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Former northeast Queens lawmaker talks return to politics and City Council campaign

Tony Avella. Photo via nysenate.gov

Nearly two years after failing to secure a third term in the state Senate, Whitestone resident Tony Avella said he is ready to reprise his former political role as the councilman in District 19, replacing term-limited Councilman Paul Vallone.

Following a collective 16 years in public office — eight years in the City Council and another eight years in the state Senate, where critics condemned his Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) affiliation — Avella filed for his pension in 2019 and took his first “real vacation” in a decade and a half.

But talks that he was running for office surfaced back in August 2019 when POLITICO reported on Board of Elections records showing that he had registered as a candidate in District 19. After he returned from vacation, he recalled talking to people who would say “we want you to come back.”

“I wasn’t happy with what I saw going on, not only in the community and in the city, but in the country. I thought I still had something to offer. So I reached out to a number of people in the community and found that many of the recognized community leaders wanted me to run for the council seat. So I’m basically coming out of retirement to do it,” Avella said.

A second shot

As he continued talking to people in District 19, he found that they were looking for his experience in leadership and the “hands on approach” of a man who had been dedicated to the community while in office.

“Many of the community leaders know that I’ve always been dedicated to the community — when I was in office I did it 24/7,” he said. “I think that’s what they want to see again and they know I was very hands on. So if there was a problem in the community, I went to the person’s house. I used to make a joke that doctors don’t do house calls anymore but I did, and people respected that.”

The lifelong Queens resident shared that COVID-19 has slightly altered his hands on approach, but he has found workarounds to campaign safely in the “new normal,” including using social media, sending out mailers and organizing Zoom calls to reach “as many people as possible.”

“I’m gonna try and do the best I can and if it’s going door to door I’m gonna do that — maybe knocking on the door and then standing 10 feet away. I think the face to face approach, given the situation, is still important within social distancing parameters,” Avella said.

In 2002, Avella was elected to the City Council in District 19, succeeding former Councilman Michael Abel. Although he left the City Council in 2009, the former lawmaker said that he recognized the prevalence of some of the same issues he dealt with more than a decade ago. Two of the top issues on his radar are a declining quality of life and worsening delivery of city services. He recalled that during Tropical Storm Isaias, the district experienced downed trees and uprooted tree stumps that littered the area for weeks and even months after.

“For months, the city didn’t take action to remove those tree stumps and fix the sidewalks. Only this past week did I notice that the city came out and remove some of the uprooted tree stumps but those damaged sidewalks are still uprooted,” Avella said during a December interview with QNS. “That’s a disgrace, they should have done that within the first couple of weeks after the storm. [District 19] pays some of the highest property taxes in the city and all the people want is a fair shake of the city services. From what I’m hearing, they’re not getting that.”

IDC

In 2010, Avella successfully ran and won against longtime Republican Senator Frank Padavan in District 11. In 2014, Avella joined the IDC, a group of eight Democratic senators who banded together to form a majority coalition with Republicans. Many critics credit that move as the main reason why Avella lost to Senator John Liu in 2018. But Avella said that there would not be a repeat of those events if he were elected to the City Council, since the lawmaking body is “almost wholly Democratic.”

“I’ve always had a commitment to the people to do the right thing by them. That’s my whole purpose for being in office and for running again and I hope people will see that,” Avella said.

He also said that the issues on the city and state level differ and require a “different type of focus.”

“In my opinion, the main focus of the City Council has been and should be, delivery of city services — and you know, there’s no political way to fix a pothole. It’s making sure your district gets the best services possible and being responsible to the people of the district, that’s the most important thing. Oversight of the city agencies is something that I think the City Council can always improve on and I think I have a lot of experience in that respect.

Education

Avella said that during his time in the City Council and Senate, “almost all” of his discretionary funding went to schools in the district. He added that this time around would be no different.

“The schools in the 19th Council District are not entitled to the title funding, so basically, they rely on their local elected officials for this extra money. I was very fortunate when I was in the State Senate to bring extra money to the schools for in-school and after school activities that they never got before and I would try and make sure that happens again from the City Council,” he said.

Due to COVID-19, Avella said that there would need to be a budget in place to install the proper air conditioning and filtration systems in schools for when students are allowed to be back in the classroom for in-person learning.

“I also think there needs to be more communication with the parents in the school education process and I don’t think that’s been the case for a while now. I believed in mayoral control [of city schools] but I think there has to be a bigger role for parents in the education process. I think there needs to be a bigger role for the elected officials as well. I can understand mayoral control but at the same time, there needs to be more inclusion, more voices heard in how we educate our students and that includes the teachers and the principals,” said Avella.

In terms of the ongoing debate about the specialized high school test, Avella said that he is “committed” to keeping the test for “our best and brightest students.” But he added that every student in the city should be equipped with the proper pre-test skills.

“That’s one of the things that when I was in the State Senate, I was able to work with my colleagues to get $2 million in funding to help students prepare for the specialized high school test,” Avella said. “But I believe that every student deserves an opportunity to take the test.”

Joining Avella on the ballot for District 19 is Adriana Aviles, Nabaraj KC, Richard Lee, Vickie Paladino and Austin Shafran.

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