By Matthew Lavietes
NEWYORK (Reuters) – Political newcomer Tiffany Caban, an insurgent progressive Democrat endorsed by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, led a nationally watched primary race for district attorney in the New York City borough of Queens on Tuesday.
Caban appeared headed for victory over six other Democrats on the ballot for their party’s nomination, narrowly edging past runner-up Melinda Katz, an established centrist who serves as president of the Queens borough.
With more than 98 percent of polling stations reporting, Caban drew nearly 40 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns posted online by New York City’s Board of Elections.
Katz was trailing towards a close second-place finish, with at least 38.2 percent of the vote, the results showed 2-1/2 hours after polls closed.
A victory by Caban would mark a fresh signal of the growing power of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party as it pushes a populist platform across the country in the run up to the 2020 presidential election.
It also would highlight the political appeal that Ocasio-Cortez, known by her initials, AOC, has cultivated since she upset a long-time incumbent Democrat in a primary race a year ago.
With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in Queens, the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary is expected to easily defeat a Republican opponent in November’s general election.
Competition for the office has been uncharacteristically fierce since Richard A. Brown, who served as district attorney for more than 25 years, announced his retirement in January. Brown died in May, a month before his scheduled departure.
The primary race in the diverse borough with working-class roots was seen as a litmus test for the appeal of progressive versus traditional candidates.
Caban, 31, a former public defender of Puerto Rican descent who identifies as queer, ran a grassroots campaign, raising funds from small cash contributions.
She campaigned on deeply progressive views, specifically concerning criminal justice reform, a focal point of all the candidates. She vowed to close New York’s Rikers Island jail without replacing it, to decriminalize prostitution and to end cash bail for all criminal offences.
Her agenda gained her several high-profile endorsements, including that of Ocasio-Cortez, whose congressional district includes portions of Queens. The 29-year-old congresswoman has emerged as a nationally influential progressive voice since she defeated a 10-term incumbent in a primary election last year.
Caban also had the backing of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both leading progressives in the U.S. Senate and candidates for the Democratic nomination for president.
In contrast, Katz ran a campaign with strong institutional support from powerful local businesses and politicians. She also earned the backing of the state’s governor, Governor Andrew Cuomo.
(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes in New York; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Darren Schuettler)