The chattering classes like to characterize state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) as the outspoken, fuming-red lawmaker from Northeast Queens who puts good government ahead of political gamesmanship; a sort of Stunt Pol who tackles Hurricane Sandy damage with a chainsaw and considers dicing his state-issued parking placard as an act of valor.
Well, to Tony Avella ... That sounds like just the guy to be the next borough president.
“Given the fact that we have a city where the mayor controls everything, you need to have a very active and very independent borough president who’s willing to speak up when you have to, to make sure Queens gets its fair share of city services,” he said during a sit-down interview with the Chronicle on April 26.
The longtime civic activist, onetime councilman and current Albany legislator is one in a crowded field of Democrats vying to succeed outgoing incumbent Helen Marshall to be Borough Hall’s next occupant. His opponents include Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), former Deputy Borough President Barry Grodenchik, former Councilwoman Melinda Katz, state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) and Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria).
All the candidates include some level of experience in elected office, but according to Avella, few have stood in the weeds and understood nature of the beast.
“It’s about knowing how the city works from the ground up,” Avella said, noting his time spent on Community Board 7, as well as various civics. “I didn’t come out of a political clubhouse.”
But political machines have been on the minds of many lately, with Avella’s Albany colleague state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Jamaica) and his councilmanic successor Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) both facing corruption charges.
Avella has said he’s avoided getting the Albany stink on him for one reason: “I can’t be bought.”
His 90-minute sit-down with the Chronicle’s editorial staff traversed a wide range of topics: from the need for updated sewers in Southeast Queens to the state of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. There were few areas of the borough that were outside his understanding.
The lawmaker has been critical of Marshall’s tenure, and was no different during his interview. Should he win, Avella said he would attend civic and community board meetings and generally be a more vocal representative of the borough.
“It’s unfortunate that a lot doesn’t get done,” he said. “I often tell people, ‘Don’t judge the office by what it is now, but by what it could be,’” he said.
Avella has made a name for himself fighting off irresponsible development and the sort of whimsical urban planning that causes headaches in the long run. But there are instances where the sacred cow of affordable housing is needed, Avella said, pointing to Southeast Queens, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona as neighborhoods in need.
The Albany pol noted he’s in a rare position: a Democrat in the state Senate, which would make him part of a majority should a band of rogue legislators dubbed the Independent Democratic Conference disband. Avella suggested some may want him to stay there, but he will continue to run.
“If I thought any of my opponents could do half as decent a job as borough president, I wouldn’t be running,” he said, adding the position needs a shot in the arm.
Avella said he’d fill whatever appointments are available to him with hyper-aggressive folks like himself.
“The whole office has to be reinvigorated,” he said.
Should he win, Avella will enter office missing a man who has been a key foil throughout his political career: Mike Bloomberg. Avella laughed when asked about the departing mayor.
“I hope I can agree with the new mayor more than I agree with Bloomberg,” Avella said.