Originally published in UP FRONT News by Tom Weiss December 31, 2001
"The paper that can't be bought and can't be sold."
CHANGE COMES TO THE NEW YORK STATE SENATE
TONY AVELLA COMES TO ALBANY
One might consider former New York City Councilman Tony Avella's surprising-to-some election to the New York State Senate, defeating a veteran Republican, a case of leaping from the frying pan into the fire inasmuch as, while the Council is hardly a bastion of integrity, the state senate helped the state legislature earn its richly deserved title as the "worst" in the country. The name Pedro Espada immediately comes to mind for his spurious claim to represent a district in the South Bronx while living in Westchester, not to speak of a great deal of evidence suggesting strongly that he used his health clinic in the district as a laundromat for money, as reported in The New York Times, much of which wound up in his many pockets, perhaps in one of the stylish suits that the retailer from whom he purchased them insists that Espada never paid for. In a case of democracy overdue, Mr. Espada was defeated in the recent election and will be using his ill gotten gains (including, he expects, his pension that comes out of the pockets of the taxpayers) to pay his lawyers as has been indicted for a number of corrupt activities and tries to stay out of prison.
And as Espada leaves the state senate on January 1, 2011, Tony Avella, a Democrat from representing northern Queens, enters, accompanied by a whoosh of fresh air that the legislature desperately needs. Mr. Avella, unlike John McCain, earned his reputation as a "maverick" in a City Council where the power of the Speaker renders toeing the line a virtue and where demonstrating independence from machine politics and authoritarian mayors such as we keep on (s)electing can result in punishment.
I knew very little about Mr. Avella until, a few years ago, I managed to catch a story on an inside page of the Daily News by its City Hall reporter Frank Lombardi, announcing a Council public hearing on a Council Speaker Christine Quinn-introduced bill that would substantially raise the salaries of Councilmembers and a clique of top level administrators in the Bloomberg Administration. I do not recall that Ms. Quinn, who is not publicity-shy, extended much in the way of effort to inform New Yorkers about the hearing and encouraging the citizens to come and testify.
Many New Yorkers would love to have a job where we could raise our own salaries. And many New Yorkers are of the opinion that, while our elected officials do not earn Derek Jeter-like salaries, politicians are overpaid. That may well explain Ms. Quinn's somewhat secretive approach to the hearing.
And so I was not surprised when I found that I was one of a small number of people who showed up to testify. Ms. Quinn, who - at least according to Mr. Avella and a number of other Councilmen such as Charles Barron (D.-Bklyn.) - rules as more of a monarch than an elected official - gave me what could pass for a hard stare no doubt because I had very publicly and directly urged her to support a City Council resolution, citing the continuing genocidal Chinese Communist occupation of Tibet, calling upon the United State Olympic Committee to pull out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Ms. Quinn had previously taken credit for a earlier resolution passed by the Council criticizing the Chinese government for its actions in Tibet, a resolution that made Ms. Quinn, et. al. feel good about themselves but, since it did not deal with the top and bottom lines for both the Chinese and U.S. regimes, i.e. money, had zero impact.)
At legislative hearings, the public is readily put in its place, which is last. Government officials testify first, generally ignoring any time limits announced by the Committee chairperson. Each witness can be asked questions by Committee members. That can take awhile since questioning can be serious but, especially when many citizens show up and when the press area is well attended, is often accompanied by posturing. Government witnesses are generally followed by established organizations, many of whom come with prepared statements, which generally are not composed with time limits in mind. And in the caboose, come the witnesses from the public.
The hearing produced few surprises as Ms. Quinn and most of the Councilmembers present asked the rest of us to empathize with their plight because they had not received increases for a number of years. (I don't recall what the salaries were at the time but $90,000 a "year" would not be far off, with many Councilmembers receiving "lulus" (extra money, up to five figures, on top of salaries), for responsibilities such a chairing a committee, with the Speaker appointing the chairpersons.
That's when I met Tony Avella, who, while not a member of the committee holding the hearing, decided to testify in opposition to the salary hike resolution because he felt strongly that, even though the recession had not yet been declared "official", times were hard for millions of New Yorkers, budgets were already being cut, there was no justification for awarding the already well-to-do an increase that they did not need while "belt-tightening" was the prescription for many of the rest of us.
In my testimony I made essentially the same point, colorfully but without a hint of profanity.
The committee vote was hardly a surprise as the resolution passed easily. I later learned that when Councilmember Avella received his increase he refused to accept it and returned it to the City.
As the hearing came to a close, I approached Mr. Avella and thanked him for his testimony. We exchanged contact information as I told him that there was at least one other issue that I'd like to discuss with him at another time.