Public defender-turned Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán’s remarkable rise has, just as quickly as she established herself as a bona fide contender, galvanized and polarized the American political scene far beyond her borough. And though nothing triggers a mass outbreak among the pundit class of sudden-onset prognostication quite like the kickoff of another presidential campaign season, those who’ve spotted in Cabán’s June 25 primary win the signs of a crucial shift already underway are clearly onto something.

As was the case for one of Cabán’s most prominent supporters, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, those who pick up this kind of traction in the current climate are sure to draw blowback from within their own party as well as more expected sources. (The intra-party trouble started immediately with Cabán’s Democratic rival Melinda Katz, a Queens borough president aligned closely with mainstream Democrats like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and who has still refused to concede to Cabán.) Cabán also shares with Ocasio-Cortez an unabashedly progressive approach to a number of issues; the proudly held distinction of being a young, queer Latina from working-class Queens; and the benefit and burden of becoming a walking, talking, potentially legislating symbol-slash-human lightning rod.

For a sizable group of younger voters — the same millennials who so perplex so many commentators over the age of 40 — as well as for supporters of AOC, the Justice Democrats and Democratic Socialists of America, the 31-year-old Cabán’s win appears as another welcome step toward short-circuiting the nation’s entrenched power centers. For establishment Democrats and just about anyone to the right of them, she’s a threat. For all of the above, regardless of affiliation, Cabán represents further confirmation that an agile and forceful coalition of progressive leaders is carving out a real stronghold in U.S. politics.

The range of responses, none of them mild, that Cabán’s conspicuous arrival on the national stage has provoked has played out in opinion columns and news channels around the country. The New York Times editorial board flouted tradition by endorsing Cabán, a definitively non-centrist candidate. It heralded her as a much-needed challenger — with regard to the powers that be in the Empire State as well as to the system of mass incarceration, which Cabán has taken on as one of her signature issues in her bid to become Queens D.A.:

… Ms. Cabán would come into office unencumbered by ties to the borough power structure and free to pursue her commitment to serve the community by doing more than just winning convictions. Her seven years as a public defender have given her insight into how the system works, and how it ought to be changed.

… Ms. Cabán has said she would increase funding for programs that provide alternatives to incarceration, like drug treatment and mental health counseling, and stop prosecuting many minor, so-called broken-windows offenses, like fare beating, drug possession, welfare fraud and loitering.

Days later, Times editorial board member Mara Gay cast Cabán’s win as “no fluke” in a column titled “Why Tiffany Cabán May Be More Significant to Progressives Than Ocasio-Cortez.” Taking up the theme of a sea change within the Democratic Party, Gay wrote, “This election should put to rest the idea that the coalition isn’t a sustainable force,” and concluded that “the old kind of politics seems to be fading away.”

Chiming in with favorable coverage was The Nation, which got right to it in the first couple of paragraphs of the article, “Bold leftists are ascendant,” and The Intercept, which credited Cabán’s stances on reforming the criminal justice system and decriminalizing sex work as major clinchers for her supporters:

 … progressive groups coalesced around Cabán and brought the race national attention. Organizers pushing to end the construction of new jails, decriminalize sex work, and build relationships between the district attorney and the communities most impacted by choices the DA makes knocked on doors, organized rallies, and got out the word to propel Cabán’s campaign further than many expected it to go.

Meanwhile, one reliable gauge for how big a threat Cabán and the new guard poses to the right as well as to Democratic figures like Katz and Cuomo can be read into this June 26 New York Post headline, a call to action by that paper’s editorial board: “The Queens majority needs to unite to stop Tiffany Cabán.” Like Ocasio-Cortez, she can expect to become a go-to target for heat from the right in direct proportion to the support and power she gains — not just in the weeks leading up to this November’s general election.

Like AOC, Cabán can handle it — and like her political peer was before her, Cabán is our latest Truthdigger of the Month.

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