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Who is Tiffany Cabán – and could she become the Queens District Attorney?

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Christobel Hastings
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Tiffany Cabán

Tiffany Cabán is set to become the youngest ever District Attorney of Queens  – but who is she and what does she stand for?

Earlier in May, Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown died after serving for nearly 28 years. While the long-serving prosecutor was credited with tackling the opioid crisis, protecting victims of domestic violence, and reducing crime in New York City, he was not without his critics, who claimed his tough policies led to disproportionately high incarceration rates for black and Hispanic New Yorkers.

Brown had already announced in January that he would not seek re-election due to health complications, leaving seven candidates to compete in the Democratic primary battle to succeed him. And everyone expected establishment figure and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who had more support from the Democratic party, to clinch the nomination. 

Tiffany Caban attends an election night gathering
Tiffany Caban attends an election night gathering

But what they hadn’t bargained on was the meteoric rise of a 31-year-old public defender by the name of Tiffany Cabán. As the votes were tallied on the evening of June 25, it emerged that the progressive outsider had experienced a significant surge, and by the fall of midnight, she had secured a lead of 1,090 votes to secure victory in the election. The result sent shock waves across the country, and Katz asked for a recount. Meanwhile, Cabán celebrated victory at La Boom nightclub in Woodside, Queens.

“This campaign started with just four women, sitting around a kitchen table, saying: we have to change the system. So I did what many thought was unthinkable for a 31-year-old Queer Latina public defender whose parents grew up in the Woodside Houses. I decided to run,” Cabán tweeted after the result. “Transforming this system will not be easy, and it will not happen overnight. But I am ready. We are ready.”

In a surprise turn of events after a recount of 3,400 uncounted paper ballots on 3 July, it emerged that Borough President Melinda Katz is now leading Cabán by just 16 votes. With such a close margin and a dispute over 114 disqualified affidavit ballots, the stakes for the DA race are high, and a full manual recount of roughly 91,000 ballots cast in the primary is now underway. 

Assuming Cabán is certified as the winner after the recount, she is likely to win the general election in November and officially become the youngest ever District Attorney of Queens. But her election will break more boundaries than just her age, as she will be the first ever woman, Latinx and openly queer candidate to hold the position. But who is Tiffany Cabán, what does she stand for, and how will she transform New York City if she wins?

Who is Tiffany Cabán?

Born in 1988 to Puerto Rican parents in Richmond Hill, Queens, Cabán had a working class childhood. Her father worked as an elevator mechanic, while her mother was a childminder. She attended PS 62 in Richmond Hill and JHS 210 Elizabeth Blackwell in Woodhaven, and later attended St. Francis Preparatory High School in Fresh Meadows.

After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Crime, Law, and Justice from Pennsylvania State University, and a Juris Doctorate from New York Law School, Cabán enrolled in law school to pursue her interest in social inequity. While she was there, she participated in the Impact Centre on Public Interest Law, where she focused her advocacy on criminal law and social justice.

It was after law school that Cabán embarked on her career and true vocation as a public defender, spending four years at New York County Defender Services (NYCDS) and three years at the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice, working primarily with vulnerable and marginalised communities, where she witnessed firsthand the inequities in the criminal justice system. 

What does  Tiffany Cabán stand for?

Cabán’s core policy, however, is to end what she describes as the “brutal system of mass incarceration” in Queens and create a fairer criminal justice system. She hopes to achieve this by prosecuting less, ending cash bail, charging misdemeanours with restraint, seeking shorter sentences for felonies, and advocating against death by incarceration. Under Cabán’s office, this would also mean that sex work would be decriminalised and destigmatised, which disproportionately affects trans people of colour

She also believes that District Attorneys should “focus more on uplifting their communities and less on law and order”, and centre the local communities they serve in their policies, by assigning ADAs to every community, creating community advisory boards, listening to community groups on the best ways to respond to gun violence, and expanding survivor service units for victims of violence and crime. 

A key part of Cabán’s plan to revolutionise the DA’s office lies in her objective to achieve racial, social and economic justice, and not all of the focus is on solving mass incarceration. Cabán also hopes to demilitarise law enforcement, and invest in schools, healthcare, jobs and housing to allow communities to improve their career opportunities through getting a better education. Alongside that, she supports prosecuting ICE agents who abuse their power, investigating abusive landlords, holding drugs companies accountable for overprescribing, and opposing the Mayor’s plan to construct new jails.

Cabán also supports ending the war on drugs by decriminalising recreational marijuana use, creating safe injection sites, and treating substance abuse as a medical disorder, rather than punishing people with incarceration. 

Why does Tiffany Cabán’s election matter?

Cabán’s election is a huge deal, not least because it represents a victory for a progressive millennial woman with a grassroots movement over the political establishment. Her success echoes New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected victory over former public defender Larry Krasner in last year’s Democratic primary victory in Queens, meaning she became the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress. 

Incidentally, Cabán has received many an endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted that she was “incredibly proud” of her campaign after the election. “No matter how this ends, you all have stunned NY politics tonight. When people come together, we can beat big money in elections. People power is no fluke.”

Cabán also has the backing of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and a string of high-profile prosecutors and state senators including Jessica Ramos, DA Rachael Rollins, and NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“Tiffany Cabán took on virtually the entire political establishment and built a grassroots movement,” Sanders tweeted after Cabán was declared the projected winner of the DA race.  “This is a victory for working people everywhere who are fighting for real political change and demanding we end cash bail, mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs.”

If Cabán is announced the official winner of the Democratic primary election later today, she is set to become one of the most prominent prosecutors in the country. 

Images: Getty

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.

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