Incumbent state Sen. Tony Avella relishes his label as a maverick and is hoping it will carry him through to victory on Sept. 9.
That’s when the Democratic primary for the 11th state Senate District seat will be held. He will face former Comptroller John Liu and since no Republican is running in November, the primary victor will go to Albany for the next two years.
Avella was elected to the seat in 2010 and last spring joined the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats who caucus with Republicans in the state Senate to form a majority.
Since then, he has allocated more than $2 million for area improvements, but at the same time infuriated the Queens Democratic Party, which soon after endorsed Liu as its candidate.
“I’ve done a good job representing the people,” Avella said in an interview with the Chronicle staff on Monday. “I’m not a normal politician and they appreciate that. They know what I’ve done.”
He said he joined the caucus in Albany because the Senate was dysfunctional and nothing was getting accomplished. “I didn’t change my position on anything. I’m still a Democrat and it enabled me to save three senior centers,” the candidate said.
He also got money to make improvements in area schools and Queens College and at Dermody Square, a neglected park in Bayside, among other projects.
Avella believes there’s too much politics in government. “I’ve always been a bipartisan person and I’m surprised at the level of animosity with the Queens Democrats.”
Although he trails Liu in campaign contributions, Avella does not seem concerned. As of last week, Liu had $487,222 in his coffers, while Avella had $126,000.
“Liu needs more money because he’s battling the incumbent and his reputation involving campaign finance [irregularities] and his own fines. Those are high negatives,” Avella said. “I only raise what I need to raise.”
He was referring to a staffer and fundraiser for Liu’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign, who were convicted of election law finance violations, though he was never charged. Liu also owes the city hundreds of thousands of dollars for allegedly posting illegal campaign posters during his run for comptroller. He disputes those charges.
Liu has also garnered numerous labor endorsements and, of course, support from elected Democratic officials in the borough. Avella is not concerned.
“When I won the City Council seat in 2001, the opposition had every union behind him,” he said. “People know me. Endorsements are helpful when people don’t know you.”
Avella said he introduced 17 bills and had four bills passed by the Senate last year. Those passed include one aimed at helping the blind and visually impaired get large-print legal papers and another dealt with restricting traveling zoos with wild animals to eliminate the practice of visitors taking selfies with tigers.
He also announced a $250,000 state allocation to the Queens District Attorney’s Office for programs dealing with sex trafficking, substance abuse and child advocacy.
Liu has charged his opponent with not working well with others, which Avella denies. “I always work together with others in the Senate, but not if things are wrong,” he said. “If they are wrong, I don’t blindly go along.”
He said his greatest accomplishments while in Albany are passing his legislation, bringing money back to the district and pushing his co-op and condominium bill for a more equitable tax structure. The bill passed the Senate but not the Assembly.
“It was a huge first step,” he says of the co-op-condo bill. “We’ll keep trying because owners pay three to four times higher property taxes than is necessary.”
Avella has been accused of holding press conferences rather than working behind the scenes to effect change. “I do work behind the scenes,” he said, “but when I reach a brick wall, it’s what I have to do to draw attention to the issues.”
One of the leading advocates of preventing needless air traffic noise, the candidate said new state initiatives addressing the issue are not working the way he would like. “There are two roundtable groups meeting when you need only one,” he said. “Otherwise it dilutes power.”
On education, Avella believes in teacher tenure, “but bad teachers have to go and teaching to the test has to end.”
He favors retention of testing for admittance to elite city high schools, saying of a measure that would have changed that, “I was originally for it, but took my name off the bill after I saw the data that minorities and middle- to low-income students would be most affected by such a change.”
Avella announced that he had organized a new Democratic club in the borough, Citizens for a Better Queens Democratic Club. “People are disaffected by the system,” he said. “It would make the borough much more democratic.”
The group met in June with Seth Urbinder, his chief of staff, as president. Following the primary, Avella plans for more involvement in the fledgling organization.