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District attorney Democratic primary in Queens, NY too close to call

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(CNN) -- Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old former public defender, is leading in the contest for the Democratic nomination to be the next district attorney of Queens County, New York, with the race too close to call.

If the results are confirmed, she will have defeated the party establishment favorite and four other candidates on a promise of radical change to the office's prosecutorial practices.

A Cabán victory would be another body blow for Queens Democrats, who saw Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeat their since-departed chair Joe Crowley, then the fourth-ranking House Democrat, nearly a year ago. On Tuesday, it was Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who had the backing of most traditional local powerbrokers, who faced off against a young, progressive outsider.

"We built a campaign that said every community deserves justice, that every community deserves fair treatment," Cabán said late Tuesday claiming victory. "We built a campaign to reduce recidivism, to decriminalize poverty, to end mass incarceration, to protect our immigrant communities, to keep people in their communities with access to services and support."

The race is still too close to call and Katz, who did not immediately return a CNN request for comment, has not conceded the election. The New York City Board of Elections will begin counting more than 3,400 absentee ballots on July 3, and that does not include affidavits, commonly known as provisional ballots, that need to be verified before counting.

If the official canvass of the votes ends in a margin less than half of 1%, a manual recount will be triggered, according to the Valerie Vazquez, communications director of the election board. Caban is leading with a 1.27% margin, according to the NYC BOE's count Wednesday afternoon.

The message from Queens, which is much larger than Ocasio-Cortez's 14th Congressional District, would reverberate around the country, as Democrats nationwide grapple over the direction of the party -- a fight that will play out live on debate stages in Miami over the next two nights during the first round of presidential primary debates. Unlike those candidates, Cabán, who was endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, would likely have a smooth ride in the coming general election if she maintains her current margin.

"Tiffany Cabán took on virtually the entire political establishment and built a grassroots movement to win," Sanders said in a statement Tuesday night. "Her victory is a victory not just for the people of Queens, but for working people everywhere who are fighting for real political change and demanding we end cash bail, mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs."

In a tweet, Ocasio-Cortez said simply, "We meet a machine with a movement."

Queens is regularly measured as one of the most diverse places in the country, with a population estimated at nearly 2.3 million, about the same as Houston and not much smaller than Chicago. But like so many other mostly liberal electorates, the changes in its politics have been supercharged since President Donald Trump's election -- as Democratic voters become more willing to consider new faces with leftist policy ideas and unconventional backgrounds.

Cabán, who is of Puerto Rican descent and identifies as queer, hinged her campaign on a promise to effectively decriminalize a series of low-level offenses that law enforcement and prosecutors began cracking down on during the "tough on crime" era of the early 1990s. That means refusing to prosecute subway fare beaters, recreational drug-related crimes, resisting-arrest charges -- especially when they are not attached to more serious allegations -- loitering and other offenses, like sex work. Cabán has pledged to wipe out cash bail entirely, and her long-term goal is to achieve "population zero" in the city's prisons.

"I feel like I am just another participant in this really incredibly powerful movement," she told CNN in an interview before the vote, pointing to Ocasio-Cortez and recently elected state Sens. Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar. "And if we're going to say 'the next,' then I'm looking forward to 'the next' and 'the next' and 'the next' -- the common ground that I think exists between all of us is just an utter, unapologetic, unwavering commitment to center the experiences and needs of our communities and absolutely nobody else."

Cabán's campaign received an early lift -- and endorsements -- from local and national Democratic Socialists of America activists before attracting the organizational know-how of the Working Families Party, which grew its power base in New York during the 2018 state legislative elections and said it spent $250,000 to support Cabán. In the closing days of the primary, she fended off a late surge of attack ads from Katz, a former city council member with ties to the real estate industry, a powerful New York City political player that is facing a rising backlash from Democratic voters and lawmakers.

"This isn't a campaign where I waited my turn and had the backing of a machine with a million dollars in the bank and consultants and all those kinds of things," Caban said last week. "This was very organically grown. Building a grassroots movement that was going to always heavily, heavily rely on volunteer power. The DSA is just incredible, powerful allies."

As Cabán prepared to thank supporters Tuesday, New York Working Families Party director Bill Lipton was among the many supporters celebrating the tally, calling it "a victory for the humanity of those at the margins of society that have been criminalized and incarcerated for no good reason."

"Tonight, Queens is turned upside down," Lipton said in a statement. "Giants fall and empires crumble. Tiffany Cabán has defeated the field and won the Democratic Primary for Queens District Attorney. By running, Tiffany changed the narrative. As District Attorney, she'll change thousands of people's lives."

Our Revolution, the political organization spun out of Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign, cheered the path-breaking nature of Cabán's potential win.

"Tiffany Cabán's victory in the Queens County District Attorney race is historic," the group, which also endorsed Cabán, said in an email. "Not only because it represents the first newly elected DA in 30 years and Caban will be the first openly queer and person of color to hold the office, but the national groundswell that came together to elect her."

If the results hold, Cabán would be expected to win the office controlled by the late Richard Brown, who died in May after announcing in January that he would not seek reelection to an eighth term, for nearly three decades. Her ascent will put her alongside a growing wave of progressive prosecutors, like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Rachael Rollins in Boston. Both Krasner and Rollins endorsed Cabán in the weeks leading up to the primary.

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