Queens Borough President Melinda Katz saw her lead over Tiffany Cabán, a progressive public defender, shrink to just 16 votes in the Queens District Attorney's race, lawyers said Friday, though a final tally in the closely-watched race could still be weeks away.
Cabán, who has the backing of Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez as well as presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, claimed victory after the June 25 primary when she led by a little more than 1,000 votes. But this week, after the Queens Board of Elections invalidated more than 2,000 paper ballots, Katz, who has the support of the local party leadership, pulled ahead by 30 votes and declared herself the winner.
"I think we all know this is going to court," Renée Paradis, the lawyer for the Cabán campaign, said Friday morning from a conference room at the Board of Elections as she prepared to go head-to-head with the Katz campaign's lawyer, Frank Bolz, over a handful of rejected ballots.
The Katz campaign confirmed Paradis' tally that 16 votes now separate the two candidates.
Cabán's strong performance jolted the local Democratic establishment that had opposed her, and energized liberals who saw the race as proof of progressive strength going into the 2020 election. The election comes just one year after Ocasio-Cortez blindsided New York Democrats in a stunning defeat of Democratic heavyweight Joe Crowley, the longtime congressman seen as a potential successor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
While Cabán ran on a platform of decriminalizing what she called crimes of poverty and shifting the focus of the office away from mass incarceration, Katz positioned herself as a more moderate reformer whose deep ties across Queens would allow her to make lasting change.
A hand recount, which is automatically triggered in such close races, is expected to begin next week.
The Cabán campaign has been reaching out to voters whose ballots were disqualified to determine if a mistake was made or if there is a possible legal challenge. On Friday, Paradis raised objections to 28 ballots that had been thrown out, and the campaign said they would be working through the weekend to find more.
One Cabán voter, who appeared at the Board of Elections offices on Friday but asked that his name not be used, said that he was told by the Cabán campaign that his provisional ballot had been invalidated because he had not filled out part of the form that asks a person's party affiliation, even though he checked a box for Democrat on another part of the form.
Meanwhile, the two campaigns have been engaged in a war of words over the fairness of the process and the frustration voiced by their respective supporters on social media.
"The lies from Caban and her supporters need to stop, because right now the Cabán camp is no different than [President] Trump: divorced from facts, condoning misogynistic attacks and bullying voters," said Daniele de Groot, a Katz spokesperson. "For someone who wants to be a prosecutor, Tiffany Cabán should know how dangerous and wrong it is to make baseless charges of wrongdoing without evidence, just because it's good for her politically."
Meanwhile, Cabán campaign officials have challenged what they say are unfair institutional advantages enjoyed by the Katz campaign, claiming that the ballots of new voters and irregular voters -- people who the campaign says are more likely to back an insurgent progressive like Cabán -- are more likely to be thrown out.
"To me, that is the real conspiracy and the real injustice," said Paradis.
The Cabán campaign has also pointed to the strong ties between the Queens party machine -- which had lined up behind Katz -- and the local Board of Elections. The board's commissioners are recommended by political parties and confirmed by the City Council.
Bill Lipton, the state director of the New York Working Families Party, which endorsed Cabán, also suggested there was a problem with the board's invalidation of ballots.
"Thousands of affidavit ballots, many of them cast by new voters inspired by Tiffany’s message of a criminal justice system that works for all of us, were invalidated by poll workers handpicked by Queens party leaders," he said in a statement on Thursday. "At the same time, when we go to court, we’ll face judges handpicked by the same machine. The system is rife with conflicts of interest.”
Whoever prevails in the Democratic primary will be the overwhelming favorite to win the November election in heavily Democratic Queens, the second most populous of New York City's five boroughs, where the Republican candidate is offering only a token challenge. Longtime Queens District Attorney Richard Brown died in May, which left an open seat for the first time since he took office in 1991.