By Mark Hallum
More than 100 people rallied outside the office state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) Friday to protest his defection to the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of renegade elected officials who have allied themselves with the GOP representatives in an attempt to pass legislation in an Republican-majority Senate.
With accusations of betrayal and signs saying “Phony Tony, you lied to us,” the rally was organized by Rise and Resist, a gender rights group and Indivisible, a progressive anti-Trump movement. Both organizations have challenged the IDC.
Police and a group of counter-demonstrators mobilized in support of Avella, who later brought protesters into the conference room of his office to directly address their concerns.
“They are enabling Republicans to block legislation that [the IDC] claim to support,” said Betsy Malcolm from Rise and Resist. She pointed out that the transgender rights bill Genda “has passed the Assembly 13 times and has never gotten a vote in the Senate.”
Two other protesters claimed that there is no need for the IDC, which does not win the Democrats any kind of majority and only further blocks legislation from passing.
“You’ve got all the answers lined up to whitewash this issue, like, ‘Oh, I get money for my district,’ and I said at what expense? The expense of all the other constituents who are represented by Democrats who caucus with Democrats in the state” Dale Corvino said.
Paul Rabin charged that IDC members are playing a “strawman” role in a “duplicitous” game.
“You can be as progressive if you want if it’s never actually come to a vote,” Rabin said.
Paul Graziano, an local activist and counter-protestor with about 20 others, said Avella’s track record of getting legislation passed was impressive and in keeping with Democratic values. He charged that protesters are going from IDC senator to senator without understanding that official’s contribution and creating a circular firing squad among Democrats.
“What people need to understand is that the Republicans don’t need the IDC,” Graziano said, explaining how the GOP already holds the majority. “The IDC are in coalition because it benefits the IDC and ultimately benefits a lot of Democratic districts, as well as being able to advance legislation that the Democrats as a whole would not be able to do. So if the IDC was not in this coalition, they would be in the minority with the other 23 Democrats and they would not be able to pass anything.”
In 2016, Avella touted his record, claiming he had passed over 50 pieces of legislation over the course of last year. Graziano attributed Avella’s success to his membership in the IDC.
Sitting at the conference table in his district office, Avella spoke with angry protesters face-to-face.
One woman asked what Avella has done to benefit Democrats.
“Well, I beat a Republican in the general election or a Republican would be sitting here,” Avella said, referring to his victory over Mark Cipolla in November. “I’m defending the Democratic Party in this district, in a very conservative district, where a Republican can get elected any day of the week. That’s why Frank Padavan was in office for 38 years.”
Avella further argued that he is behind Democratic legislation and bills, such as the DREAM Act, which he co-sponsor in every version introduced to the Senate.
He blamed the most recent defeat of the bill to allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for financial aid on traditional Democrats.
“When you say ‘a real Democrat,’ that offends me,” Avella said. “Because you’re making the decision then of what you consider a Democrat to be. Democrats used to have a wide tent. That’s how we won elections, and that’s what we should be about. Not saying ‘Well, you don’t agree with me so you’re not a Democrat.’ Shameful, for anyone who says that. Shameful.”
State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) was a recent recipient of backlash over his decision to defect to the IDC, and defended his stance as a revolt against the “bad mouthing and cannibalizing” of Democrats who veer away from the usual script.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall