A middle-class soldier in defense of an undistinguished majority

Charles Schumer and Tony Avella. (Colby Hamilton)
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“So where are we?" United States Senator Charles Schumer asked. "Is this Fresh Meadows?"

Schumer was 20 minutes late to meet former city councilman and Democratic mayoral candidate Tony Avella at the Waldbaum's grocery store off of exit 26 on the Long Island Expressway. Avella is challenging longtime Republican state senator Frank Padavan in a one of a handful of competitive races that will determine whether the state Democrats maintain control of the State Senate.

Avella explained that they were, indeed, in Fresh Meadows, and that they were in the top of the backwards C that is the 11th state senate district out in northeastern Queens. Padavan and his Republican colleagues, who finally lost control of the Senate two years ago after four decades in power, put its awkward, gerrymandered boundaries in place. Padavan has represented the district, in one form or another, since 1972.

“I think it's important just because we need to straighten things out in Albany,” Schumer said, as Avella stood beside him. “Albany's been a mess and he's the kind of guy who'll straighten it out. He's a reformer. He's not afraid to buck the establishment. No question about it, Albany needs straightening out.”

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Schumer and Avella stationed themselves in front of the supermarket doors, shaking the hands of those who were leaving, asking for their votes on Tuesday. They engaged in small talk, usually discussing the district, general election strategy and Padavan.

Not everyone was pleased to see them. A young man asked Avella if he supported "Obamacare" and when Avella responded that it was the step in the right direction, the man threw up his hands and walked away, shaking his head. Another women yelled at them that they haven't done anything for anyone and that maybe she should run.

"You should run," Schumer said. "It's fun."

To another man, who he appeared to know, Avella gave his personal assurance that he would follow through on all the things he had promised on the campaign trail.

"You know me: my word is my bond," Avella said.

"Well, I hope so," the man responded. "A lot of people are saying shit they don't mean."

The presence of the most powerful elected Democrat in the state at the Waldbaum’s this weekend was testament to how tenuous the Democratic Party’s control of the State Senate actually is.

Their precarious position is not surprising. Even by the low standards of accomplishment set by their Republican predecessors in the Senate, the Democrats’ record in the majority has been, to put it kindly, embarrassing. The list of anti-accomplishments during their brief period in charge is impressive: the shenanigans of the 2009 coup, failure to pass same-sex marriage, the incredibly late and irresponsible budget of 2010—justification upon justification for the Brennan Center for Justice’s designation of the New York State legislature as the most dysfunctional in America.

And yet, with the incoming governor and legislature about to engage in the next once-a-decade round of legislative redistricting—not to mention the arguable notion that Andrew Cuomo will have a better chance of enacting his ambitious agenda without the opposing party controlling half the legislature—control of the Senate is of critical importance to the Democrats.

For Avella, who has had the unfortunate task of having to explain why anyone should care to defend the 32-30 majority that has kept Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson and company at the controls, this is not a small point. Despite the Democrats’ meager record of reform, he argues that Republican control, which now looks likely, would doom a whole host of ethics-related measures that he favors—term limits, independent redistricting, a mandatory on-time budget and significant campaign finance restrictions.

"If we don't do that, none of the rest of the other issues—education, health care—will ever fall in line because we'll never agree on anything," he said. "It would be a step back to the 40 years of Republican rule where a lot of progressive issues never moved ahead. Which I think is going to be sad for a lot of people."

Avella is not a particularly smooth salesman. He has the persona and mannerisms of a community agitator rather than a consensus-seeking politician. It’s a disposition that often put him at odds with leadership when he was in the City Council. It’s also what made him a hero to some of his constituents, especially when it came to his pet issues, such as development. While the mayor’s office was searching the city for land to rezone, Avella—and, at times, only Avella—could be counted on to be at protesters’ press conferences opposing overdevelopment or testifying on their behalf for preservation.

"I just can't divorce myself from the community activist,” he said.

A lifelong Queens resident, Avella began his political career as an aide and staff member to numerous elected officials, starting with councilman Peter Vallone, Sr. 20 years ago. In 2001 he won his seat on the City Council. After two terms in office, Avella choose not to seek a third after the Council overturned term limits, a move that he opposed. He ran an unsuccessful insurgent campaign for mayor in 2009, losing in the primary.

Avella said the Democratic Party had been courting him to run against Padavan for years. Before leaving office in January, he’d always said no.

“I started driving by problems in the district and [was], like, well, is somebody doing something about this,” he said. “I thought, OK, let's do this."

Avella’s efforts didn’t get much attention until recently. A poll in September showed him trailing Padavan badly, although he has since picked up the endorsement of the United Federation of Teachers, which supported Padavan for 30 years before this election.

And this weekend, of course, he got Schumer.

“The reason I am so proud to be here is two reasons,” Schumer said, in a brief stump speech in front of about a dozen human beings, including two reporters, in the Waldbaum’s parking lot. “First, this district is middle-class America—the heart of middle-class America. And second, Tony Avella has shared my politics, focusing on the middle class, helping the middle class with the things they need, not getting drawn away by one special interest group or another, but saying, what does the average family need. I'm proud to be here for Tony, he'll be a breath of fresh air in the State Senate, he will do a whole lot for the people of Fresh Meadows and the surrounding communities.

“I came here because I believe in his record. I saw what he did in the City Council. He was hard-working, non-stop and never kept his eye off the average family, even when some of the big powerful interest said back off.”

As he built to a close, Schumer said, “I know Tony, and Tony is a very fine guy, and he's been tested. You know you go to Washington, you go to Albany and get tested, and you have all these other people who want to pull you off course. He's never been pulled off course.”

Avella said that he has felt a major shift in momentum heading into the final days.

“I think, I beat Frank Padavan—38-year entrenched incumbent,” Avella said. “That's going to send a message to a lot of people, not only in the Republican Party but in the Democratic Party, that, hey, you know what? We better watch ourselves. We could be next.”