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Senate Ruling Coalition Gains A New Member

The ruling coalition in the New York state Senate has grown by one member. Senator Tony Avella, of Queens, has left the minority Democrats to join the governing coalition of Republicans and Independent Democrats.

Senator Tony Avella is a progressive leaning Democrat who’s been called a maverick. He says he’s become convinced he can get more accomplished by joining the Senate’s ruling coalition, which includes all of the Republicans and a few break away Independent Democrats.

“I’ve always considered myself a bi partisan person,” said Avella. “I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, if you’ve got a good idea, I’m going to work with you.”

Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein calls Avella’s decision “terrific.” Klein says Avella, who he’s known for a quarter century, is a good fit.

Avella admits he was not always on board with the idea of a Senate ruling coalition that empowers the chamber’s  Republicans, who numerically are a minority in the Senate.

“In the very beginning, I had some concerns,” Avella said. “But it has worked.”

Avella says he’s co sponsored a number of bills with GOP Senators over the past couple of years, more than any of his former Democratic colleagues.

Senator Avella’s switch does not change the overall make up of the Senate,  the Republicans and Independent Democrats are still in control of the Senate, the rest of the Senate Democrats still hold minority status.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins admits she was blindsided by Avella’s announcement.

“I read it,” she said with a laugh.

Senator Cousins is philosophical about Avella’s defection. She says the Democratic conference continues to hold positions on key issues that polls show most New Yorkers support. And she says long term demographics in a state with a decreasing number of Republican voters puts time on the Democrat’s side. She says when you count up all of the Democrats in the Senate, including the IDC’s now five members,  Democrats already have more seats overall than Republicans.

“I don’t know how we hold back the tide,” Cousins said. “We will get the majority. We will govern.”

Governor Cuomo was not in Albany. Speaking in New York City, Cuomo dismissed the developments as political maneuverings.

“I think we are headed into the political silly season,” Cuomo said. “And you are going to see this battle continue into the election season.”

The Republican–Independent Democratic Alliance in the Senate has benefited Cuomo on some issues, including the enactment of a 2 percent cap in the growth of property taxes, but the GOP has opposed the governor on some other items, like a Women’s Equality Act that includes an abortion rights provision, and decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

Nevertheless, Cuomo, who often boasts of his ability to work with both parties, says overall, he’s been satisfied with the balance of power at the Capitol.

“This whole coalition government is working,” Cuomo said. “And I want to keep it that way.”

Senator Avella has sponsored a number of  bills that have not had the backing of the GOP including a moratorium on hydrofracking in New York State. He was non-committal about the measure’s future.

“I’m big on anti fracking,” Avella said. “And I’m going to continue to work on that agenda.”

But he says now, it may be easier to talk to the Republican Senators about a fracking moratorium and other issues.  In a statement, Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos called Senator Avella an "independent voice and a straight shooter,” and said he'll be an “asset” to the ruling coalition.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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