By Mark Hallum
The wave of protests against Democrats siding with the GOP in the state Senate rolled into Bayside last Friday as about 50 people rallied outside the office of state Sen. Tony Avella (D–Bayside).
Demonstrators held up signs with accusations such as “Phony Tony, you lied to us” to denounce Avella’s membership in the Independent Democratic Conference — a group of renegade Democratic senators who have allied themselves with the GOP, purportedly to shape legislation in the Republican-controlled chamber. The rally was organized by Rise and Resist, a gender-rights group, and Indivisible, a progressive anti-Trump movement.
“They are enabling Republicans to block legislation that [the IDC] claim to support,” said Betsy Malcolm from Rise and Resist. She pointed out that a transgender rights bill “has passed the Assembly 13 times and has never gotten a vote in the Senate.”
About 20 counter-protesters turned out to support Avella, defending his track record for getting legislation passed and saying it was in keeping with Democratic values. One Avella supporter pointed out that the GOP majority would still control the state Senate whether the IDC had a seat at the table or not, but that being part of the ruling coalition brings benefits to constituents and provides Democrats some voice in crafting legislation.
“What people need to understand is that the Republicans don’t need the IDC,” said activist Paul Graziano. “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.
Avella invited many of the angry protesters into his district office to speak with them face-to-face and listen to their concerns.
Asked what Avella has done to benefit Democrats, the senator pointed out that he keeps his relatively conservative district out of Republican hands.
“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 such as the DREAM Act, which he co-sponsored in every version introduced to the Senate. In fact, he blamed the most recent defeat of the bill to allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for financial aid on traditional Democrats, and he objected to partisan purity tests.
“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 another recent recipient of backlash over his decision to defect to the IDC, and he defended his move 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