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Mayoral underdog has bite

City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) says he recognizes he is the underdog in a mayoral race in which he is outspent by millions of dollars and, as a representative of northeast Queens, lacks the name recognition of his two prominent opponents, who have held citywide positions for nearly eight years.

But Avella, who was first elected in 2001 and has opted to run for mayor rather than seek a third Council term, said he has run a grass-roots campaign as opposed to attempting to compete with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s multimillion-dollar bid or Bill Thompson’s prominent position as city comptroller.

“Let’s face it, it’s tough,” Avella said. “But from the beginning, I decided not to sell my soul to raise large amounts of money. It would defeat the purpose of my campaign. It’s unfortunate that money controls the entire political system in the city. So, when the long shot comes in, the payoff is high. I will institute reform throughout the city.”

In fact, campaign finance reform is one of Avella’s key issues. The councilman has called for a system under which all candidates running for city office would be publicly financed.

“It’s a nationwide problem,” he said. “It’s come down to who raises the most money wins.”

In a recent interview with TimesLedger Newspapers, Avella said the priorities during his mayoral campaign included the elimination of several city agencies, economic initiatives, the environment, affordable housing and transportation issues.

But the two most important facets in his bid are preventing the city from being overdeveloped and improving education, he said.

“You see it on every block of every community,” he said of overdevelopment. “It adds to traffic, burdens infrastructure and ruins our quality of life. I’ve never met people who want no development, but it has to be planned.”

The councilman said local community boards should have more say as to what is built in their neighborhoods and accused the city Department of Buildings of “bending over backwards” for developers as well as not enforcing its own rules on properties being constructed.

As for improving the city school system, Avella has repeatedly said, should he be elected as mayor, he would fire city Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. He also believes the mayor should work more closely with communities throughout the five boroughs to determine their educational needs.

“The mayor should have oversight, but I don’t believe total control over schools is appropriate,” he said. “Bloomberg makes a big deal out of touting math and reading scores on city tests, but I’ve talked to teachers who tell me that we’re dumbing down tests so anyone can pass them.”

Avella has made it no secret he intends to reform a number of city agencies, but he has also said he believes several departments could be eliminated altogether, such as the School Construction Authority or the Board of Standards and Appeals.

He also blasted the city Economic Development Corp., accusing the group of ignoring the recommendations of city community boards, and listed the city Fire Department, Department of Consumer Affairs, Department of Transportation and DOB as agencies he might potentially reform.

“The DOB is an agency that needs to be cleaned from top to bottom,” he said. “The corruption in that agency is worse than ever. We should make the system so that development can occur, but legally.”

Among Avella’s key economic initiatives would be to eliminate waste in city agencies and legalize sports betting, which he said would not only generate revenue for the city, but also cut down on organized crime.

“There is no oversight on how agencies are spending their money,” he said. “The FDNY commissioner is talking about closing firehouses, while other agencies are sending out calendars. We need to start thinking outside the box. We are already the most taxed people in the country, so we can’t raise taxes every time we have a problem.”

The councilman said the city is also desperately in need of affordable housing. Bloomberg has proposed a $7.5 billion New Market Housing Plan that would create 165,000 affordable housing units in the city by 2013.

But Avella said the plan, aimed at families earning between $40,000 and $145,000 per year, leaves out a large portion of the city’s neediest population.

“Nobody can afford to live in the city anymore,” he said. “It’s become a luxury housing mecca. There is no reason a developer should be making $40 million on a project that has no affordable housing component, overburdens the infrastructure and then makes the taxpayers pay for it.”

Avella said elected officials rarely make the jump from Council member to mayor, but he believed it was the only way to reform city government.

“The borough presidents have no real power, the public advocate stands on a soapbox and the comptroller has some power,” he said. “To make change in this city, you need to be the mayor. For me, this is not about having a job, but the ability for me to make a change.”

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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