After the Fall: Talking to Tony Avella at Il Cortile on Election Night


At Il Cortile on Mulberry Street, the bullet-head old man in the light grey suit leaned out of the doorway of the back room, scowling at the waiter he was trying to hear. They didn’t have the artichoke, the waiter explained; he could have the eggplant instead. The old man silently weighed the decision for a few moments, finally gave a nod, and made his way through, allowing us to enter Tony Avella’s election night party .

In that frilly Little Italy room, with several nattily-dressed old people squinting into their little cameras and huddling over hors d’oeuvres plates, it looked as much like a confirmation party as an election-night affair. Some modishly-dressed people clustered at the bar, which leads us to assume they were Avella’s campaign pros; the candidate mainly talked with the seniors and the staffers hauling the Avella for Mayor signs.

It had been a quixotic campaign and, everyone seemed to have already accepted as the polls closed, a doomed one. But Avella told us it had to be done. Though his eyes looked a little tired and his voice rasped, he sounded upbeat. He hesitated, understandably, to predict victory, but he happily laid out the reasons why victory should not have been impossible:

“People are fed up with Mike Bloomberg,” he insisted. “They’re fed up with political mchine candidates like my opponent, and they’re fed up with the corruption. Each and every day there’s another politician being carried off to jail. We need a change, not only in government, but in politics itself.”

He was proud that he’d run his campaign the way he meant to run it — “not beholden to the politucal machine. Never asked one county leader for their endorsement. Never asked one elected official for their endorsement. I didn’t sell my soul to make huge amounts of money.”

We noticed — both to Avella and here at Runnin’ Scared — that the press had been amazingly uninterested in his campaign and, when it did notice Avella, tended to portray him as a fringe figure rather than as a duly-elected city council member from a working-class part of Queens and a representative of a genuine New York constituency. “Because they don’t want me to win,” explained Avella. “There’s an incestual relationship with politics, government and some of the media” — he excluded us, perhaps out of politeness — “especially with the ownership of some of the major media outlets. They want the system the way it is. Major change — that scares a lot of people in power. And that’s what we’re all about, major change… Anybody who stands up and tells the truth, it’s like ‘Wow, you can’t do that, you can’t say that.'”

With both the powerful and the press arrayed against him, how then could Avella ever have won? “That’s the Catch-22,” he said, “with not selling your soul, with not dialing for dollars. How do you get the message out? You do as much grassroots as possible. We tried. Did the message get out? We’ll find out tonight.”

He spent his last day on the trail out in the boroughs, campaigning — “not just to say hello to the people,” he said, “but also to show support for the volunrteers who’ve helped me through the campaign.” From the wear and tear on his voice, it sounded as if he’d gotten a little carried away out there. “I hate politics. I absolutely do. But I like people and meeting them and saying hello to them and talking to them about the issues… finding out what concerns them, because that’s what government should be all about. I like doing that.

“This was a real underdog finght form the beginning. I knew it was going to be that way. I made a conscious decision to run this kind of campaign — to take that one-in-a-thousand shot. If we win, wow, that’ll be huge.”

He stood with his colleagues and family and watched on the TV Mayor Bloomberg,at an entirely more upscale hall somewhere midtown, asking if “Brooklyn was in the house.” A chorus of ripe boos greeted him from every corner, including Avella’s. It wasn’t embittered booing, really, but an almost cheerful kind — the sort of booing a person might give the Yankees or Donald Trump any other arrogant superpower: not dreaming to reach their ears, but just to let other like-minded people within earshot know that they weren’t mad to oppose it.