Queens DA race: Armies of volunteer socialists, national endorsements and radioactive real estate money

Tiffany Cabán has declared victory over Melinda Katz, who many in the industry backed
By Eddie Small and Georgia Kromrei | June 26, 2019 06:25PM

Public defender Tiffany Cabán and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz (Credit: Getty Images)

Public defender Tiffany Cabán and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz (Credit: Getty Images)

Brokers at the Corcoran Group returned from lunch on Monday afternoon to receive an unusual email in their inbox from CEO Pam Liebman.

The Manhattan-based luxury brokerage chief had a request of them: if they were eligible voters in Queens, she wanted them to cast their ballot for Melinda Katz — and definitely not Tiffany Cabán — in the District Attorney’s race.

“Though the DA’s authority may not have a direct effect on the real estate business in Queens or the other boroughs, a far-left candidate’s election to this influential post sets a precedent that could severely stunt our business—in the borough and beyond,” she wrote, according to the email obtained by Crain’s.

Real estate rarely gets directly involved in outerborough district attorney races, but the industry is already reeling from about a year’s worth of high-profile political losses and is increasingly worried that radical left policies could be the new normal for New York, taking money from their pockets and killing development projects. And despite Liebman’s email, Tuesday’s hotly contested primary for Queens district attorney is shaping up to be yet another loss for the industry.

Although Katz, the current Queens borough president and a longtime favorite of the real estate industry, has yet to officially concede the race, 31-year-old public defender Cabán still declared victory late Tuesday night and maintained a narrow lead as of Wednesday afternoon.

Cabán ran on a platform of decriminalizing sex work, not prosecuting low-level drug cases, and closing Rikers Island. She boasted the endorsements of state Senator Julia Salazar, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. She refused to take donations from real estate.

Assuming Cabán holds onto her lead and becomes the next district attorney for Queens, it will mark the latest step in a leftward shift in New York politics that has alarmed many in the state’s real estate industry.

“Unfortunately, businesspeople and real estate are under attack right now,” said Modern Spaces CEO and Katz supporter Eric Benaim, “and I think the politicians are forgetting that we’re also a constituency.”

The leftward shift dates back to at least last summer, when Ocasio-Cortez, who identifies as a democratic socialist, defeated borough power broker Joseph Crowley in the primary for his longtime seat in the House of Representatives. It continued through the November elections, when the Democratic Party took full control of the state government in New York for the first time in years.

The next big moment came in February, when Amazon stunned New Yorkers by abruptly backing out of its plans to build part of its second “headquarters” in Long Island City in the face of opposition from the community and many of the state’s more liberal politicians. And the real estate industry arguably hit its nadir in mid-June, following the state’s passage of a host of new laws severely restricting landlords’ ability to raise rents.

The probable election of an anti-establishment district attorney in Queens will not be as momentous, as the office has limited direct interactions with the city’s real estate industry. In fact, as prominent Queens developer George Xu pointed out, Katz will likely have more influence over development in the borough as borough president than she would have had as district attorney.

“If we go for a rezoning or any other things related to land use, then we will have to go through her,” he said, “so she has more involvement with us in her current position.”

But the race was seen by many in the industry as another test of real estate’s political power. Where Cabán had armies of volunteer millennial socialists canvassing Western Queens, Katz, a former attorney at prominent real estate law firm Greenberg and Traurig, had the support of the Real Estate Board of New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Speaker Carl Heastie and all of the major labor unions.

Brown & Weinraub’s David Weinraub, who has lobbied for large real estate firms including Cammeby’s and Brookfield, said that the race was emblematic of New York’s move leftward.

“It’s a metaphor-type race,” he said. “You’ve got presidential candidates endorsing in a DA race. They’ve made it a big deal, win, lose or draw.”

Katz attracted financial support from several major players in the real estate industry, including the Walentas family of Two Trees Management, Dan Tishman of Tishman Realty and Construction, the Rent Stabilization Association and the Real Estate Board of New York.

She had accepted a total of $158,300 in real estate contributions as of late May and continued to receive funds from donors like Extell Development and Related Companies chair Stephen Ross through the last week of the campaign.

“Thousands of people came together to fight hard to bring change to the borough of Queens, and their dedication should be recognized,” Katz said in a statement on Wednesday. “With thousands of ballots left to count, every voter deserves to be heard.”

Cabán, meanwhile, publicly rejected real estate contributions during the race, an increasingly common tactic that has been practiced by politicians ranging from Ocasio-Cortez to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Representatives for the Cabán campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

State Sen. Julia Salazar, who recently told The Real Deal that she was “not ashamed” to be a Marxist, said she was proud to have endorsed Cabán in the campaign and believed she would have a tangible impact on real estate in her new position.

“Tiffany committed to prosecuting and holding accountable landlords who harass and unlawfully evict tenants,” she said. “She also pledged to crack down on white collar crime, whether in the real estate industry or otherwise.”

G&M Realty founder Jerry Wolkoff, whose firm is developing the massive and controversial 5Pointz project in Queens, said he was not particularly concerned about the impact a Cabán victory would have on him directly. However, he was alarmed with the general wave of far-left victories in New York, which he maintained was making it harder for companies to build affordable housing.

“Their constituents are eventually going to get hurt because if you can’t build, then you’re going to have problems,” he said. “It has nothing to do with landlords or tenants. It’s the working class people that are going to get hurt by a lot of these things.”