Democrats Already Mulling Tony Avella Challenge

Tony Avella. (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty)

Tony Avella. (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty)

The battle for the State Senate may be shifting to eastern Queens.

Queens State Senator Tony Avella enraged Senate Democrats today by joining the Independent Democratic Conference, a coalition of breakaway Democrats who govern the Senate with the GOP, and hurting the Democratic conference’s chances of taking over the chamber in November.

The caucus’s official comment refused even to refer to Mr. Avella by name. “It’s unfortunate that progressive policies continue to be stymied because of divisions created by Senators who choose to empower Republicans,” said Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats.

Candidates are already testing the waters for a potential primary fight against Mr. Avella, whose district spanning neighborhoods like Bayside, Douglaston, Fresh Meadows and Glen Oaks has no shortage of ambitious pols loyal to the Democratic Party and, more importantly, the Queens County Democratic Party.

Sources in the district say that Austin Shafran, a legislative director with the left-leaning Working Families Party, may be willing to take the plunge. Mr. Shafran, who could not be reached for comment, nearly won a City Council race last year. Sources said the labor-backed WFP, which desperately wants the Democrats to retake control of the Senate, could look to coax Mr. Shafran to run.

Another name mentioned, according to district insiders, is local state committeeman Matthew Silverstein, who ran briefly for City Council a year ago but failed to raise the adequate cash. Mr. Silverstein released a statement this morning slamming Mr. Avella for the move. Mr. Silverstein did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Councilman Mark Weprin, who represents an overlapping district, was also contacted about a primary run but declined, sources said. Ex-Councilman James Gennaro, who nearly unseated Mr. Avella’s Republican predecessor, has been floated as another contender, but both he and Mr. Weprin told Politicker they had no interest in running.

Any candidate who runs against Mr. Avella is expected to be aided by the Queens machine, which is closely aligned with the Senate Democrats–they share political consultants and often work in tandem–and is eager to oust Mr. Avella. The senator is long estranged from the political establishment in the area, sources said.

“He’s erratic, he fights with everybody,” said one Queens Democratic insider. “Tony’s certainly popular but this decision will be wildly unpopular in the district. This is the kind of thing you lose your seat over.”

Mr. Avella’s decision to join the IDC and allow Republicans to govern the chamber could also anger the district’s Democratic voters, Democratic close to the Senate Democrats charge. They also pointed to Mr. Avella’s anemic fund-raising–he has less than $3,000 in the bank, records show–as a sign of his vulnerability

Sources close to the Senate Democrats, however, cautioned that any discussions of a primary are in the embryonic stages and that any attempt to unseat Mr. Avella would be a major uphill fight.

Mr. Avella’s jump to the IDC will likely earn him the chairmanship of a committee, like aging or social services, and give him access to the IDC’s formidable fund-raising network. And Mr. Avella, a former councilman who has represented much of the area since 2002, carries high name recognition and is popular in the politically moderate district. A primary fight against him, those in the district argue, will likely be brutal.

“Nobody in that district can beat him for that State Senate seat. The only politician more popular locally is [Congresswoman] Grace Meng,” a Queens Democrat from Mr. Avella’s district said. “After Grace, it’s Tony. A challenge would be futile.”

There are also questions about how long the fickle Mr. Avella will stick with the breakaway group. Those close to the Senate Democrats noted that, not long ago, the senator was lambasting the IDC over environmental issues and wondered how long it would take for him to break with the group’s leadership and return to the Democratic conference.

Mr. Avella did not immediately return a request for comment.

Update (4:30 p.m.): Robert Miraglia, an attorney and former aide to Councilman Mark Weprin and Assemblyman David Weprin, is also mulling a bid against Mr. Avella, Democratic sources said. Mr. Miraglia would not confirm on the record whether he is interested in the seat, though he was willing to take a swipe at Mr. Avella.

“It’s too soon to comment. But if we wanted a Republican, we would’ve kept Frank Padavan,” Mr. Miraglia said, referring to the GOP senator Mr. Avella defeated in 2010. 

Democrats Already Mulling Tony Avella Challenge