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Progressive Prosecutors Clamor for Queens

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On a warm day in early May, hundreds of people packed the Reform Temple of Forest Hills to mourn Richard Brown, the man who ran one of the largest district attorney’s offices in America for nearly 30 years.

Brown was 86, suffering from Parkinson’s and set to step down in June. And while mayor Bill de Blasio eulogized the longtime Queens district attorney as a trailblazing prosecutor and sage lawman, the race to replace him has not only been a referendum on his tenure—viewed unfavorably by many criminal justice reformers—but on the prosecutor’s office itself. As district attorneys like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and St. Louis’s Wesley Bell lead a movement of imaginative, reform-oriented prosecution, Queens could very well demonstrate the kind of transformation possible in an office originally conceived to cage as many human beings as possible. DAs once drove America’s mass incarceration boom; now they are being asked to undo the damage, and the Queens County DA’s office is one of the more important posts in America, if importance is measured in immediate influence on the greatest number of people. Queens counts about as many residents as the state of New Mexico, with over 160 languages spoken among the borough’s more than two million.

There are seven candidates competing in the June 25 Democratic primary, and most are promising a new, and at least somewhat more progressive approach. “This race is about Brown’s legacy and what the last 30 years in Queens have been like,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the civil rights campaign director at VOCAL-NY, a progressive grassroots organization active in Queens.

“Even though people describe it as an open field, and that’s technically true, the race is still seen through the prism of what’s been going on in Queens and how Brown has been on the more punitive end of all prosecutors in New York City.”

The political action arm of VOCAL-NY is supporting 31-year-old Tiffany Cabán, a Latina public defender endorsed by Our Revolution, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Real Justice PAC, a Shaun King-backed initiative to elect more progressive prosecutors nationwide. Cabán has been the breakout star of the race, not unlike her fellow Queens progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The Queens Democratic machine—which supported AOC’s rival, Joseph Crowley—has coalesced around another Democrat: Melinda Katz, the 53-year-old borough president. This is the first competitive election for Queens DA in recent history and one of the few contested races in the past few decades for any DA office in New York City. The dynamic of this race is markedly different from the Congressional one, though. If Cabán is a candidate in the Ocasio-Cortez mold, the Democratic primary is not a simple one-on-one, left versus center.

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