Issue #17

So who's pumped for the Queens DA race?

New Developments


Kai Kahele’s campaign for HI-02 has so far been pretty low-key. But on Tuesday, Vice published an interview with him where his new tone promised that wouldn’t be the case forever. He told them that “She's got a fucking tiger on her tail, and she's gonna be in trouble.” He also called the Butler religious group that Gabbard’s parents were involved with during her childhood a “super weirded-out cult”. In an unusually candid move for a candidate, he also explained that he was only running because Gabbard wasn’t going to be able to campaign in HI-02 for a long time.

That’s all pretty cool actually, and we admire the honesty. Unfortunately, it appears this wasn’t intentional. Later that day he told a local newspaper that he didn’t realize his comments were on the record and called his language “inappropriate”. Ah well. Unchained Kai was fun while it lasted.


Well, you don’t usually see this. Labor attorney and Senate candidate Shannon Liss-Riordan announced on Tuesday that she had received the endorsement of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) System Council T-6, which includes six locals: 2222, 2321, 2322, 2323, 2324, and 2325. These six locals cover the entire state and specialize in telephone work, with more than 5,000 combined members. IBEW Local 2323 is Rhode Island-based; however unions will often make donations, send out mailers, and knock doors, so them being out of state doesn't mean the endorsement loses all value.

In most situations, a few union locals endorsing a labor lawyer running as a Democrat would not be surprising. Liss-Riordan is, however, challenging an incumbent, and one who has had no major conflicts with labor in the past. A move like this is unusual even when it's late in the campaign and it looks like the challenger might win. This kind of endorsement this early against a progressive and inoffensive guy like Markey is huge news. We of course don't know what the internal reasoning for this endorsement was, but it signals that they believe she has at least some chance of winning.


The Cisneros campaign hit the ground running. Less than 48 hours after launching her campaign, she announced that she had raised over $100,000. The first week of her campaign has been packed full of events, and things look to be going smoothly on her side.

The Cuellar response has been something to watch, because the campaign immediately demonstrated they’re taking her seriously. Right out of the gate, they had a set of talking points teed up. The first is general Green New Deal fear mongering:

“I believe what I see in front of me, and what I see in front of me are working oil and gas platforms with people making $35 to $60 an hour. That’s what I see,” he said. “I don’t see these green jobs. Where are they? ‘Oh well they’ll come, they’re coming.’ OK, well how do I put groceries on the table until they get here? How do I pay my electric bill when it’s 115 degrees outside every day this summer? Until my green job gets here? They don’t know that those jobs will come.”

Now of course that’s all nonsense - the entire point of the Green New Deal is to provide those jobs. But like much of conservative political messaging, it’s not intended to be literally true as much as it is to invoke certain anxieties. In a district with a sizable oil industry presence, warning about the looming threat of economic change is probably one of the better strategies Cuellar has. Not necessarily a good one, but there’s at least some reason to think it might work, and when your record is as bad as Cuellar’s, you take what you can get.

The other focuses on Cisneros’s affiliation with the Justice Democrats.

“They’ve sent out seven or eight emails on her behalf. She sent out two emails using their list. They staffed her, they’re giving her talking points. They sent a crew down to videotape her event (Thursday) night. They helped with her commercial. So this whole idea that she’s not affected by special interests — she’s bought and paid for by a New York for-profit special interest group two days into the campaign.”

Now, this isn’t correct either. Justice Democrats are based in Tennessee and are a PAC, which cannot be for-profit. The Cuellar campaign is likely referring to The Young Turks, a for-profit political news and opinion organization which helped found the Justice Democrats but haven’t been officially affiliated with them for years. The “New York-based” bit might be a reference to Ocasio-Cortez? It’s honestly hard to tell what they mean there. Additionally, while the phrase “special interest” gets thrown around a lot, it’s really not appropriate for a broader progressive advocacy organization. Special interests advocate for a particular group or policy, not for an entire segment of the ideological spectrum.

The broad strokes, however, resemble the truth closely enough to be dangerous. Cisneros did jump-start her campaign with the help of an out-of-state group with an ideological angle, and pounding on this drum could muddy the waters when it comes time for Cuellar to defend his contributions from, among others, private prisons, the oil industry, the NRA, and the Koch brothers.

Both talking points show that the Cisneros campaign has gotten Cuellar worried enough to go negative, which can be a minor victory in and of itself. Most incumbents who feel safe try to ignore their challenger as best they can.

And while not a talking point per se, Cuellar himself demonstrated something that it will likely be a feature of his campaign when given the chance to talk about his opponent, an immigration and human rights attorney who was practicing pro bono law for refugees until deciding to run for Congress:

“I’m not going to say anything negative about the young lady.”

Cuellar, as a reminder, is currently being sued for sex discrimination.

New Primaries


Fresh off a successful candidate rollout in TX-28, with immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros raising more than $100,000 in 48 hours, Justice Democrats introduced a second candidate on Tuesday. Principal Jamaal Bowman, a leading voice against forced standardized testing, announced his candidacy against House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, setting the same $100,000 goal as Cisneros and releasing a video outlining his vision for the district. Like Engel’s other recently declared challenger, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, Bowman is sharply critical of Engel’s incredibly hawkish foreign policy views; his launch video includes footage of a much younger Engel on the House floor, forcefully declaring that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and arguing for an invasion of Iraq. The video also includes footage of Engel, during the debate on Joe Biden’s 1994 crime bill, saying, “We need to put more cops on the beat, build more the crime bill.” (Like the Iraq War, that one worked out and totally wasn’t an easily foreseen disaster.)

Engel also opposed President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal--you know, the one that Trump rolled back, thereby destabilizing our relationship with Iran and giving Republicans an excuse to call for war. Along with fellow awful Democrat Steny Hoyer, Engel backed the (thus far unsuccessful) attempt to install Juan Guiadó as president of Venezuela (because the correct response to a South American dictator is obviously an American-backed coup, a move which has never backfired horribly) and dragged his feet on opposing the horrific war in Yemen.

Engel, a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, is one of only a few white men representing a majority-minority district. (Joe Crowley and Mike Capuano both fit that description before losing to nonwhite primary challengers who ran to their left.)

Bowman seems like a clear upgrade from Engel. So does Ghebreghiorgis. Actually, so does Kenny Belvin, a minor candidate who has been in the race for months. And herein lies a problem. New York, like most states, has a primary election where the candidate with the most votes becomes the nominee, whether or not they received a majority. This set-up can greatly benefit incumbents if multiple challengers jockey to defeat him. In fact, some incumbents will put additional challengers on the ballot to split the anti-incumbent vote. In Virginia, we nearly saw Democratic Senate leader Dick Salsaw lose to a more progressive challenger. He only got 48.9%, but Karen Torrent, a minor candidate who entered the race at the last minute, soaked up 5.6% of the vote, causing his re-election. In 2016, after his indictment, Rep. Chaka Fattah nearly won re-election to PA-02 because he attracted three opponents, all of whom got over 10% of the vote. In 2018, the MA-03 primary race splintered in all directions. State Sen. Barbara L'Italien and state Rep. Juana Matias combined for over 30% of the vote, but the election went to one of the more moderate candidates in the field, who got less than 22%.

In many southern states, this isn’t an issue, as their primaries have runoffs in the event no one gets a majority of votes. David Scott in GA-13 now has two opponents? No sweat. Additionally, the Top 2 / jungle primary system in place in California, Washington, and Louisiana means that there’s functionally an automatic runoff in very blue districts. But in the rest of the country, this could be serious trouble. Marie Newman is running for a rematch against conservative Dan Lipinski in IL-03 after narrowly losing in 2018. Everything appears to be going better for her this time around… except for the part where she’s one of three challengers now.

It’s currently a long time before even the earliest primary, but eventually some tough choices will have to be made. It’s highly unlikely that Eliot Engel is going to get as little as 30% of the vote in this race, or even 40%. If the primary is approaching, then having multiple serious candidates in the race will all but ensure an Engel victory. And that goes for far more races than just NY-16. Briana Urbina, a civil rights attorney who has been fundraising for months, finally launched her campaign for MD-05 today. It’s hard to know now if she or Mckayla Wilkes will be a better candidate, but if progressive groups don’t figure it out an coalesce behind one of them, it’ll be a gift to Hoyer.

With Bowman and Ghebreghiorgis now both in the race, NY-16 is on the warning track. We’ll be following it closely, tracking endorsements, fundraising and grassroots support.

Queens, NY District Attorney

On Tuesday, Democrats in Queens will vote to nominate their candidate for the special District Attorney election later this year. The general election is merely a formality, and the next Queens DA will be chosen on Tuesday. Seven candidates have filed for this election, which could potentially see very low turnout, and will be first-past-the-post. In rough order of least likely to most likely to win:

  • Jose Nieves: Nieves is a career prosecutor and military veteran whose campaign never got any attention.

  • Betty Lugo: Lugo is a partner in the city’s first Latina-owned law firm, and has somehow picked up an endorsement from Assemblymember Latrice Walker, who doesn’t represent any of Queens. Lugo will be a nonfactor.

  • Mina Malik: Malik is probably safe to ignore in this race. She’s mostly relevant because she managed to raise almost $700,000, $200,000 of which was from her personally. That’s the kind of money that at least gets you some notice. However, she hasn’t managed to pull in any major endorsements or media coverage, possibly due to a lack of deep political connections in Queens.

  • Rory Lancman: Lancman’s campaign is one of those that looked much better on paper than it turned out in real life. He’s an established politician who’s served on the New York City Council for six years, and in the state Assembly for another seven before that. His platform is reformist, without being radical, and he’s raised a lot of money. So what happened? He got squeezed. After Tiffany Cabán became the reform choice and Melinda Katz solidified all the establishment support, he was left in an awkward middle ground, where most voters are going to have a viable option that fits them better. He still has some labor support, and a few political friends, but his overly broad appeal wound up limiting him.

  • Gregory Lasak: The most basic rule of thumb in a DA race is to vote against the candidate cops like, and Lasak is absolutely adored by them. He’s an old white guy with the endorsement of basically every cop and cop-adjacent organization in the city. His support is going to come from what remains of the “tough on crime” voters in the Democratic Party who want, as the NY Daily News put it in their endorsement, “a real prosecutor”. That’s enough of a base to make some noise, but ultimately his appeal is not that broad and he’d need a lot to go right for him to get elected.

  • Tiffany Cabán: Tiffany Cabán is a radical. And we mean that in the best way possible. She views the DA’s role as not to take the legal code as guideline for who to prosecute, but to use it as a tool to help local communities. For her, this means ending prosecutions of “sex work, recreational drug use, and racist laws” as well as viewing a reduction of prosecutions and incarceration as an inherent good, all refocusing office efforts to curbing landlords, payday lenders, and corporations preying on Queens residents.

    She launched her campaign as a low-profile public defender in January, and it seems like every day since then she’s picked up another high-profile progressive endorsement: DSA, Working Families Party, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Philly DA and the reform movement’s first victory Larry Krasner, Our Revolution, the Progressive Change Committee, and basically the entire 2018 New York progressive primary slate all support her, along with dozens of other progressive figures and organizations. Yesterday, she picked up the New York Times, and today she was endorsed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders within minutes of each other. What’s she lacking, then? Institutional support. She only has a single union endorsement, and the politicians who support her can be cleanly split into the categories of “not from Queens” and “first elected last year”.

  • Melinda Katz: As much as it pains us to admit this, Katz is probably the favorite in this race. Katz has been around New York City politics since 1994, serving in the Assembly, City Council, and, currently, as Queens Borough President. She’s is the choice of the Queens machine and all the New York politicians you love to hate. Katz at least makes some nods towards criminal justice reform (there’s a reason the cops love Lasak and not her), but she’s not interested in changing too much, and that’s why the party bosses love her. But don’t call her a “cog in the machine”. When Cabán did that, Katz accused her of sexism.

    Much like the Ocasio-Cortez / Crowley primary in 2018, this race is about progressive grassroots enthusiasm competing with raw machine strength. The Queens machine has taken two big hits in the last couple years, after losing the aforementioned Ocasio-Cortez / Crowley primary in NY-14 in 2018, and then two important senate primaries later that year. Will they be able to get the votes out in an odd-timed election like this? Tuesday is going to be a landmark day in the relationship between New York’s machine politics and progressive grassroots.

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