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Boro takes stock after Avella beats Sen. Padavan

Political observers and exit polls are beginning to paint a picture of what exactly led to Democrat Tony Avella’s historic win over longtime state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) last week in a victory that left control of the Senate up in the air.

Padavan, who served in the chamber for 38 years, conceded Monday to Avella “with a heavy heart” after initially challenging the results, capping the only major upset in Queens races this campaign season.

“It has been a deep honor to serve my country and city and a privilege to serve as a New York state senator for nearly four decades,” Padavan said in a statement. He was not available for further comment.

Some poll watchers, including Queens GOP spokesman Robert Hornak, have said the unpopular gubernatorial candidacy of Republican Carl Paladino was a major factor in his party’s losses since he did not bring GOP voters to the polls en masse.

“Fourteen percent of voters in New York City voted for Paladino. It no doubt damaged a lot of candidates,” Hornak said. “We felt confident we’d retain the Padavan seat.”

He also pointed out that “in the Padavan area, Republican turnout was lower than expected.”

On the other hand, Avella’s operation effectively mobilized people. Avella said more than 500 volunteers worked for him on Election Day, and he knocked on more than 7,000 doors during the campaign.

Following the election, Padavan had said he would fight the results and filed a motion in Queens Civil Courthouse Nov. 3 to impound the voting machines and ballots in the district. Avella received 53.17 percent of the vote, or 25,864 votes, while Padavan got 22,781 votes, according to results from the city Board of Elections.

The race was watched closely because its outcome helps determine which party will have control of the state Senate starting in 2011. As of Tuesday there were still three close races that had not been called in Long Island, Buffalo and Westchester County. The Democrats had a 32-30 majority before the election.

Avella, a former city councilman, said a range of local factors combined to help him win. Citing key endorsements, aggressive retail politics and his courting of female and Asian-American votes, he said momentum built in the final weeks of the campaign.

Padavan secured the backing of prominent Republican politicians like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but the endorsement war was won by Avella, who said the decision by the United Federation of Teachers to endorse him “turned the election, absolutely.”

Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), a close ally of Padavan’s, agreed that the UFT’s decision not to back the senator, who had received its endorsements for years, was an important moment.

“He was one of the few Republicans who stood staunchly with the UFT, and they sold him out because he had another opinion on charter schools,” Halloran said.

The councilman said the UFT endorsement, Avella’s ability to unify Democrats, a series of negative attack ads against Padavan and problems with voting machines which disenfranchised senior citizens, combined to create the perfect storm needed to bring down the senator.

“I don’t think he would have won absent the convolution of those negative things that happened,” Halloran said. “If any of those things wasn’t there, Tony doesn’t win or he wins by a slim margin after a huge recount, and if you take two of those things out, Frank wins hands down.”

Demographics also played a key role in the contest. About 20 percent of District 11 residents are Asian Americans, many of whom are Korean, according to the MinKwon Center for Community Action.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund estimated through exit polling at four sites that 89 percent of Korean-American voters went for Avella in the race for Padavan’s seat.

Korean community leaders, including MinKwon Center President S.J. Jung, backed Avella after he pledged to support immigrant initiatives, said James Hong, a MinKwon representative.

“Asian-American voters played a very important role in this Senate race,” Jung said.

Avella also made women’s issues a major issue in the campaign, and their vote likely had a big part in sweeping the Democrat into office, he said, although gender exit polling was not readily available Tuesday. The city BOE could not be reached for comment.

“I think [women] were one of the major factors. People weren’t aware that he was pro-life,” Avella said. “He also had a terrible record with women’s health issues and on women’s issues in general and I think that resonated with a lot of women.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

Note: This article has been corrected since publication because Tony Avella was misquoted in the last paragraph on Frank Padavan's pro-life stance.

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