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Public defender with backing from top progressive Democrats declares victory in Queens DA race

Public defender and criminal justice reformer Tiffany Cabán declared victory late Tuesday in the Queens county district attorney Democratic primary. The race has drawn national attention as a test for progressive Democrats. Cabán received endorsements from 2020 Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district is partially in Queens. 

Cabán had a lead of just over 1,000 votes early Wednesday over her closest challenger, Melinda Katz, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. About 3,400 absentee ballots were left to be counted, and the New York City Board of Elections said the final count might not come for another 15 days. Katz, who had the backing of the establishment Democratic machine, on Tuesday night vowed to fight on. 

The winner of the primary is heavily favored to win the general election in November. Longtime Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who was first elected in 1991, died in May. 

"This campaign started with just four women, sitting around a kitchen table, saying: we have to change the system," Cabán tweeted Tuesday night. "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." 

Progressive Challenger In Queens District Attorney Special Election Tiffany Caban Attends Election Night Gathering
Public defender Tiffany Caban declares victory in the Queens District Attorney Democratic Primary election at her campaign watch party at La Boom nightclub, June 25, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. Running on a progressive platform that includes decriminalizing sex work and closing the Rikers Island jail, Caban narrowly defeated Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and scored a shocking victory for city's the progressive grassroots network and criminal justice movement Scott Heins / Getty Images

In her speech late Tuesday, Cabán thanked the Working Families Party and Democratic Socialists of America. Cabán has called for increased funding for programs that provide an alternative to mass incarceration, decriminalizing sex work and an end to the "broken windows" policing strategy of tackling low-level crime.

"What we've seen is broken-windows policing and prosecution really be weaponized against our black and brown, low-income and immigrant communities," Cabán told CBSN on Monday. "And it hasn't resulted in increased public safety and what we should be doing is focusing on the root causes of crime -- understanding that widespread destabilization drives crimes, whether it is low-level, non-violent or violent offenses. 

Cabán has also called for the closing of New York City's major jail, Rikers Island, but not for the building of any new jails in the boroughs. Rikers is technically part of the Bronx, but is reachable only by bridge and bus from northwestern Queens. 

Sanders called Cabán's victory 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."

Queens, one of the most diverse counties in the United States, has a population of more than 2.5 million, but just over 85,000 votes were cast on Tuesday. The low turnout may have boosted Cabán, who also received a high amount of outside funding from progressive groups. 

If her victory is confirmed, it will be another blow to the establishment Democratic party in Queens which at one point had former Rep. Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking House Democrat while they were in the minority. Ocasio-Cortez landed a surprise victory against Crowley in September, although some critics had tried to pin her victory to changing demographics of the district rather being part of a larger political movement. In the 20 years since Crowley first arrived in Congress, the district has been redrawn to include parts of the Bronx, and parts of millennial-heavy Astoria. 

Crowley, who is now a lobbyist, endorsed Katz on Tuesday. Katz also had the backing of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, major New York City unions and on Friday night, New York City Councilman Rory Lancman dropped out of the race and urged supporters to support Katz. 

Some prominent New York Democrats, including 2020 presidential hopeful Mayor Bill de Blasio and public defender Jumaane Williams, both progressives, stayed out of the race. 

Katz, the current Queens borough president, served in the New York state Assembly from 1994 to 1999 and on the New York City Council from 2002 to 2009. But she has never been a prosecutor, a key issue in The New York Times' shocking endorsement last week of Cabán.