The Queens Democratic Party backed former City Comptroller John Liu as their candidate in the 11th state Senate District, pitting the former councilman and mayoral candidate against a former colleague, incumbent state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who angered his party when he joined the Independent Democratic Caucus — a group of breakaway Democrats who caucus with Republicans in the state’s upper legislative body.
Liu received the endorsement at the county organization’s meeting in Forest Hills on Monday morning.
“When voters elect Democrats, they expect them to stay Democrats,” Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx) said at Monday’s meeting, according to several sources.
Liu did not respond to requests for comment, but tweeted just before the meeting: “The fight to protect our Democratic values is coming to Queens. Together we will move our city and state forward. Stay tuned.”
Liu was elected to the City Council in 2001 — the same day as Avella, who represented an adjoining district. After being term-limited in 2009, Liu ran for and won the comptroller’s race, serving four years.
But his political ambitions took a beating after his campaign finances were probed and two campaign aides went to jail after being convicted of various crimes in connection with a scheme to funnel money to Liu’s campaign through straw donors.
Many Democrats felt Liu, who was never charged with any crime, was unfairly marred by the scandal. The city’s Campaign Finance Board denied Liu matching funds for his mayoral campaign.
Liu finished fourth in the Democratic primary for mayor last year, winning 7 percent of the vote, but much of his support came from Flushing and the surrounding areas. He also had the support of several powerful unions and sources say some of them are leaning towards backing Liu in this race.
Avella, who has often had a rocky relationship with the Queens Democratic establishment, won the seat in 2010, defeating Republican incumbent Frank Padavan, who had held the seat for nearly 40 years.
“In 2010, they let bygones be bygones for the sake of winning the seat,” said one Democratic source, who noted Avella’s victory that year made every one of Queens’ state legislative seats Democratic for the first time ever. Queens’ only other GOP state legislator to serve in the past decade, former state Sen. Serphin Maltese, was defeated by state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) in 2008. No Republican has represented Queens in the State Assembly since 1996.
But Avella’s joining of the IDC apparently reopened the old wounds.
“The party doesn’t trust him and they’re not too worried about losing the seat,” the source said.
The 11th district, which has been redrawn slightly since 2010, includes College Point, Whitestone, Bayside, Auburndale, Douglaston, Little Neck, Bellerose, Jamaica Estates and parts of Jamaica, Hollis, Queens Village and North Flushing.
The district was made slightly more Democratic in the 2010 redistricting, adding Democratic precincts in Whitestone, Bay Terrace and Jamaica. It also has a fast-growing Asian-American population, whose votes Liu won in the mayoral primary by large margins.
In a statement, Avella said he worked for his constituents and not for “party bosses.”
“I’m proud of my record — fighting for the working class residents of Queens and delivering on core Democratic legislation that makes a meaningful difference in their lives,” Avella said. “Whether it’s helping our seniors, passing marriage equality, or protecting our environment, I have always fought for the issues that matter most to the people of my district and I look forward to discussing my progressive record in the months ahead.”
Republicans do not have a candidate for the seat as of yet, but one GOP source said they would look seriously at it
“If Liu is running against Avella, it provides an opportunity for the GOP to win back the seat with a candidate who will actually put the district’s needs ahead of his personal political ambition,” the source said.
Any Republican candidate would need to start organizing soon as petitioning is often more difficult for Republicans than Democrats because there are fewer registered GOP voters.
Avella isn’t the only member of the IDC in the city to face a primary challenge.
The leader of the group, state Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx, Westchester), is facing a challenge from former Councilman and state Attorney General Oliver Koppell.
Democratic incumbents Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) and Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) are also both facing primary races this year.
Stavisky is being opposed by Flushing businessman and activist S.J. Jung.
Smith’s opponents are Deputy Borough President Leroy Comrie and former Assembly candidate Clyde Vanel.
Smith was booted from the IDC, and is facing trial on charges that he attempted to buy his way on the GOP mayoral ballot.
The primary is Sept. 9.