WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — August 13, 2019 — The easy part is the election result. Establishment Queens Borough President Melinda Katz eked out a victory over insurgent Tiffany Caban in the Democratic primary and will be the next district attorney of Queens.
The hard part is figuring out what it means.
Something profound is in the wind.
It is ideological. There is a monumental shift in public support for policies that benefit middle- and low-income citizens, and against traditional cultural norms that excluded all kinds of Americans from equal treatment.
It is generational. Inevitably, the Vietnam-era issues and leadership that dominated both parties for close to 50 years are being forced aside. We did it to the post-WWII liberals. Now another cohort of activists and voters is seizing power.
It is technological. Skilled use of the internet and associated devices has replaced newspapers, TV and radio and even regular conversation as the media of the new age.
All this descended on Queens, and will continue its disruptive course elsewhere.
For the Queens County Democratic Committee, the old power broker, it was a near-death experience. The organization had just lost the congressional seat held by County Leader Joe Crowley, lost a number of state Senate seats, lost a civil court judgeship primary, and couldn’t seem to muster voters in support of its popular incumbent borough president. It did manage an effective absentee ballot program in nursing homes, which turned out to be the difference. That’s not enough to ensure future wins. It is simply unclear how it recovers and what will happen to other county organizations.
For New York’s political class, it is a challenge to adapt or die. Look at the policy positions of Katz and Caban. In the end there was a rough consensus between the organization and the insurgency on policies to reduce incarceration, decriminalize all kinds of behaviors, and provide a check on police-community relations. The ideological fight is over and the insurgency won it. For the governor and legislative leaders it reinforced the lesson of the last session: Get out in front on the progressive agenda or explain yourself to primary voters.
If this sounds like the insurgency won everything but the actual election, that’s because it did. But it also revealed the seeds of real problems that could limit future electoral victories.
Two powerful dynamics can be read into the Queens results and are a cautionary note in an otherwise strong result.
The easy one has to do with style and picking your targets. The insurgency is committed to a progressive agenda. In practical terms the enemy is not primarily the average Democratic incumbent, and Democratic primary voters understand that. In a world of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and enormously monied special interests, focus on the principal problems first. Primary challenges to people like Reps. Jerry Nadler and Eliot Engel are not priorities. The same goes for fierce rhetoric and accusations of corruption. Save them for the real thing.
The more concerning issue is demographics. Caban thrived among young, European-American, tech-savvy, and relatively comfortable voters in rapidly gentrifying western Queens. Older, middle-income communities, including African-Americans in southern Queens, held fast for Katz, although at somewhat reduced margins. As time passes, the insurgency will have to work hard to reach voters who don’t mirror the ideology, age and demography of Astoria. Diversity is a good thing. Successful movements are broadly inclusive.
So Katz and the insurgency can both claim victory. Well done. Hopefully, they do so with their eyes open. For the rest of us, the winners of future elections will absorb the lessons of Queens. The losers will not.
Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.
Original publication by Times-Union on August 11, 2019.
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