On Tuesday, Tiffany Cabán won the Democratic primary for Queens County district attorney. With nearly 40 percent of the vote, Cabán won in a close, competitive race on an explicitly socialist platform in the largest city in America.
This is the third major electoral victory for socialist candidates in New York in just under a year, coming soon after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and State Sen. Julia Salazar’s insurgent wins last summer. It also comes directly after the landmark housing bill that passed the New York state government, a campaign that has been the focus of socialist organisers in New York for the past few years.
In her victory speech, Cabán said, “We built a campaign to decriminalise poverty, to end mass incarceration, to protect our immigrant communities. I want to be clear: Nothing is more important to me than the safety of all people. We are going to invest in healing and stabilising lives.”
To Cabán, the “safety of all people” does not mean the tough-on-crime status quo. It means addressing systemic problems without resorting to punitive, carceral measures. “You cannot separate our criminal justice from housing, health care, and education,” Cabán recently told Jacobin.
With plans to use participatory budgeting to reinvest the “$100 million worth of federal asset forfeiture money” held by the DA’s office back into Queens’s working-class communities, Cabán will use the power of the district attorney’s office to curtail crime through the “popular control of resources” rather than incarceration.
Cabán’s socialist analysis of crime reduction comes from her own experience as a career public defender, a background that led her to run a racial justice–focused campaign with a clear class-struggle message. Cabán ran on ending the use of cash bail, declining to prosecute crimes of poverty such as turnstile jumping on New York’s subway, ending the war on drugs and sex workers, and demilitarising the police.
Moreover, throughout the campaign, Cabán committed to use the Queens County district attorney’s office to prosecute abusive landlords and despotic ICE agents, set up participatory budgeting for the district attorney’s office, and set up a wage theft unit to take on exploitative bosses.
Throughout the campaign, Cabán raised New Yorkers’ expectations by demonstrating how much better their life could be with changes to the criminal justice system: that the despotism of their landlords and bosses doesn’t have to be tolerated, and that people shouldn’t have to go to jail because they can’t afford court fines. By ending prosecution of crimes of poverty and prioritising prosecution of abusive and exploitative landlords and bosses, she sent a simple message: Free the poor and jail the rich.
That message was front and centre at every campaign canvass, where Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members leading the trainings instructed volunteers, as part of the persuasion script, to point out the ludicrousness of charging people for jumping turnstiles while landlords throughout Queens get away with illegally denying their tenants heat during the winter.
As district attorney, Cabán will have the power to implement this radical vision. Under capitalism, jails and prisons are tools the ruling class uses to enforce their rule. Most obviously, incarceration is used to enrich private contractors and prison companies and to provide quasi-slave labour to the government and large corporations. In the United States especially, incarceration has been used to shore up support for reactionary politicians through racist fear-mongering and “tough-on-crime” rhetoric — not to mention that incarcerated people are subjected to some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable.
Criminal justice reform is central to any socialist programme. Black and Latino people make up 56 percent of those in prisons and jails despite their comprising only 28 percent of the total US population. People of colour are also disproportionately victims of police violence and murder, and ICE routinely terrorises immigrant communities.
As district attorney, Cabán will be able to wield the power of the state against mass incarceration and police militarisation, in ways similar to left-wing Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner. These policies can drastically diminish the burden of day-to-day indignities and brutalities inflicted by the carceral system on working-class communities, as well as mitigate its financial impediments and emotional traumas. In turn, this could create new openings for working-class people to organise and fight.
Not only can Cabán deliver radical change locally, for the more than 2.3 million Queens residents but she has the potential to change national criminal justice policy. Through obtaining the endorsements of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, her campaign has successfully tied the Left to a programme to decriminalise sex work.
Both candidates voted for SESTA/FOSTA, a bill that socialists and sex-worker advocates have strongly opposed because of its dangerous implications for sex workers. But the endorsement of Cabán by Warren and Sanders suggest a new openness on the Left to decriminalisation on a national level.
Cabán’s vision for criminal justice brought together a wide coalition of working-class community groups like Make the Road Action, VOCAL-NY, and the Working Families Party (WFP), identity-based electoral organisations like Amplify Her, as well as the Democratic Socialists of America, Cabán’s first endorser and ultimately the backbone of her campaign. She was also supported by the Real Justice PAC, a criminal-justice reform project founded by Sanders 2016 alumni to elect “progressive prosecutors” across the country.
Socialists were far from the only ones involved in the campaign, but they played a crucial role. DSA-sponsored events accounted for thousands of the signatures needed to get Cabán on the ballot, and DSA members also contributed significantly to non-DSA petitioning events. DSA members also helped lead key parts of her campaign, especially her field operation.
Dozens of DSA members devoted their time to GOTV (get out the vote) operations throughout Queens from the Thursday before election day until polls closed on Tuesday night, hitting nearly 70,000 doors in just four days. DSA members offered their homes for GOTV launch sites; others spent more than twelve hours a day training new canvassers and entering data.
Cabán recognised this in her victory speech, saying “the WFP and the DSA were the engine behind this campaign.” Only months after Governor Cuomo waged a vindictive campaign to defund the Working Families Party for backing his progressive opponent Cynthia Nixon, it’s notable the party continues to buck the establishment to support left-wing candidates like Cabán.
A coalition of working-class and socialist activists built the Cabán campaign. It’s a coalition that wouldn’t have been pegged as a winning one just a few years ago — but one that keeps winning around the country today. “They said we could not win, but we did it, y’all,” Cabán said last night after declaring victory. Queens residents will soon see what kind of transformations a socialist district attorney can bring.