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It was billed as a contest of criminal justice reformers, a six-way Democratic primary for district attorney in Queens that would soften the tough-on-crime policies that have long typified this working-class borough of New York.
Hours after the polls closed Tuesday, the race seemed too close to call, with Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender, holding a narrow lead over Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president.
Ms. Cabán declared victory shortly after 11 p.m., telling the crowd, “We did it y’all.” But Ms. Katz did not concede; speaking to her supporters just before 11 p.m., she said that every vote should be counted.
“God willing, I will come out on top,” she said.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Ms. Cabán led Ms. Katz by 1.3 percentage points. Roughly 3,400 absentee ballots have to be counted, with Ms. Cabán’s margin at roughly 1,100 votes. Board of Election officials said the count may not be completed until Wednesday, July 3.
Ms. Cabán’s campaign was seen as an extension of other criminal justice reformers who have won top prosecutor jobs in places like Boston and Philadelphia; those prosecutors, Larry Krasner, in Philadelphia, and Rachael Rollins, in Boston, both endorsed her.
She also captured endorsements from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and two Democratic presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Ms. Katz had the institutional support of the Queens County Democratic machine, and her candidacy was seen by some as a test of the traditional power bases that typically dictate election results in Queens.
“It’s going to be a tough fight,” Representative Gregory Meeks, chairman of the borough’s Democratic Party, said before taking the stage at Ms. Katz’s primary night party. “I did expect it to be close because of the number of people in the race, but every ballot must be counted.”
Last year, the local party suffered what was seen then as an unimaginable defeat, with its leader, Joseph Crowley, losing his House primary to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. In Tuesday’s contest, the party, along with several powerful unions, heavily backed Ms. Katz — even criticizing Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren for endorsing Ms. Cabán.
“If Cabán wins, Queens wants revolutionary change,” said Bruce Gyory, an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany. “If Katz wins, they want evolutionary change and are not completely ready to break with the past.”
Whoever wins will be an overwhelming favorite in November’s general election against the Republican candidate, Daniel Kogan.
If Katz should lose, “it would be a huge loss for the machine,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “Cabán made some strong arguments to voters about a new vision for a 21st century district attorney.”
In recent years, the national conversation around criminal justice has shifted from the hard-nosed approach of the 1990s to avoiding wrongful convictions and creating alternatives to prosecution.
In Boston and Philadelphia, voters sided with reform-minded candidates who promised to discontinue policies that focused on minor offenses as a way to combat major crime, which, critics say, led to the prosecution and incarceration of a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men.
Even as violent crime dropped to historic lows not seen since the 1950s, the former district attorney, Richard A. Brown had continued to prosecute minor crimes like marijuana offenses and fare evasion. This was happening at the same time as Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx was limiting prosecution of those crimes. Mr. Brown had also declined to create a conviction review unit.
The primary still showed how Democratic voters in Queens were willing to entertain major change to the borough’s criminal justice system. All six candidates in Tuesday’s primary had backed proposals to get rid of bail for low-level offenses, move away from prosecuting sex workers and form a conviction-integrity unit.
“It feels like we have already won because we have shifted the debate on not prosecuting a whole list of minor offenses and ending cash bail,” said Bill Lipton, the New York director of the Working Families Party, which helped stabilize Ms. Cabán’s campaign after a rocky launch. “We are in this thing to win it. But either way, Queens will never be the same when it comes to criminal justice.”
Greg Lasak, a former judge who worked as a senior prosecutor in the borough, placed third, with 14.5 percent of the vote. Mr. Lasak stuck most closely to the formula of Mr. Brown, the prosecutor who held the office for 27 years until his death last month, saying his experience gave him the best shot of keeping residents safe while instituting some common-sense changes.
The other candidates in the primary were Mina Malik, a former prosecutor in Queens and Brooklyn and a deputy attorney general in Washington D.C.; Betty Lugo, a former prosecutor in Nassau County now in private practice; and Jose Nieves, who worked in the New York attorney general’s office as a deputy chief in the special investigations and prosecutions unit.
A seventh candidate, Rory Lancman, a councilman for Queens, bowed out of the race last week and announced his support for Ms. Katz. He remained on the ballot, however, and had drawn 1,168 votes as of 11:20 p.m.
Ms. Katz, 53, had the most political experience of all of the candidates, previously serving as an assemblywoman and a city councilwoman.
She downplayed the support that Ms. Cabán had received from outside the state.
“All the national interests can come in and out of this borough, but the families who live here are the ones who have the most impact on who the next district attorney is going to be,” she said on Tuesday afternoon.
Ms. Cabán’s candidacy forced Ms. Katz to shift further left, particularly on issues like bail. Earlier in the race, Ms. Katz said she had supported ending cash bail only for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, but during a recent televised debate she said her administration would not have cash bail.
Ms. Katz’s supporters said Ms. Cabán’s policies went too far.
“When we are talking about violent felons, those who have committed horrendous acts, we don’t want them on the street,” Mr. Meeks said. “It’s not that they shouldn’t be rehabilitated, but they should be rehabilitated in prison.”
John Surico contributed reporting from Queens.