Michael Levin: Ocasio-Cortez tries to be political queen-maker in Queens – Here’s why you should care

The most important political campaign this year that you’ve probably never heard of is the Democratic primary for district attorney in the New York City borough of Queens. Seven mostly unknown candidates will face off June 25.  

Unless you live in Queens, why should you care?

Because the outcome of this obscure primary – to fill a vacancy created by the death of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown in March – will tell us a lot about the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.


The outcome will indicate whether Democratic voters support candidates on the moderate-left, the far-left, or the socialist far-out extreme-left.

In fact, I believe that no poll, televised town hall, presidential tweet or anything else will be as predictive as the primary in Queens of who will become the Democratic nominee for president next year.

Queens is where Amazon nearly put in its second headquarters, until some New York politicians – most notably self-proclaimed democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – made the giant company unwelcome and prompted it to cancel its plans.

Ocasio-Cortez – an extreme-left radical who bills herself as the friend of working men and women – said her opposition to “corporate greed” and “worker exploitation” led her to help kill Amazon’s plan to create between 25,000 and 40,000 jobs paying salaries averaging more than $150,000 in her district.

Apparently, being unemployed and collecting government benefits is better than being an exploited worker earning a mere $150,000 salary in the congresswoman’s view. Workers of the world unite – and stop being workers, I guess.

The presence of firebrand Ocasio-Cortez – a media magnet for her radical views – is what makes this sleepy district attorney race so incredibly important.

The leading candidate in the Democratic primary is Melinda Katz, currently the borough president of Queens. She is a former corporate lawyer who served as a member of the New York state Assembly and the New York City Council and has a strong record of legislative accomplishments.

Katz, 53, was once called "one of the one hundred up-and-coming young leaders for the 21st Century" by the New York Daily News. Now she has the endorsement many groups representing a broad range of interests, including many ethnic groups and top labor unions.

The presence of firebrand Ocasio-Cortez – a media magnet for her radical views – is what makes this sleepy district attorney race so incredibly important.

Sounds like a dream candidate, right? Not so fast.

Ocasio-Cortez – who apparently wants to be the political kingmaker and queen-maker of Queens and far beyond – has endorsed one of Katz’s opponents, Tiffany Cabán, who has support from the extreme left. Her backers include the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party.

Cabán is a 31-year-old a public defender and has never run for political office, like Ocasio-Cortez prior to 2018. Cabán needs all the help she can get, because she raised less than $1,000 for her campaign in the first quarter of this year.

Ocasio-Cortez says that Cabán is “a champion who will fight to realign our priorities towards equal treatment under the law.”

And now Cabán is following the Ocasio-Cortez political game plan. The candidate is implementing the same strategies that helped Ocasio-Cortez unseat longtime Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in the party’s primary last year.

So the Queens race is an under-the-radar test of Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to defeat establishment Democrats like Crowley in primaries and move the party as far left as she possibly can.

The Intercept, progressive website, describes Katz as if she were a political hack, calling her “a career politician with no courtroom experience who’s run for at least six offices throughout New York” with “machine backing and questionable past positions on issues from the death penalty to cash bail.”

But that doesn’t sound like who Melinda Katz really is. And just to be clear: I don’t work for Katz’s campaign, haven’t contributed to it, and frankly had never heard of her until I read the piece in The Intercept. I can’t even vote in Queens – my family moved out of the borough when I was a 5-year-old.

Ocasio Cortez’s game plan last year was to use social media (free) and ring enough doorbells (also free) to garner enough support to sneak up on a well-entrenched, well-funded incumbent and defeat him.

The stealth strategy worked for Ocasio-Cortez and now she is perhaps the most recognizable face (and one of the most followed on Twitter) in Washington after President Trump.

So if the grassroots and social media strategy boosts Cabán past Katz (and the other five candidates in the primary) you can consider what happens in this race a demonstration of the power of today’s progressive movement. And a demonstration of Ocasio-Cortez’s power as well.

Social media and campaigning on the street, block by block, are now powerful tools in politics. Having the most money, the most endorsements, or even the most coverage in traditional news media is no longer enough to defeat your opponents in a campaign

This is what used to be called “retail politics,” as opposed to what usually goes on today, which could be described as “whoever has the biggest media budget wins.”

So you can’t fault Cabán, Ocasio-Cortez and their grassroots supporters for doing what candidates are supposed to do: ring doorbells, kiss babies and get out the vote.

Melinda Katz is Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Mayor Pete, all rolled into one: an accomplished politician with an outstanding record of public service.


But none of that will matter if Cabán, who has done exactly nothing in electoral politics, wins.

The takeaway will be this: what happens in Queens will happen all over the country in local and statewide elections. You’ve been warned.

And if Cabán, defeats Katz I’m putting my money on democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to be the Democratic nominee for president.