Who’s the frontrunner in the Queens district attorney race?

Greg Lasak
Greg Lasak
Greg Lasak for District Attorney

Who’s the frontrunner in the Queens district attorney race?

The outcome of the closely watched race may hinge on turnout.
June 19, 2019

For the first time in decades, Queens has a competitive district attorney contest. Seven Democrats are vying for the open seat, but there has been no public polling to shed light on the state of the the race. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz enjoys strong establishment support, including an endorsement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and dozens of other elected officials. But the rising progressive movement that propelled Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to an upset victory last year is rallying around Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender and first-time candidate. Meanwhile, former Judge Gregory Lasak and New York City Councilman Rory Lancman (as well as Betty Lugo, Mina Malik and Jose Nieves) are also in the mix.

How will it all play out? To assess the key factors in the race, we reached out to Chris Coffey, who leads the New York practice for Tusk Ventures and for Tusk Strategies (and who has donated to both Katz and Cabán, but is working for neither); Harry Giannoulis, president of The Parkside Group; Scott Levenson, president and founder of The Advance Group; and freelance reporter Emma Whitford.

Who is the frontrunner in the Queens district attorney race?

Emma Whitford: This is a difficult question, considering the extremely varied strengths of the leaders in this race. For starters, we know who’s trailing: Betty Lugo, Jose Nieves and Mina Malik, who have all struggled with name recognition and fundraising. Lancman has raised a lot of money but has also faltered in recent months, struggling to distinguish himself from Cabán. (Awkward example: Lancman pitched himself last fall as the “Larry Krasner of Queens,” after Philadelphia’s reformer DA. This month, Krasner came to Queens to endorse Cabán.) Cabán is the far-and-away leader on high-profile progressive endorsements, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and just this week The New York Times and presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Cabán even out-fundraised Katz in the last round, with a bulk of small dollar donations.

But Katz is the leader by every traditional metric (borough name recognition, county party endorsement). And Lasak has cornered the law-and-order set. This is all a very long way of saying: I think it’s between Cabán and Katz, with Lasak in third. Big asterisk, though! There has been no official polling in this race, and the Queens Eagle has done some good reporting on the importance of Southeast Queens voters. Lancman, Malik and Katz seem to have made some headway there. I think it's important not to assume anything about how Queens residents will vote based on endorsements and media attention alone.

Harry Giannoulis: In a multi-candidate field, with five first-time candidates, Melinda Katz started off with an advantage after having successfully run borough-wide before. This is why she has been the focus of comparative messaging from her opponents. It remain to be seen if another candidate was able to surpass that early lead.

Scott Levenson: To determine the frontrunner is to predict in advance whether the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez victory over Joe Crowley was anomaly or sea change. On paper, by orthodox political calculation, the frontrunner should be Melinda Katz. But one would be arrogant to ignore the newly energized electorate making their voice heard throughout Queens for Tiffany Cabán.

Chris Coffey: I don’t think there is a frontrunner anymore. Melinda Katz is the most well known across Queens, but there is rising enthusiasm for Tiffany Cabán, as demonstrated by the big New York Times endorsement this week, and then to a lesser extent by Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s endorsement. And because turnout is so hard to predict, I think Greg Lasak is still in the conversation, even if he’s further back.

What will be the biggest factor in the race?

Harry Giannoulis: Turnout. Voter turnout has changed dramatically in Queens over the last 10 years in terms of relative share and demographic makeup. For example, in the 2018 statewide primary, turnout in Southeast Queens was only slightly higher than in Western Queens – a dramatic shift from what was once a 3-to-1 advantage. Western Queens voters are now overwhelmingly progressive millennials (hence AOC), with a large pocket of Latino voters. Census data shows that 39% of citizens in Southeast Queens are now foreign born. Absent a front-running regional candidate coming from Southeast Queens, the entire area's vote is up for grabs and it remains a large percentage of the borough-wide vote. That being said, politically moderate voters in central and northeast Queens continue to make up the remaining third of the overall vote. In the post-Trump world, we've seen high turnout in primaries as new voters registered and lower performing "lazy" Democrats started voting in primaries. The big question is on a day with only one contest on the ballot, what will turnout look like and will it follow recent trends.

Scott Levenson: Turnout. There’s probably going to be somewhere around 100,000 votes in this election. That’s with four or five candidates who have spent a substantial amount of money on outreach. It’s going to be all about which one has done the best job identifying their supporters and which one can get them out to vote. That turnout will be driven by organization and energy.

Chris Coffey: Turnout, turnout, turnout. In Cuomo vs. Nixon, African American voters in Southeast Queens overwhelmingly voted for Cuomo and even though Cynthia Nixon did well with progressive white voters, it wasn’t nearly enough. In the Ocasio-Cortez race, which was only Western Queens (and parts of the Bronx), AOC won black voters and easily won the race. If black voters, encouraged by county leader Greg Meeks and others, stick with Melinda, it’s hard to see how Tiffany can win the race. If they stay home, and Western Queens overperforms for Tiffany, she has a real shot at winning. And while there are lots of private polls floating around, that was true in the AOC race and they were wrong. So we will have to wait and see what happens on Tuesday.

Emma Whitford: Prior experience. Anyone who’s watched one of the candidate debates in recent months knows that all of the candidates insist they are committed to reforming the office. Important questions – like whether sex work should be decriminalized and whether large-scale gang prosecutions are ever appropriate – split the field. But from a bird’s-eye view the easiest way to break things down is by prosecutor, politician, and public defender. Each category has a frontrunner. Voters will decide which credential is most important in a reformer.

How long will the winner stay in office?

Scott Levenson: Two or three terms. No matter who wins you’re going to see more and more political challenges and insurgent candidates. District attorneys are unlikely to serve as long as they have in the past. The days of 20, 30, even 40 year tenures are over. The imperial district attorney is a thing of the past.

Chris Coffey: Tiffany is 30. So, could be 50 years? Melinda is a little older, so maybe closer to 30. If Tiffany wins and she does well, it will be a national model. If crime goes up, it will be harder.

Emma Whitford: Regardless of who wins next week, I think grassroots criminal justice groups like VOCAL-NY and Rockaway Youth Task Force have already achieved one of their stated goals in this race, which is simply to make sure more Queens residents understand the role of the district attorney. There was so much stagnation under District Attorney Brown that advocates didn’t blame people for not even knowing this was an elected office. It’s hard to imagine someone sitting uncontested for as long as Brown did, meaning I think we can expect to see more lively primaries in the near future. Particularly if Cabán wins the general election, there will be room for a more traditional law-and-order challenger four years from now.

Harry Giannoulis: Depends on who wins. Greg Lasak is a career prosecutor, so he wouldn’t run for anything else. Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman and Tiffany Cabán would be natural candidates for another office if they chose, since the DA’s election falls in an off-year and they would have nothing to lose running for another seat. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves – let’s see who wins and how much they enjoy the job when they get it.

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s former editor-in-chief.