A state Senator from Queens announced Wednesday he is joining the group of breakaway Democrats that share control of the Senate, dealing a blow to the traditional Democrats in the minority of that house.
Sen. Tony Avella will become the fifth member of the Independent Democratic Conference, which has ruled the state Senate in a coalition with Republicans since 2011. Avella’s switch effectively gives the coalition 35 votes in the 63-seat chamber, strengthening their majority in a chamber in which 32 votes are needed to pass legislation.
“The IDC has developed a clear, progressive agenda for New York’s working families,” Avella said in a statement. “They have shown an ability to get big things done, without the dysfunction of years past.”
Avella — known for his opposition to hydraulic fracturing and support for tuition assistance for students in the country illegally — said he has not changed his political views “one iota.” Instead, he said he switched because he saw a chance to get more done.
“I’ve always been a bipartisan person,” he told reporters at the Capitol. “I come from a district that has had a very strong Republican vote. I’m the first Democrat to represent that district in a long, long time.”
There are more Democrats than Republicans in the state Senate, but the Democratic split makes it impossible for them to control the house. Avella’s loss will now make it harder for mainstream Democrats to gain control of the Senate in elections this November.
“The regular Democratic conference can kiss goodbye the idea of becoming majority now,” said Democratic state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., who predicted more Democrats would soon jump to the IDC.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has had a good working relationship with the Republican/IDC Senate leadership, dismissed questions about Avella’s breakaway as part of the coming “political silly season.”
“You know, the politics and turmoil of Albany, right?” Cuomo said. “I just heard about it today. I don’t know what it means, if anything.”
Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said she was not concerned about more defections and said she expected her conference’s recent success at the polls to continue. She said the real issue the Senate continues to face is that the IDC’s power-sharing agreement with Republicans allows either side to keep legislation from the floor. Liberals complain the arrangement has blocked campaign finance reform and other progressive legislation.
“The overall situation for our conference hasn’t changed,” she said “We’re still here fighting for New Yorkers, fighting for the progressive values of New Yorkers.”
Avella, who has been in the Senate since 2011, is expected to now chair a committee.
Sen. Jeff Klein, who leads the IDC, said Avella will be a “major asset.”
“The breadth of his experience, in both the City Council and the Senate, makes him the type of seasoned legislator who knows how to get things done,” Klein said.
The traditional Democratic conference is left with 24 members, plus two others who were expelled from the caucus after being indicted but still vote with them. There are 29 Republicans plus one Democrat, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who generally votes with that party.
Two Senate seats are vacant, and Cuomo, citing the cost, has indicated he will probably not call special elections to fill them.