In some ways, the queer, Latina public defender Tiffany Cabán is running a campaign focused on change from the status quo – but in other ways, the Queens district attorney candidate is conducting politics as usual, including sending a volunteer to spy on an opponent’s event.
A Cabán volunteer was caught red-handed, signing in under a fake name to an event for Queens Borough President and Queens district attorney candidate Melinda Katz and then taking notes in Katz’s office while the candidate spoke to supporters.
Marcin Rozkowski showed up at the opening of Katz’s Astoria campaign office on Saturday, but signed in under the name “Matthew March.” Maspeth resident Rozkowski, 24, is a frequent volunteer for Cabán, hosting at least three canvassing events over the past couple months. He used the same phone number for those events as he did to sign into the Katz event, which helped the Katz campaign identify him as a mole – though his cell has since been scrubbed from the pages.
"There are easier ways to find out why Melinda Katz is the best choice for Queens District Attorney than trying to infiltrate our events under false pretenses and we'd respectfully request all campaigns refrain from these tactics,” Katz campaign spokesman Grant Fox told City & State. Fox then compared Rozkowski to James O’Keefe, the right-wing activist who has made a career of catching liberals on hidden camera.
Reached by phone, Rozkowski declined to answer any questions, but Cabán campaign spokeswoman Monica Klein owned up to the campaign sending a tracker to a Katz event – even though her emailed statement suggested he acted on his own. “Sometimes, (supporters’) enthusiasm may not always be focused on bringing (Cabán’s) message to voters in the borough, and we continue to work with our supporters to find the best ways to engage and promote her vision for Queens to bring racial, social, and economic justice to our communities,” she said in a statement provided to City & State. “This is a distraction from the real issues this campaign should focus on.”
Sending campaign operatives or “trackers” to opponents’ public events is a relatively common practice in politics. Campaigns can learn a lot about opponents’ strategy, and if they’re lucky, can publicize something an opponent wanted to keep private. Last year, Tedra Cobb, the Democratic candidate challenging Rep. Elise Stefanik in New York’s 21st Congressional District, told supporters that she supported an assault weapons ban but wouldn’t say so publicly.
Rozkowski’s goals in attending Katz’s event, and whether the Cabán campaign plans to use any information gathered, weren't immediately clear.
In most cases, such tracking is legal, especially at an event open to the general public, like Katz’s Saturday office opening. At a stump speech, where attendance doesn’t imply support, tracking isn’t even something a rival campaign would feel any need to hide. But sending a tracker to an opponent’s event for campaign volunteers, where one identifies as a supporter, is something most campaigns would prefer to keep it a secret to avoid questions about the ethics of misrepresentation. “Most campaigns don’t like to do it in case you’re caught,” said George Arzt, a political consultant with decades of experience. “You generally send someone who is not identifiable with the campaign.”
Arzt, who worked on Katz’s initial run for borough president in 2013, said she is viewed as the front-runner in the June 25 Democratic primary thanks to broad name recognition in the borough. But Cabán’s rise from obscurity has been hard to ignore, since the first-time candidate earned a series of progressive endorsements from players such as New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer.
So Arzt saw the Katz campaign’s focus on Cabán to be a sign. “And I think what it shows,” he said, “is that the Katz campaign sees her as a threat on the left.”