Race for Queens district attorney heats up

The last time Queens got a new district attorney, in 1991, the borough that birthed Donald Trump and the fictional Archie Bunker was reeling from gang warfare and crying out for a tough-as-nails approach to crime.

This year, the candidate getting the most attention in the race to become the borough's next top prosecutor is a 31-year-old public defender whose top priorities are ending "racist law enforcement" and mass incarceration.

Six candidates are competing in the June 25 Democratic primary, which is shaping up as another battle between moderate Democrats and the party's left wing — and a test of the influence wielded by the far left's young standard-bearer, Queens Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The winner will be strongly favored to win a November general election to succeed longtime District Attorney Richard Brown, who died last month at age 86. A seventh candidate, City Councilman Rory Lancman, dropped out Friday.

Nearly every person in the race has pledged support for criminal justice reforms popular among Democrats — like reduced prosecutions for marijuana offenses.

But the candidate furthest to the left, Tiffany Caban, has promised to redefine the job.

Caban says she would end prosecutions for crimes including subway fare evasion, unlicensed driving, prostitution and recreational drug use while seeking shorter sentences for some felonies. She is also threatening to prosecute federal immigration agents "who exceed their authority and endanger our communities."

She believes the borough is ready for that kind of change, and she's carrying endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez, senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and The New York Times.

"Each win has really reinforced for our community members just how powerful and strong we are when we stand together and we make it very clear what kinds of changes we see in our community," Caban said. "No matter what, I think that we have built something pretty special and incredible and powerful. Since we got into the field the candidates have literally changed their policy positions to meet us where we're at, to a degree."

Caban, who introduces herself as "a queer Latina from a working-class family" and would be the first person of color to hold the office, still faces long odds.

The favored candidate among state and county party leaders, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.

A seasoned politician, Katz, 53, served in the state Assembly from 1994 to 1999 and on the City Council from 2002 to 2009. She narrowly lost a 1998 Democratic congressional primary to Anthony Weiner, who was later forced to quit Congress in a sexting scandal.

Katz, a lawyer, has never worked as a prosecutor, but said in an interview Friday that her long history of working with community groups and religious institutions in Queens makes her a better candidate than the newcomer, Caban.

"The biggest factor that distinguishes us is that in order to institute criminal justice reform while still keeping our families safe in the borough you need to have the trust of the community," Katz said. "You can't introduce yourself to the community on Jan. 1 (inauguration day). It's not going to work."

The fact that Caban has emerged as a serious contender illustrates how much the political landscape has shifted in Queens, which by no accident was the setting for the 1970s sitcom "All In the Family," the biting show featuring Carroll O'Connor as a loudmouthed bigot.

Ocasio-Cortez, the onetime bartender and Democratic Socialists of America activist, upended the political world last year when she defeated 20-year incumbent congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary and went on to win the general election in November, but it's unclear whether her endorsement can swing a race in a borough of 2.4 million people.

Longtime Democratic operative Hank Sheinkopf said it'll be earthshaking if Caban even comes close to beating the better-known Katz.

"If Caban comes within 10 of Katz or wins it's the second stage in the revolution that began in New York politics with the defeat of Crowley," Sheinkopf said. "It tells you that there's a new generation that is better organized, that has an entirely different agenda and that has the capacity to seize power."

The other candidates in the race are former judge and Queens Assistant District Attorney Gregory Lasak, former District of Columbia Deputy Attorney General Mina Malik, former Nassau County Assistant District Attorney Betty Lugo and former New York Deputy Attorney General Jose Nieves.

Brown, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1991 and re-elected six times without significant opposition, took office at a time when there were more than 2,000 murders a year in New York City and politicians all promised to fight crime. One of his first actions upon taking office was to dismiss murder charges that had been filed against a group of police officers in the death of a Puerto Rican car theft suspect, who was choked to death during his arrest.

The election to succeed Brown is taking place at a time when there are fewer than 300 murders a year in the city and calls to reform the criminal justice system have supplanted calls to lock people up.

Either Katz, Caban, Lugo or Malik would be the first woman to serve as Queens district attorney.

Lasak, 66, spent two dozen years in the Queens district attorney's office before serving as a judge, making him the most qualified candidate by traditional measures.

"As a prosecutor, I put away some of the worst criminals in Queens history," he said in the debate before pivoting to tout his work in the "wrong man unit" that freed wrongfully convicted defendants.

The candidates clashed on prostitution at a debate on TV station NY1, with several indicating that they would not prosecute sex workers but they would prosecute customers and pimps while Caban said she favors full decriminalization of sex work.