The Curious State Senator From Queens

State Senator Tony Avella, and a pet pig, Wilbur.
State Senator Tony Avella, and a pet pig, Wilbur.

Out of all the defectors to the Independent Democratic Conference, none may be more at home than Tony Avella.

Iconoclastic and irascible, the Queens state senator has used his bully pulpit for equally admirable and frustrating ends. He never said he was a boilerplate Democrat, a proud progressive, or someone who plays well with others.

In some ways, the IDC was built just for people like Avella.

As backlash grows against the IDC for empowering a slim Republican majority, Avella is a cautionary tale for all those seeking the fast dissolution of the eight-member breakaway conference. Unlike at least one of his colleagues, throwing him out of office will be a serious challenge.

As a former reporter for a Queens newspaper, I spent a great deal of time covering Avella and talking to the voters in his eastern Queens district, gerrymandered originally for the longtime Republican incumbent Avella was able to defeat. The district snakes through the largely middle class, home-owning neighborhoods of College Point, Bayside, Whitestone, Fresh Meadows, Douglaston, Little Neck and Bellerose. Portions of the strangely-shaped district went hard for Donald Trump.

Having represented an overlapping City Council seat for eight years before his election to the Senate in 2010, Avella has deep ties to the area. He is attentive to constituent concerns and fiercely anti-development, a stance that has won him fans in the most suburban reaches of the district. His pet issues range from the amusing (making sure families keep their pigs) to the more relevant (airplane noise) to the quasi-racist (trying to fine businesses that don’t post English language signage.)

At his best, Avella is a maverick legislator willing to speak uncomfortable truths to power. Never a friend of the Queens Democratic Party, an organization that usually values loyalty and groupthink over merit, Avella has battled against development plans at Willets Point, where immigrant auto shop owners have been evicted for various megamall and stadium schemes.

At his worst, Avella is needlessly antagonistic and too often on the hunt for another office. He ran for mayor in 2009, Queens borough president in 2013, and is running again for mayor on a platform of battling the construction of homeless shelters. He’s also not particularly enthusiastic about protecting undocumented immigrants from Trump’s ICE agents.

A spokesman for Avella did not return requests for comment.

Since Avella has almost no chance of defeating Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017, he is more than likely to be around in the Senate next year to face a primary challenger. None currently exists but a Democrat is all but guaranteed to emerge: Rep. Joe Crowley, the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party, has real enmity for Avella, and is in the process of hunting for one.

It’s worth remembering that Crowley and the Senate Democrats, for all their flaws, have valid reasons for reviling Avella. When he unseated a Republican who had represented the district for nearly forty years, Frank Padavan, he did it with significant help from a Senate Democratic campaign arm led then by State Senator Jeff Klein, now the leader of the IDC, which formed the following year. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee spent north of $200,000 to get Avella elected.

But, as the blog State of Politics noted in 2010, the win was also a victory for a Queens state senator-to-be named Mike Gianaris "who worked his heart out on Avella’s campaign and insisted the former councilman (who raised his name recognition with a long-shot run for mayor in 2009) had a shot at unseating Padavan.” Gianaris now has Klein's old job as DSCC chair and is a top-ranking member of the Senate Democratic Conference.

So Avella’s defection four years later hit Gianaris and Crowley, the only county leader particularly invested in winning a Democratic majority, hard. In 2014, Crowley pushed John Liu, the former city comptroller, to challenge Avella after he joined the IDC. (One of Avella’s first acts as an IDC member was to shower his staffers with raises. State Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the IDC, also bestowed a committee chairmanship on him.)

Liu ran aggressively and almost won. Queens Democrats were hoping Liu, the first Asian-American elected to citywide office, could capitalize on the district’s demographics: while plurality white, the district is 33 percent Asian.

Liu ran on an explicitly anti-IDC platform, but without Donald Trump as president, there was only so much Democratic primary voters were going to revolt. It didn’t help that a political deal cut in Albany resulted in little help from labor unions.

2018 may different. Protests were already staged outside Avella’s Bayside office. There’s still the question of how much the more moderate district will punish someone like Avella for enabling Republicans; Avella’s defenders will say not much.

But if Liu, in a less favorable political climate, came within striking distance of Avella, an upset next year is not out of the question. (Liu has not been discussed as a candidate yet.) It will come down to, as always, how much voters really care about the crooked physics of Albany politics.


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