With term limits, death and proof of bestiality seemingly the only ways for an incumbent to lose re-election, it’s easy to think of politicians as impervious to cosmic forces like karma. And yes, in fact, not only do politicians seem karma-proof, but in the world of New York politics, nice guys really do finish last.
Just look at the Bayside Councilman Tony Avella and Long Island Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli. One is a misanthrope who has a hard time naming a colleague he works well with (he named City Council Speaker Christine Quinn). The other is a nice guy whose friends and poll ratings seem disproportionate to his political opportunities.
At the first City Council meeting of the year, Avella parked himself at one end of a long, U-shaped table, partaking in none of the Blackberry fidgeting or side chatter that consumed his colleagues. If he didn’t have the standard-issue nameplate in front of him or if he weren’t asking penetrating questions, a visitor might have mistaken him for out-of-place guest sitting in the wrong chair.
“I tend to look very serious because I take the job very seriously,” Avella told me later. “Sometimes I do have a hard time listening to my colleagues go on and on and on without saying anything. Sometimes I get very disappointed in the antics that go on—and I show it. I’m not a good politician. I don’t hide my feelings.”
Apparently, the feeling is mutual. “He’s just a dick,” one Council member would say only anonymously. “He’s like the uncle you’re always afraid of ’cause you’re afraid he’s going to scream.”
By contrast, a colleague of DiNapoli called him “the most popular member of the Legislature.” He’s friendly enough with U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer to elicit a rare primary endorsement. He’s led in polls for two recent races, one for Nassau County executive and one for lieutenant governor. He lost both, and the chance to run for a State Senate seat disappeared when the local incumbent opted to run for re-election.
Avella, on the other hand, has two upcoming shots for higher office. The Assemblymember representing Avella’s district has announced that he’s taking his name out of the ring.
Avella may also take on the GOP state senator in his district to help put that house back into Democratic hands. For either race, he’ll have the support of the disciplined Queens County Democratic organization. Lucky? Maybe.
DiNapoli had the support of nearly every elected Democrat in the state for his 2001 bid for county executive. State Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer joined Schumer in publicly coming out for DiNapoli, as did then-State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, U.S. Congressman Gary Ackerman and dozens of others. After Sept. 11, DiNapoli suspended his campaign while his opponent, Glen Cove Mayor Tom Suozzi, organized transport and food for responders and victims in his capacity as mayor.
DiNapoli lost. In light of what happened that day, losing an election isn’t so bad, DiNapoli said. Even now, he’s reluctant to criticize Suozzi.
Avella is not so shy about criticizing his colleagues—even ones who follow his lead. Since 2002, Avella has given back the extra $4,000 pay he was entitled for chairing a subcommittee. He sent out a press release to every newspaper touting his achievement, thereby managing to take a noble gesture and ensure the enmity of colleagues by making them look like greedy bastards. When told Councilman Eric Gioia, also from Queens, was donating his extra pay to charity, Avella seemed unimpressed. “Ask him if he writes it off his taxes,” he snarled to a Queens newspaper reporter.
That same year, his colleagues banded together to vote for an 18.5 percent property tax increase to close a budget gap. Three Democrats voted no, one of them Avella. That would have been okay if Avella would have played along. “Maybe we’ll take the fall for him,” a fellow councilmember told me. “We’ll help him do it, for politics. But then he comes out on the floor of the Council saying it’s the wrong thing to do.”
To make matters worse, the colleague confided, “He’s only a fiscal conservative when he’s out there banging the drum for the press. In private, he’s a free-spending, tax-and-spend liberal.” Avella counters that the city has ignored his own cost-cutting plans.
Here is where the good government groups would normally intervene and weed out politics from policy. “Some of it is that they’re afraid to come out too strongly because it might affect their relationship with some of the elected officials.” So he says.
Fellow Flushing Councilmember John Liu, who has feuded with Avella, lost it one day during a debate in the Council Chamber. “Every year there’s bound to be a few crybabies,” Liu said. “I’ve ordered a bag of lollipops.”
Liu later said, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” noting Avella is “effective in his own way.” When asked to name a more unpopular member of the council, Liu laughed and said he’d get back to me. Still waiting.
DiNapoli, by contrast, can’t utter a bad word about anyone. Not the guy who beat him in that Nassau County Executive’s race in 2001, nor the gubernatorial candidate who opted not to pick DiNapoli as a running mate this year (despite his double-digit lead in the polls).
“You got me on a good day. It’s February, it’s sunny. I love it. It’s great to be alive,” said DiNapoli, days after Eliot Spitzer picked a lieutenant governor candidate from his home turf of Manhattan. “If I hadn’t run for lieutenant governor, I wouldn’t have gotten to know you,” he told me. Maybe he was pouring it on, but it sounded sincere. “I would prefer to say nice guys always finish in a good place,” he said. “Nice guys understand that there’s a lot of good out of wherever you end up.”
Avella’s colleagues, by contrast, are helping him into higher office. Said one: “I would help him get elected to something else just to get him out of the Council.”
This is my final column, written before last week’s walkout. If you want to keep following the leader, visit my blog at http://51state.wordpress.com. Whoever follows me on this page, use it well.