It was a tale of two election-night parties in Queens Tuesday night.
Actually, it was a tale of three election-night parties.
One took place in a Forest Hills bar, where Queens Borough President Melinda Katz talked about preparing for a recount in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney.
Another was in the Woodside La Boom club, where public defender Tiffany Cabán essentially declared victory in a primary race that was too close to call in unofficial results.
But a third election-night party really underscored what is so different about Tuesday even without a final result. That one took place in Corona in November 1991, when then-newly elected district attorney Richard Brown told a cheering crowd: "We have begun to move against those people whose criminal activities affect the daily quality of our lives, and have served notice that Queens County will not accept anything less than its fair share of available law enforcement dollars and personnel.”
Brown, who died in May, served as DA for nearly three decades. He started in a New York City with far more murder and mayhem, and his tenure reflected it even as New York changed.
There was Brown, who then asked for more law enforcement muscle and once ordered his bodyguard detective to make a u-turn on Queens Boulevard and chase a man who reportedly stole $22 from a restaurant. There was Cabán, who talked late Tuesday night about the need to “end mass incarceration” and “decriminalize poverty.”
The distance between early Brown and Cabán, who would run in a November general should she win this primary, represents a decade-spanning shift as borough voters appear to be stating a preference for a criminal justice system with less incarceration. Katz and other Democratic candidates embraced this too but Cabán was the driving force.
That was clear from her remarks at La Boom, where she said she ran because too many people “haven’t had a fair shot” in the system. She flicked at some of her policy goals, from reducing the population at Rikers Island to ending cash bail.
And at one point she joined a chant of “black lives matter,” a stark difference from one of Brown’s first actions in 1991, which was to reduce or drop charges against police officers accused in the choking death of Federico Pereira in Queens in 1991.
The crowd at Cabán’s party also showed how much things have changed since the days when the Queens Democratic Party could swat away challengers. Rather than just the usual district leaders and party faithful, the club was packed with scores of activists that included those from VOCAL-NY, a group that supports policies like supervised injection sites that might sound foreign to more traditional DAs.
Cabán called the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America the “engine” behind her campaign, segments of the state’s left-leaning infrastructure that have pushed Democrats and reshaped the State Senate.
She also had help from out-of-district funders small and large, and the big awareness embrace of presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and fellow Queens politician Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But the explosion of votes for a 31-year-old public defender in western Queens in particular highlight that Cabán seems to have preached the right approach at the right time, something new from 1991. For many like Shakeb Zia, an 18-year-old Binghamton student from Flushing nervously waiting in the back of La Boom, something needed changing. He was looking for a criminal justice system that focuses less on punishment and more on “how do we stop people from actually committing those crimes again?”
Zia said he wants to be a lawyer, but in a new mode.