Queens City Councilman Tony Avella may be a longshot to win the mayoralty in 2009, but he’s always an odds-on favorite to voice a controversial opinion. In this interview, the maverick Democrat discusses the dysfunction that cripples the City Council, the managerial skills of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the horse trading that Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg used to pass congestion pricing in the Council and the parallels his campaign shares with Barack Obama’s.
Village Voice: So, for starters, why are you running for mayor?
Tony Avella: I’ve got a long record of service, whether it’s been on the community board or working for elected officials. I’ve worked for two mayors, I worked for Koch and Dinkins, and I’ve always been a civic activist. I’m just so disgusted with how difficult it is to get even the most simplest things accomplished in this City. And I think city government needs to be reformed, I think politics need to be reformed. And I’m the type of person that, I don’t just talk about doing something, I believe in doing it. And I think that the only position that you can have in your city, that really affords you the opportunity to make real change is being the mayor. And that’s why I’m running.
VV: Can you give some examples of the ways it has been difficult to get even small things done during your time in the City Council?
TA: Let’s talk about the overdevelopment issue, which has been a primary focus of mine. You have so many communities throughout the entire City that need to be protected from overdevelopment. You have the Department of Buildings, which is in a shambles. And it has been such a huge effort to get even the smallest rezoning, even the smallest change done within the City Council. It’s bizarre. Instead of the City Council working within its own members and listening to the people we’re supposed to be serving…I am just shocked at how bad the City Council is operating, in terms of doing the job it was elected to do.
VV: Where would you lay the blame for that?
TA: Clearly the responsibility, and the failure, falls upon the Speaker. It’s not only [current City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former City Council Speaker Gifford Miller] was the same way. Listen, a lot of my fellow councilmen seem to be more interested, along with the Speaker, in getting money from the real estate industry than stepping up and doing the right thing. I don’t need to tell you, there’s very little independence in the City Council. It’s amazing to me how nobody speaks up. Everybody knows there’s problems. I can’t tell you how many times when I vote against the leadership council members come over to me and they say, “we agree with you, but we can’t oppose the speaker.” It really is amazing, because of the power of the Speaker and the ways that the Speaker can punish an individual member.
VV: Are you surprised that more council members haven’t been willing to speak out recently, since it would be more difficult for Speaker Quinn to punish council members given the current member item scandals that have wrapped up the City Council?
TA: I’m pleasantly surprised that more are doing it. It’s still a small number. But I just think, regardless of the problems, the significant problems that she’s having, the individual members don’t speak out when they think something is wrong, that’s been the most surprising aspect of being a member of the City Council. I’ve said that I think there’ll be a lot more independence after the last budget is approved. That’ll be the last opportunity for the Speaker [to use financial leverage against her members].
VV: Do you think that the combined member items scandals, both the reports of misuse and the hidden budget items, have validated a lot of your criticisms of the City Council and Speaker Quinn?
TA: Absolutely. Without question. This is some of the things that I’ve been mentioning over and over again about how bad the City Council is. Another thing that I find equally disturbing is that the Mayor, who says he’s non-political, to this day still doesn’t say how bad the situation is. And the fact that he backs up the Speaker I find absolutely deplorable.
VV: Do you agree with the sentiment out there that the bulk of what Christine Quinn has done as Speaker has been done to curry favor with the Mayor for a future run at Citywide office?
TA: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. I think we all know that. Unfortunately the City Council is supposed to be an equal partner with the Mayor, and we only can accomplish that if we show out independence. And because she just goes along with whatever the mayor wants to do we’ve lost any semblance of independence and control.
VV: Speaking of doing what the Mayor wants, you’ve been very critical of how the vote for congestion pricing was handled in the City Council, and you’ve actually said that the City Council passed congestion pricing through bribes and strong-arm tactics by the Mayor and the Speaker. How did things change in the days before that vote in the City Council?
TA: Clearly, there was a number of promises made to individuals, and I don’t think I have to repeat them, I think they’ve been reported in many of the papers, about what people were offered. People flipped their votes. [Queens City Councilman] Eric Gioia was at a community meeting days before telling everybody in the audience that there was no way he was voting for congestion pricing. Yet he’s one of the votes that flipped. The Mayor and the Speaker have a tremendous amount of leverage to influence council members’ votes. It’s one thing to sort of convince people that they’re wrong or to vote which way, yes or no. But it’s a completely different thing to say, “well, you know, we’ve got this piece of legislation, it can either move ahead or completely die if you don’t follow what the Speaker does. You know how you’ve got this favorite park project, or school project, or non-profit that needs funding? Well, we can make that happen.” That’s clearly wrong. And that was done during the last few days. [A spokesman for Councilman Gioia says Avella’s got his facts wrong.]
VV: How would you change the member items system? Would you eliminate them?
TA: Basically I’m suggesting to remove all discretionary item funding. But, I’m coming up with a plan of how you replace it. Because you can’t just say no more pork. Because there are a lot of very legitimate community organizations, the common name we use is “little league groups,” that would literally close their doors if they didn’t get some of this discretionary funding. What I’m suggesting is, for the capital budget, no more discretionary money, period. For the expense budget, any group receiving more than $50,000 has to be listed in the budget as a separate line item. It has to be negotiated in the budget. Any group that applies for less than $50,000 could apply for what I would call “City Council initiatives.” So the City Council through the budget, working with the mayor, could approve for example a Department of Parks & Recreation sports local initiative. So a certain amount of money could be distributed equally by Council district. And groups could apply for that money, they don’t have to do an RFP, that’s just ridiculous.
They’d have to apply first to VENDEX, to be listed in the VENDEX system. And that would afford us the opportunity, any group that doesn’t follow through or there’s a question with, could be thrown off the VENDEX list and be ineligible for any money. Once they’re approved by VENDEX there’d be a review process by the council member, the agency and the community board. All three entities would have to vote on whether or not that group was able to get some of this initiative money. It would be like a two-thirds vote. So it’s not the council member just giving out money the way he or she thinks is appropriate. It’s not the mayor giving out money the way he or she thinks is appropriate. It would have to be a collaboration between three. It would still mean that legitimate groups would get money, but you wouldn’t have the nonsense that’s going on now.
VV: How do you think you stack up against some of your potential opponents besides Christine Quinn?
TA: In terms of vision, in terms of experience, in terms of just work ethic, the reason I’m running is because I think I can do a better job than they can. I think I have more that I’ve done in the past and I think I at least have a vision. In terms of raising money, then clearly I’m the underdog. But I consider that to be a virtue.
VV: Do you think your campaign resembles any other campaign?
TA: In my opinion the one campaign that you can draw from is the Obama campaign. In terms of somebody coming from nowhere. Really, he had no name recognition beyond his own state, to in effect get the Democratic nomination at this point. People want change, and I think that’s what my campaign is all about. And I think we can put together the necessary grassroots effort to win the election. I wouldn’t be doing this otherwise. I’m in this to make some real change, and I think it is a winnable race. And I think when we get to 2009, when people start paying attention to the race…people will see there’s a clear difference between me, the anti-politician, and the others, who are politicians.
VV: Does it annoy you when people talk about the race and leave you out, or leave you out of polls?
TA: It’s disconcerting, clearly. Given the fact that, other than Anthony Weiner notifying campaign finance that he’s raising money to run for mayor, I am the only officially announced candidate, it is disturbing. I think that’s unfortunate. They do that because they look at the money that candidates have raised. I think that’s terrible. Has American politics come down to only about money? I think that’s very unfortunate. If you take the money aspect out of it, I should be up there with the rest of them.
VV: Do you think if you were polled more you would surprise people?
TA: I think the four percent surprised people in the Marist poll. I think that surprised a lot of people, given the fact that I’m not a borough or citywide elected official now, and that I really haven’t done anything in the campaign yet. I think that as time goes on, yes, we are going to surprise people. My strategy is to peak a week before the primary.