State Senator Tony Avella, Jr., won his seat in 2010 by flipping his Queens district from red to blue, defeating longtime incumbent Frank Padavan. Four years later, Avella would join the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Senate Democrats who aligned themselves with Republicans. "My only bottom line is, to do the most amount of good for the most amount of people," Avella told Gothamist recently.

Former City Comptroller John Liu, who is running against Avella for a second time, characterized Avella's justification for joining the IDC as "the biggest crock of crap I’ve ever heard."

Senator Avella declined to respond. "Oh, I don’t care what John Liu says," he explained.

Over his four terms in the Senate representing parts of Bayside, Whitestone, Flushing, and Fresh Meadows, Avella has opposed the Willets Point mall, and lobbied to curb airplane noise. He has unsuccessfully ran for borough president once and mayor twice, most recently last year.

On Friday afternoon, at a Bayside bakery, Senator Avella spoke to Gothamist about his reasons for joining the IDC, his legislation to protect pet pigs, and the "national hype" that is attempting to boot him out of office.

A lot more New Yorkers are paying attention to your race because you were in the IDC, and overall it is framed as IDC members versus “real Democrats.” Do you feel your reelection campaign is about—

No. [Laughs].

Why?

Well, first of all, the IDC doesn’t exist anymore so that issue is dead. This issue was brought up by my opponent in 2014 [John Liu] and he had much more support then than he does now, and he still lost.

People in this district, I think, are concerned about, what have you done? What are you going do? How hard you work. I think that’s it. The type of campaign I’ve always run is, here’s my accomplishments, here’s what I want to do, I’m always accessible in the community, and I’ll let the voters decide.

What would you say a the voter who says that the IDC prevented progressive legislation from passing?

Not true. Not true. The perfect example is, at the end of the budget, the IDC disbanded and merged with the Democratic conference. We still weren’t in the majority. So that whole argument makes absolutely no sense, because if we were to go back, they said "Oh, you’ll be in the majority." We weren’t. We never held up anything. As far as I’m concerned, the Democratic conference when I first joined it was totally dysfunctional. They had no agenda, they had no policy, other than keep saying, "One day we’ll be in the majority." That’s nice, but in the meantime what do you do? So the IDC was already set up, and as long as I didn’t change my position or vote differently, which I never did, why not be in the position to get some things done until we get the Democratic majority.

But in your example, Republicans had the majority in the Senate, why align with them, the people who are trying to obstruct the things the Democrats are trying to do?

But again, even if there wasn’t an IDC, we’d still have to work with the majority. You know, when I was in the Democratic conference, the Republicans would every now and then put up a bill that some of their members didn’t want to do, and they’d call the Democratic conference and say, are some of your members gonna vote for this? Same thing would happen.

This is all national hype, because everybody’s so upset about Trump, and I understand that, but let’s look at the reality of the situation. I would have been the same situation had we been in the Democratic conference. At the end of the day, I believe, you’re supposed to work together to get things done. We’re not gonna agree on everything, but, if both sides just consider each other the enemy, we’re never gonna get anything accomplished.

What are the marquee accomplishments of the IDC?

Paid family leave, I think Raise the Age, is a clear example, that would have never been done. And in terms of my situation, in the past three years, I’ve gotten the most bills passed in the Senate of any Democratic Senator. And except for this year by one or two votes, the most bills passed by the Assembly and signed into law by the governor. So are they major things? They’re things that help the state and my community, so again, why not get something done until we get the Democratic majority.

Otherwise I’m sitting there twiddling my thumbs. I wasn’t elected to do that, I was elected to try and get things done and work with people. I never gave [Republicans] a majority, I never caucused with Republicans, I never voted for Flanagan to be the majority leader. Which was interesting because I had the leader of the Independence group, she actually came in and met with me in my office. She thought I had voted for Flanagan, she said I caucused with the Republicans, I said that’s absolutely not true, she didn’t even know what she was talking about.

Speaking of the Independence Party, a judge has ruled that the joint fundraising account between them and the IDC is illegal, a state election official has said that the former IDC members should return around $1.4 million in contributions. You received around $25,000 of that total. Are you going to return the money? Why or why not?

First of all, there has been no official decision from the State Board of Elections that it’s illegal donations. Look at the judge’s decision. The judge said all that had to be done, was that Independence Party Campaign Committee, cannot have a member of the board of trustees, or whatever you wanna call it, of another party. That was actually done months before the judge came down with the decision. That’s all the court decision says. It doesn’t say you have to give back the money, it doesn’t say those donations were illegal.

Even though the top BOE enforcement official demanded that they be returned?

She did that on her own, she had no authority to do that. In fact, didn’t the Board of Elections just rein her in? They took a vote, saying she has to get approval from the State Board of Elections before she takes an action. She did that on her own, she misinterpreted the judge’s decision. Just because she says something doesn’t make it right. I have not gotten anything from the State Board of Elections that says to me I received illegal donations.

What do you make of the “peace deal” between Democrats and IDC members melting away, and politicians declining to endorse former IDC members or explicitly endorsing their challengers?

I think that has a lot to do with the fact that Joe Crowley lost, he was one of the principles of the deal, and people now are just like, “Well now I don’t have to pay any attention to anything now, I’ll just do what I want.”

It’s just, here’s the truth and reality, and here’s some of the things that are being said. People are just saying things. And because the media plays it up, it’s almost like it becomes reality.

That sounds kind of Trumpian. People are “saying things.”

Well, that’s what they’re doing. They’re actually more like Trump than anybody.

Who?

The people with this fake news, they’re actually the ones reporting fake news. Again: was there a decision by the State Board of Elections saying that we have to return these donations? No. I don’t see that anywhere. I read the judge’s decision. So people can talk whatever they want, but it’s not the truth, it’s not the reality.

Let’s go back to this idea that—I understand wanting to get things done, and you not wanting to twiddle your thumbs. But couldn’t you and those other IDC Democrats have been more effective working with the other Democrats, including the governor, to push for things like universal healthcare in New York State or—

They weren’t doing that. That’s the problem. There was no agenda in that Democratic conference.

Yes but wasn’t that because there was this group of Democrats who said, “We’re gonna go over to the other side and work with Republicans?”

No, they were there before I got there. Nothing was was happening. There was no agenda, there was no policy.

I’m going to read something John Liu said to me about you—

Oh, I don’t care what John Liu says.

You don’t care about John Liu?

No, I don’t.

OK, fair enough. Automatic voter registration was just signed into law in Massachusetts, and 14 states plus D.C. now have it. Is that something you would support in New York?

I have a bill for weekend voting, and I also have a bill to allow people to get an absentee ballot without having to give a reason. Automatic registration concerns me for one reason: people are then being enrolled to vote without their decision. And it artificially inflates the number of signatures that people have to get to get on the ballot, and it’s already tough enough to do that, and we have the most archaic petition laws in the country. So I would be in favor of that if the laws change to recognize the fact that you’re really making it more difficult for independents, not so much the incumbent, to get on the ballot.

You sit on the transportation committee in the State Senate. Why has there been no really tough oversight hearings into the MTA, given how messed up the subways are?

Ask the chairman. Ask the chairman! He’s the one who controls the agenda. As an individual member of a committee, especially a Democrat, we don’t have the authority to set the agenda. That’s the chairman.

Is that something you would support?

Oh, absolutely. Even if I wanted to have a hearing, even in the IDC, you can’t do it without their permission, and they wouldn’t give it, unless the chair actually does it themselves. You wouldn’t get coverage, you wouldn’t get the live stream, you wouldn’t get it to be recorded. You could have a forum, but you couldn’t have a real hearing.

Why not use your bully pulpit, the same way you publicly cut up your parking placards, to do something about it? I think one of the huge criticisms of the IDC from Democratic voters is, why aren’t these IDC members out there advocating for progressive issues?

Well, we were, behind the scenes. We were. And we were doing as much as we thought possible given our minority status. Even in this coalition we were still in the minority, we didn’t have the authority to say to the Republicans, put this on the floor. Maybe in the beginning before I got there they may have had that, with the co-president relationship, but it quickly changed. And then it was just, we can get some things up.

Do you still cut up your parking placard?

Yes.

Have you been following the placard corruption scandals in the city?

Yeah, I always thought it was an abuse. And I don’t think any elected official should have these perks. We should have to experience the same sort of problems that the average citizen does.

What about police officers and city employees and teachers and other people who get parking placards?

I think we should reduce the number of placards, greatly. I haven’t gone into specifics, but I think the numbers should be reduced. I understand the situation with teachers, because sometimes you gotta park 20 blocks away. Police officers, there’s an emergency situation, sometimes they have to park. But elected officials?

You stood with Transportation Alternatives yesterday and urged the Senate to come back and pass legislation that would reinstate school zone speed cameras in the City. It’s been reported that one of the reasons Republicans might not want to pass them is that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association doesn’t support them.

I have never heard that. I have never heard that.

Because they claim that the speed cameras could potentially take their jobs, but also because it’s a lot easier to get out of a speeding ticket if a fellow police officer pulls them over.

I have never heard that. Again, I have never heard that. I would tell you if I heard that. I have never heard that.

On your Senate website, you say that your favorite job was working as an aide to Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins. Is that why you keep running for mayor? You like being around City Hall?

[Laughs] I like being in a position to get things done. Because what’s the point of getting elected if you’re just sitting around not doing anything? I spend a lot of time dealing with City issues, and that’s because my constituents are very upset. When you’re in the executive branch you have the power to do more than if you’re in the legislative branch. The legislative branch you’re working with a lot of other people. And you’re trying to get things done that you may agree is the right thing, but in the Senate you got 62 other members, you got 150 Assemblymembers, and then you gotta deal with the governor. In the executive branch as mayor, you can resolve a lot of things if you have the political will to do it. You control all the agencies, there’s a lot more opportunity to get things done.

So it’s about your hunger for power!

No, no, it’s the hunger to get things done and change the system. I have no ambitions for power whatsoever, my only bottom line is, to do the most amount of good for the most amount of people.

One of the major prongs of your last mayoral campaign was homelessness, and where homeless shelters are located. There was that huge protest outside the Maspeth homeless shelter, people were chanting “White Lives Matter.” It looked really ugly. Is there anything about that part of the campaign that you regret, or wish you had done differently?

Well you know, you can’t be responsible for what every individual says. The issue is, this mayor, has not solved the homeless problem. Nothing can be solved totally, but the homeless population has increased dramatically under his administration. The bottom line is that it’s getting too expensive to live here, and we need to do something about it. There also needs to be more public involvement in the siting, not only of homeless shelters, but any public facility. One of the first things I ever got involved in, many years ago, was changing the city charter to develop the system of the public review process—community input, giving community boards more advisory power. I see us going in the opposite direction. The City does more things now without community input, without listening to the community, than ever. I think that’s a disgrace.

I don’t think there’s anybody in the City who doesn’t want to resolve the homelessness crisis. But it has to be a cooperative relationship, I can’t go to a person and say listen, you’re taking this whether you like it or not. That’s not a solution, because that person is immediately gonna say, well that’s not attitude, I’m party of this city, I’m part of this government. We should be incorporating this person into the decision-making process. At the end of the day, I believe people will do the right thing, if you involve them in the process.

One of the reasons why there is an affordable housing epidemic is that a lot of the City’s control has been taken away from it by Albany. There’s the Urstadt Law

Oh, I don’t buy that for a second. The problem is, when we do affordable housing in the City, we’re not doing it for the people who need it. I was on the City Council, I saw it. I complained about it then. If you look at any of the recent developments where the so-called “affordable housing” component is, it’s not affordable to people in those neighborhoods. That’s what the argument about Inwood is about. All you’re doing is kicking the people out of their own neighborhood, and putting in affordable housing components that are not really affordable.

To say that, "Oh, it’s not the mayor’s fault"—it is the mayor’s fault. He has the power, he controls City Planning, he controls the Department of Buildings, and if you worked with everybody, you could do a better job. I’m not saying you could solve it.

I think that’s a fair critique, but I’m talking about rent regulations.

Oh yeah, well that’s one of the things that have to change. And that’s only going to change when the Democrats have the majority. But, when I ran for Senate, in 2010, I met with one of the tenant PACs, and I was trying to get their support against the Republican, Frank Padavan. The person said to me, "Well, we don’t know, we’re mad at the Democrats." And I said, 'Well, what do you mean?" That was the only two years they were in control. He said to me, “We’re mad because they’ve been in control and they haven’t done anything that they said they would do.”

The first thing I ever did out of college, I formed a tenant association in my own building. I’m pro-tenant, I think we have to do things, but I think there’s also a realization that just because everybody has said it’s going to happen, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. But I think there should be significant tenant reform, significant.

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Senator Avella at a Bayside bakery (Scott Heins / Gothamist)


What do you make of the freeze in the number of for-hire vehicles that just passed the City Council?

I’ve heard from a lot of people in my district that they like Uber because it’s a transit desert here. I have noticed a tremendous increase in traffic. But my own experience has been anecdotal in that, I see a lot of these new TLCs that I assume are Uber or Lyft, and they’re stopping in the middle of the street to look at their phones because they’re lost. That’s an issue. But the main issue for me is, what has been done to the yellow taxi medallion owners. Not the fleets, but the individual owners. A lot of them live in my district. They mortgaged their livelihood, their home, their future, to buy their medallion, and now their medallion is worth nothing, and that is a disgrace, that we have done that to these families.

We need to take care of them. I’m not so much concerned about the cap, as I am concerned about taking care of those taxi medallion owners. They’re committing suicide. This is awful. They took away the American dream, and they’re immigrants, mostly, and we haven’t done anything to help them.

You’ve had some pretty harsh things to say about congestion pricing in the past. What is your real argument against it?

We live in a transit desert, how is it going to help us? And I also know government. I don’t trust government.

Sam Schwartz has met with me a number of times and we have had good discussions about this. To get me on board he’s made some changes. He said that “well the money’s definitely going to go for this.” And I said Sam, there’s no such thing as a lockbox. There’s a lockbox now for transportation, it gets raided all the time. You can’t handcuff a future legislator, future governor, future mayor, for deciding that money has to go someplace else. You can never guarantee that once we put in congestion pricing, that money is gonna go for mass transportation.

If I knew there was a guarantee, I might be so inclined to support it. But there’s no guarantee, and I’ve seen that happen in government all the years I’ve been there. Maybe you have to change the state constitution? There’s no such thing as a lockbox.

And what’s the effects on small business? There’s a lot of tweaks that could be made to the system. He actually made that concession, I think for me, about having the bridges that don’t go into Manhattan half-price. I told him, that’s a good thing, but you can’t guarantee that tomorrow it won’t go back up again.

Don’t you think people would pay a little more to drive if they knew driving wouldn’t be so maddening?

So far nobody in my district has said that. [Laughs] My district hates congestion pricing, and so does the Queens Chamber of Commerce, a lot of groups in the borough of Queens. Yeah, we all want more transit. Especially buses. I’m still fighting to get bus routes that were cancelled before I was elected to the Senate in 2010.

If I went to somebody and said, “Listen if you pay $10 more it’s definitely gonna help bus transportation,” I think they’d say yes. But I also have to use my good judgement know that, is that really gonna happen?

Other cities have implemented it with success, just like other cities are banning plastic bags.

You know something, I hate comparing New York City to other cities. New York City is unique. We are unique. I just think we have to come up with our own regulations. I’m always willing to talk about this, but so far nothing I have heard has made me change my mind that this is a good thing for my district, and Queens.

You stood with Transportation Alternatives yesterday about speed cameras, but you’ve fought against some bike lanes in your time.

Oh yeah.

Have you ever fought a bike lane and then gone on to see that it’s actually not so bad?

It’s funny, a reporter asked that question while I was doing the press conference. I didn’t want to embarass Transportation Alternatives. They know we don’t get along. I said to the reporter, I’m standing here with you on this issue. And then later on I said, but I don’t agree with you on the bike lanes, after the press conference was over. [Laughs]

I’m in favor of bike lanes, but it goes to what I said about public input. You can’t just tell people, this is where it’s gonna go no matter what you want. Government is for the people. We’ve gotten to a situation where government tells us what’s in our best interest. It shouldn’t work that way. You know what? The government doesn’t always have the right answer. And that’s the situation with the bike lanes. They don’t really seek community input.

The one on Northern Boulevard is a good example. The community board reversed its decision and said no. They went in the next day and did it.

There was another bike lane that went up, right along a park. And I said to the city, why aren’t you putting it in the park? The park is right there! Their answer was, that’s another city agency, it’s just easier for us to do it. So DOT doesn’t talk to Parks? There’s no coordination in this city between the agencies? Putting in the park, you’re not telling me it wouldn’t be safer than putting it on the street?

You’re saying you’d rather have the bike lane in the park than outside of the park? You have bike lanes to protect cyclists from cars, and there’s no cars inside the park.

But wouldn’t it be safer? Wouldn’t it be safer as a bicyclist to have a bike lane in a park, rather than on a public street? There have bicyclists who have written to me about the Northern Boulevard bike lane because they don’t think it’s safe.

I’m not saying every bike lane. But if you’re going along the park, if it’s going right along the park, doesn’t it make sense to have it on the parkland? [Laughs] You’ll never get me to change my mind on that, that to me is common sense. When there’s no park I can understand that.

What’s happening with your legislative efforts to help protect New Yorkers and their pygmy pigs?

Unfortunately nothing. I can’t get support within the legislature. And yet more and more families are calling about this. But they don’t come out in public because they’re afraid the city will crack down and summons them and get rid of their pet.

Is the City actively enforcing the ban?

They backed off the one on Staten Island because we got so much media attention. But they’re still living under the threat that the City could come in and make them remove it any day.

This interview has been edited and condensed.