Last week, a six-week recount and legal battle in New York ended with Tiffany Cabán's campaign for Queens District Attorney coming up just 55 votes short. In a field of career politicians and career prosecutors, Cabán represented a radical departure from DA candidates in years past—a 32-year-old, ponytailed public defender running to decriminalize poverty and end mass incarceration.
As Cabán's communications director, I've heard from countless people over the past week who wished they had jumped into the race earlier. Eyeing the razor-thin margin, they remorsefully realized that earlier support, more donations or quicker endorsements truly could have changed the outcome—and ushered in the first queer, Latina, decarceral prosecutor in New York's history.
“I can’t tell you how many calls we had—weighing whether to get in,” one person said. “We just weren’t sure if it made sense, when her chances were so slim,” said another.
Over and over, the same theme emerges: Democratic donors, progressive organizations, and political power-brokers were attracted to Cabán’s message and values, but they didn’t see a realistic path. (As we all learned last week, the path was most certainly there.)
Cabán’s near-victory is no isolated event. Time and time again, promising candidates are dismissed early on because they enter the political arena without strong financial backing, a typical political resume, or an array of initial endorsements. Kara Eastman, a pro-choice progressive running for Congress in Nebraska, was dismissed by party leaders—yet she beat her primary challenger and came within 2 points of unseating her Republican opponent. Liuba Grechen Shirley, a first-time congressional candidate running with young children on Long Island, faced countless naysayers—yet she won her primary and came closer to unseating Pete King than anyone in 25 years. Imagine how far these women could've gone with early support, instead of skepticism, from their own party.
Rather than assess whether a candidate’s message, values and story have the potential to win over voters, donors and major organizations judge whether the candidate has the early money or influential backers to make her case in the first place. If they see a steep and rocky path—why risk a potential loss?
Moms with young children, bartenders with no political experience, public defenders running on a decarceral platform—these candidates don’t start with massive war chests or name recognition. The path is undeniably steep. But it takes all of five minutes in a room with these women, hearing their stories and listening to their vision for the future, to know they can win. Backing candidates who enter a race with early fundraising prowess because they appear ‘viable’ often just means supporting the wealthiest contender—rather than the candidate with the most relatable story or the strongest message. And frequently, the wealthiest and best-connected are least equipped to connect to the real struggles facing our voters.
As progressives, we need to redefine viability—and consider who can actually connect with voters. Because a candidate with a bold transformative vision—one that makes you feel seen and heard and moves you into action—is viable, period.
If we want to change the face of leadership in this country—from largely white, wealthy, and male—and build a slate of leaders who reflect their communities, then we can’t afford to keep playing it safe. Democrats who wield political power and influence can’t merely get involved in races where the outcome looks predetermined—or at least likely to swing in our favor. We know pundits and the press will dismiss unconventional candidates from the get-go. It’s our job not to listen to these predictions—but to change them. Otherwise, the early forecasts of a few political commentators become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Those with influence also can’t simply stand back and wait for courageous insurgents to magically spring forth and prove their worth without any support. Yes, it’s possible to succeed without early institutional backing—as Cabán’s rise and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory have shown us. But early support will enable so many more underdogs to rise from underrepresented communities and help us build the next generation of progressive leaders.
With hijabs, braids and bright red lipstick, the four women who are building the most energy on the left look and sound nothing like conventional politicians. Yet it takes five seconds listening to Ayanna Pressley or Ilhan Omar on the stump to understand these leaders are unstoppable political forces. If we want to build a diverse Democratic majority and take back power from the GOP, we have to stop hedging our bets and playing it safe.
Instead of saying you can’t see a path—help build one.