She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.
For Tiffany Cabán, putting her community first feels like it’s a part of her DNA. As a public defender, it’s become an intrinsic component of her identity, just like being a queer Latina New Yorker, and it’s one of the reasons why she’s running for district attorney in Queens, New York.
“In the public defense world, there’s a code that we live by, the idea that we put people first. Our highest duty is to our clients, then our colleagues, then our bosses. That people-centered, holistic approach, that connection to community that defines being a public defender, is what I’m excited about bringing and is what’s needed in the DA office,” the Astoria-based Puerto Rican candidate told FIERCE.
A career public defender, Cabán practiced for four years at New York County Defender Services and three years at the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice, using the law to help thousands of the city’s vulnerable communities that did not have the resources to defend themselves against what she calls a “brutal system of mass incarceration.”
As a millennial Boricua running a grassroots, people-powered campaign that has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), she has fielded several comparisons to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But in Queens, she’s hoping to tackle a different system and problem than the congressional freshman. As Queens County DA, a soon-to-be vacant seat as District Attorney Richard Brown announced he would not seek re-election when he finishes his 27th term at the end of 2019, she’s proposing “genuine justice for all” by transforming the office through a series of progressive and restorative reforms that’ll work toward ending mass incarceration and the war on drugs, decriminalizing poverty, resisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), tackling corporate crimes and centering community solutions.
We chatted with Cabán, who will face candidates like Borough President Melinda Katz, City Council Member Rory Lancman and retired state Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak in the June 25 Democratic primary, about her run for Queens District Attorney, how she intends on bringing “genuine justice” to her borough, challenging the establishment and more.
FIERCE: Why did you decide to run for the Queens District Attorney’s office?
Tiffany Cabán: Gosh, it was not an easy decision. I had to do a lot of reconciling on my own values, but, in large part, it feels like the natural progression of advocacy for my clients. I’ve been a public defender my entire career. I’ve seen the way the system doesn’t work. I’ve seen the impact it has on my clients, their families and their communities. Also, considering what’s happening right now, where we are seeing progressive policies roll out but not necessarily with intended impacts on our community, this feels like a way to combat that, a way to make real, transformative change. We see that it’s possible around the country. We’ve seen strives made and know there are ways to improve upon what’s being done. This is a moment in history, including for Queens, so I’m aware and activated. This is the moment.
FIERCE: I know that among your priorities are fighting the mass incarceration of communities of color, ending cash bail, prosecuting misconduct by police and federal immigration agents and ending routine pretrial detention. Why are these issues particularly important to the people of Queens County?
Tiffany Cabán: It’s important to folk across the board in the US, but especially people from Queens. We’re talking about a borough, one of the most diverse places in the world, home to one of the largest immigrant populations in the country, home to so many middle-class and low-income communities, the very folk targeted and marginalized by the criminal justice system for generations. Queens is also a place that’s had that same DA, who was not elected, in office since 1991 and has been opposed all those years, someone who doesn’t consider collateral consequence in the way they prosecute.
FIERCE: Your campaign slogan is “Genuine Justice for Queens.” Explain that to me. What is “genuine justice?”
Tiffany Cabán: For me, it is this idea that we are making sure the things we say and do come from trauma-informed perspectives and that the people are the ones informing the policy. It’s a real genuineness and commitment in achieving real racial and economic justice.
FIERCE: When announcing your run, you stated, “It’s time for people-powered reform.” What does this look like for you?
Tiffany Cabán: First, it starts with changing the culture in the DA office and changing the metric of success, because this is harming our communities. Currently, you are successful if you are prosecuting, getting convictions and getting sentences, when we should focus on how to make sure people don’t commit these crimes again and that our communities are safer. You should be awarded for reducing recidivism, for applying the law equally across race and class lines. This will shift who we prosecute and why and what approach you take. Currently, we are being awarded for closing cases that go after low-hanging fruit. An example I like to give is I once had a client who stole a cellphone from someone. Their behavior was triggered by opioid abuse. They had an accident and the doctor over-prescribed him and, because of that, he became addicted and found himself in the criminal justice system. Here, we asked for help for him. We could help by going after the doctor that was harming the community, but the DA didn’t do that. The client served a jail sentence, and no one followed up on my lead at all. There are also cases of people being caught stealing from their employer, but when you dig, when you take the time and do the work, you learn the employer has been behaving in illegal practices, but they weren’t being prosecuted as they should have been. By going after the low-hanging fruit, you are, a lot of the times, prosecuting people who have themselves been harmed and fracturing trust, so the people you need to go against, the bad landowner or employers, don’t have a reason to trust you.
FIERCE: As a queer Nuyorican woman, what do you think these identities, and the perspectives and experiences that come with them, can bring to the district attorney’s office that we haven’t seen before?
Tiffany Cabán: It’s so important. I’m not just a Latina native New Yorker but a queer Latina native New Yorker. That’s not identity politics. It matters because it’s understanding intersectionality and being familiar with generational trauma and being open to hearing and seeing other folk and recognizing across the board different communities have different experiences and these are all things that have to be taken into account to solve problems. Certain communities experience certain things at different levels. For example, low-income and Black and brown communities experience and sustain trauma at higher and more frequent rates but don’t have access to services that others do. That’s important to know and understand.
FIERCE: Of course, you are much more than your identities. You’re a career public defender, working as an attorney at the Legal Aid Society for three years before joining the New York County Defender Services, where you’ve been an attorney for four years. How do you think these experiences and the skills you’ve gained through them prepared you for this office?
Tiffany Cabán: I think it’s not just my professional experience but my lived experience, my identities and also being a public defender. I’ve so internalized that public defender identity. I say, I’m a queer Latina public defender. That’s how embedded that identity is. In the public defense world, there’s a code that we live by, the idea that we put people first. Our highest duty is to our clients, then our colleagues, then our bosses. That people-centered, holistic approach, that connection to community that defines being a public defender, is what I’m excited about bringing and is what’s needed in the DA office.
FIERCE: The Queens County Democratic Party, which has endorsed Queens Borough President Melinda Katz for this seat, said of you: “[Cabán] doesn’t have enough years of experience to be nominated for a judgeship.” How do you respond to that?
Tiffany Cabán: To start, I’m not asking to be nominated to a judgeship. But I think I do have what it takes and I have represented that. I’ve tried cases and done things in court. I don’t think Melinda Katz has even stepped foot in a criminal courtroom. I also think this is a lot of what we hear from the establishment in our country. It’s a way to keep working-class folk out of these positions. We’ve seen very recently that that’s their opinion, but it’s not necessarily our community’s opinion. It’s about values, having a vision and having a plan to get there, and I firmly believe I have and embody this. I think I am not just qualified for the position but will thrive in it because it’s so important to me. It feels personal and urgent.
FIERCE: Your run, as a DSA-backed millennial Boricua running against established elected officials, is being compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s in 2018. What do you think about this comparison? Have you found it reassuring, inspiring, frustrating?
Tiffany Cabán: Listen, being mentioned in the same sentence as her is flattering, and I’m in awe of everything she is doing. It’s amazing. With that said, I think it’s very different. We come from different experiences. She’s perfect for what she’s doing. I’ve been following her closely and it makes me really excited to see someone who looks like me doing something pure, so I am flattered. But I think folk are making the comparison because we are two young Latinas backed by the DSA, so I encourage these people to learn more about this race and what we are trying to do, because both are powerful on their own.
FIERCE: Finally, as a first-time candidate, I think you can offer a lot to young Latinas who aspire to run for office. Do you have a message for Latinas with political dreams but perhaps see those as unfeasible?
Tiffany Cabán: First of all, don’t let anyone tell you that you haven’t been around long enough or don’t have the right experience. For us, it’s not just our professional experience that matters. Our lived experiences, our family history and our culture are all valuable assets to bring to any conversation in local, state or national positions. Also, support is out there. What I love about our community is we come together and support one another. I’m amazed by the folk who came on board, and our team is overwhelmingly intersectional, with people of color, queer folk, females and a large contingent of folk who are Latina women, including two campaign managers. It’s a really incredible thing. I say you bring value as you are, so be bold.