to change the criminal justice system. But by endorsing Katz, she wrote, “you have taken a position that represents the antithesis of everything we have stood for in our government work and throughout your campaign. I could no longer credibly maintain that I am devoted to changing the status quo” in Queens.

Just how Lancman’s decision will change the math is anyone’s guess. There are still six candidates running in what’s likely to be a low-turnout race, because it’s an off-year election. Cabán’s supporters are seen as highly energized. She attracted more individual donations than any of the six other candidates, but she didn’t raise as much money as Lancman, Katz and Gregory Lasak, a former judge and prosecutor who’s endorsed by the law enforcement unions. Katz, however, has the support of most Queens politicians and unions.

The other candidates are former Nassau County prosecutor Betty Lugo; Mina Malik, who worked for both Washington DC, Queens and Brooklyn DA’s; and Jose Nieves, who worked in the state attorney general’s office.

Lancman’s name will still appear on Tuesday’s ballot. He said he intends to campaign with Katz in the final days of the race.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering courts and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.

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