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Lessons from Queens DA race

Public defender Tiffany Cabán, left, and Queens Borough

Public defender Tiffany Cabán, left, and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. Photo Credit: Composite image / Getty Images

The dead heat between Tiffany Cabán and Melinda Katz in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney — now amid a full manual recount — has befuddled many political pundits. Still, much can be gleaned from this veritable kaleidoscope of Queens politics.

If Cabán ultimately wins the race, conventional wisdom will trumpet that as another example of the supposed ascendancy of progressive Democrats, especially since Cabán’s momentum was turbocharged by the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC’s seemingly kingmaker status would benefit from a Cabán victory, but the more complicated truth lies beneath the surface.

Let’s consider several facts.

First, in low-turnout Democratic primaries, the most progressive candidate usually has the edge. That is the line that connects Sen. Bernie Sanders’ strength in caucus states in 2016 and AOC’s victory over Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018 to Cabán.

Alternatively, in larger-turnout primaries the most progressive candidate tends to lose. This thread connects Hillary Clinton’s primary victories to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s landslide victory last year against Cynthia Nixon to the major statewide Democratic primaries in 2017 and 2018 (New Jersey, Virginia, California, Michigan, Delaware and Rhode Island).

Progressives hold the passion factor advantage in low-turnout, multi-candidate primaries (Cabán received almost a third of her vote from sweeping two of Queens’ 18 Assembly Districts), but better-known candidates who have bridges to multiple constituencies in the Democratic Party hold the advantage in larger-turnout primaries (Katz carried 14 of Queens’ 18 Assembly Districts).

This DA primary was a dead heat precisely because the 91,000 vote turnout (in the 2018 gubernatorial primary Queens produced 190,000 votes) fell within the twilight zone. In other words, had turnout been under 85,000 votes Cabán would have had a comfortable victory, but if the turnout had crossed 100,000 votes Katz would have had a clear victory. That is the lesson conventional wisdom will likely ignore.

Second, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will rejoice at having endorsed the winning candidate if Cabán overcomes Katz’ current 16-vote lead. But come April if the two Democratic presidential candidates are fighting over Cabán’s just under 40 percent share in the New York primary, they will leave open a larger pool of at least 60 percent of the Queens primary vote for other presidential contenders.

A Cabán victory will not signal the dominance of the left in Democratic primaries, nor would a Katz win erase the potency of the progressive pulse in Democratic primaries. The take-away lessons here are that progressives won’t prevail in large turnout Democratic primaries unless they learn to crack the code for winning minority votes; and traditional Democrats need to figure out how to maximize the turnout from the so-called iron triangle — minority, Jewish and white Catholic voters — to win primaries.

To find clarity within this Queens kaleidoscope, as British writer Samuel Johnson observed about marriage in 1791, would be “a triumph of optimism over experience.”

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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