The 2019 Queens Power 100
The 2019 Queens Power 100
No matter who ultimately wins the Queens district attorney race, the contest has demonstrated one thing: There’s a battle raging for political control of the borough. The Democratic old guard is facing an uprising of younger progressives, who helped propel Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress and followed that up by nearly electing Tiffany Cabán as the borough’s top prosecutor. Some veteran politicians, including state Sens. Michael Gianaris and James Sanders Jr. as well as New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, are siding with the insurgency. Others, like Cabán’s rival, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, are sticking with the establishment, led by Rep. Gregory Meeks, the borough’s new party boss. In our Queens Power 100, we assess the clout of each of these players, and where they fit in the borough’s evolving power structure.
Alt Text: Michael Gianaris headshotTitle Text: Michael GianarisDescription: Michael Gianaris headshotImage Credit: Courtesy New York Senate
1. Michael Gianaris
This year, state Sen. Michael Gianaris embraced his status as a progressive figurehead in the state Senate and secured sweeping tenant protections, legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses and one of the most ambitious climate change laws in the country.
Gianaris’ ascent began last year when, as chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, he recruited the progressive primary challengers that toppled most of the former members of the Independent Democratic Conference. In the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s earthshaking defeat of Joseph Crowley, who was once a major Gianaris ally, the No. 2 in the Senate Democratic conference committed himself to the ideals of the new insurgent faction of the party.
His opposition to the Amazon HQ2 plan in his district solidified Gianaris’ split with party politics as usual. And with his controversial nomination to the state Public Authorities Control Board, he played a pivotal role in killing the city and state’s $3 billion offer to the e-commerce giant. In the weeks since the legislative session ended, Gianaris endorsed Tiffany Cabán for Queens district attorney over Melinda Katz in another rebuke to the Democratic establishment.
Alt Text: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the unveiling of her Green New Deal proposalTitle Text: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the unveiling of her Green New Deal proposalDescription: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the unveiling of her Green New Deal proposalImage Credit: Rachael Warriner/Shutterstock
2. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
The explosive progressive energy that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional victory unleashed in Queens, the Bronx and across the country is realigning New York politics. From her support for Tiffany Cabán’s district attorney campaign to her rejection of Amazon’s Long Island City campus, Ocasio-Cortez’s praise and condemnation wield great power.
Her profile – she is known simply as “AOC” – is rising outside the borough thanks to constant coverage on right-leaning networks like Fox News, which mentioned her nearly 76 times a day within a six-week period this winter. Her ascent sent shockwaves through the state and national Democratic establishment, which is cautiously watching every move after she proved herself committed to challenging their established hierarchies while driving the national conversation.
While Ocasio-Cortez has shown that the county machine can bleed, it continues to hold a sturdy base in the southeastern part of the borough. Outside of backing Cabán, she has had little interest in ruffling the feathers of the Queens Democratic Party outside of the more reformist-minded neighborhoods like Astoria.
But even though she’s avoided county politics, by virtue of her soapbox and the admiration she has inspired in progressive millennial activists, she speaks for the insurgency in Queens and beyond.
Alt Text: Gregory MeeksTitle Text: Gregory MeeksDescription: Gregory MeeksImage Credit: Courtesy U.S. House or Representatives
3. Gregory Meeks
Rep. Gregory Meeks may have inherited a weakened Queens County Democratic Party, but that doesn’t mean he's ready to accept the progressive sea change sweeping the borough.
And while Meeks represents the party establishment, he also represents a change himself: he’s the first black man to take the reigns of the borough’s Democratic Party, and the first party leader from the traditionally black, middle-class area of Southeast Queens, where he commands strong loyalty from the area’s electeds and religious community.
While his access to county electoral support has helped him avoid any close congressional elections for more than 20 years, he won’t shy away from a fight. When left-wing insurgent Tiffany Cabán picked up steam in the district attorney race, Meeks shot back that he perceived her campaign to be disenfranchising black voters in his district.
While democratic socialist Shaniyat Chowdhury has emerged as a 2020 primary challenger to Meeks, he has a long way to go to loosen the congressman’s grip on his district. Meeks is a force of personality who dresses loud and speaks fast and emphatically, especially when he's on the attack. Since becoming party chairman, he has shown himself ready to resist the insurgent leftward push across the borough.
Alt Text: Grace MengTitle Text: Grace MengDescription: Grace MengImage Credit: Photo by Sasha Maslov
4. Grace Meng
As a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Grace Meng has shown herself to be an influential multitasker capable of focusing on national party politics without losing her strong connection to her own district in Queens, where she grew up and is raising a family.
Unlike Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the squad of left-wing insurgents in the House, Meng is perfectly comfortable with the centrist wing of Democratic Party. As a freshman back in 2012, she helped form the Bipartisan Freshman Caucus. She is also cozy with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom she recently brought to Elmhurst Hospital to talk about the citizenship question on the U.S. census.
That event showcased Meng’s ability to connect her constituents’ interests with what is happening on the national stage. The neighborhoods in her district have some of the highest foreign-born populations in the city, and as a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the U.S. Census Bureau, Meng can play a major role in fighting for their inclusion.
Alt Text: Melinda Katz walking down the street smilingTitle Text: Melinda Katz walking down the street smilingDescription: Melinda Katz walking down the street smilingImage Credit: Photo by Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock
5. Melinda Katz
Queens Borough President
After a wild six weeks of vote counting and recounting, the Forest Hills native now seems destined to be the next Queens district attorney where she’s promised to usher in an era of progressive change. If only her critics believed her. Nothing is set until the lawsuits between her campaign, Tiffany Cabán’s campaign, and the New York City Board of Elections are settled, but it’s folly to think Katz’ power and influence rides on the election outcome. She’s been a player in Queens politics for 25 years and the borough president for nearly six. In that position and in jobs before, she’s become a pivotal figure in Queens real estate, shaping neighborhoods like Downtown Jamaica and slamming plans like the proposed Kew Gardens jail.