By Alex Robinson
Tony Avella did not get into politics to make friends.
The two-term state senator of Bayside has been locked in one of this year’s most hotly contested primary battles against former city Comptroller John Liu after he ruffled the feathers of Queens Democratic leadership when he joined the Independent Democratic Conference in February.
“I think this whole thing is disgusting,” Avella said of the race in a recent interview at TimesLedger Newspapers’ offices. “It’s the party bosses who are trying to disenfranchise somebody who the people in this district have elected. I think this is politics at its worst.”
Avella was first elected to the City Council in 2001 to represent northeast Queens after working as an aide in the Koch and Dinkins administrations. He developed a reputation as a gadfly over the years, calling out powerful politicians and publicly refusing perks that came with elected office, such as Senate parking placards and Council pay raises.
“I don’t go along with the political crowd for the sake of going along with the political crowd,” he said. “There’s a political axiom — don’t rock the boat and we’ll take care of you later — but meanwhile you’re sacrificing the interests of the people. I don’t believe in that and it has gotten me into trouble on occasion.”
He unseated former Republican Sen. Frank Padavan in 2010 with significant fund-raising help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which donated more than $190,000 to Avella’s campaign, a move Democrats later regretted when Avella bolted to the IDC.
Avella said he joined the IDC, which controls the Senate in a power-sharing agreement with Republicans, because he was fed up with sitting in the minority conference.
“The Democratic conference was absolutely dysfunctional,” he said. “It had two people who were indicted. It wasn’t a place where I was comfortable and there was no agenda other than one day we’ll be in the majority so we should just sit around and wait for that to happen.”
He contended being an IDC member enabled him to pass legislation and get more funding for his district, and since he joined the breakaway group he has gotten eight bills through both chambers of the state Legislature and has amassed $6.5 million in capital funds for his district. His bills that have passed include one that put a two year moratorium on exterminating 2,000 mute swans as well as a bill that mandates the state’s transit authority to produce annual reports about trying to reduce noise.
Avella now faces Liu, a fund-raising powerhouse who has two citywide campaigns under his belt and has the backing of the Queens Democratic organization.
The former comptroller has vastly out-raised his opponent, according to campaign finance filings. Liu has amassed more than $630,000 since the beginning of the race and Avella has raised $213,000.
“I don’t have to raise the type of money he is because he has to overcome the negative aspects of his campaign and he has to beat an incumbent,” said Avella who has publicly stated his aversion to fund-raising. “I just have to get re-elected.”
“Raising money incurs favors,” Avella added. “I only raise what I need so I’m not beholden to anybody except the people who elect me.”
A deal between Democratic leadership and the IDC to form a new coalition in the Senate has halted primary challenges to other IDC candidates, but has done little to deter the Liu campaign.
“This is all nasty insider politics by the party bosses,” Avella said. “If there was such an effort to get a Democratic majority in the Senate, why is there still this effort in Queens to continue this and be very nasty about it?”
Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4566.