Another Democrat joins bipartisan State Senate coalition

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ALBANY -- Another Democratic senator bucked his party conference Wednesday to join the bipartisan coalition that runs the State Senate.

Sen. Tony Avella (D-Queens) said he wanted to join the majority coalition dominated by Republicans to pass his bills after serving two years in the Democratic minority conference. The majority controls legislation.

Avella also will likely get a powerful committee chairmanship, although he doesn't accept leadership stipends.

Some see Avella's move as a sign of doubt about the Democrats' chances of winning the majority in the fall elections.

"This suggests that the independent caucus is going to persist," said Gerald Benjamin, a political-science professor at the State University at New Paltz who studied the power relationships in the State Senate. "A member with something at stake had made a calculation based on his experience in the Democratic conference on what to do."

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), who leads the minority conference of Democrats, said that Avella's departure won't hurt her effort to regain majority control this election year.

"I wish him well," Stewart-Cousins said. "My concern continues to be moving our progressive agenda."

Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), however, called Avella's decision "another stunning rebuke to the old Senate Democratic conference."

"Like us, he understands that New Yorkers don't want partisanship, finger pointing or blame, they want Democrats and Republicans to work together to get results," Skelos said of Avella.

Later, the Democratic conference downplayed what it called Avella's "backroom deal."

"Today's announcement has no practical effect on the progressive issues that the people of New York need," said Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy. "Dean Skelos had and still has his veto power because of this backroom deal. The reality is everything resets in November."

Avella said his motivation is to advance "a clear, progressive agenda for New York's working families." He also credited the Independent Democratic Conference for helping to pass Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's gun control measure and for raising the minimum wage.

Senate co-leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), who leads the Independent Democratic Conference, said he wouldn't speculate on why Avella joined.

"He's a fighter. He wants to get things done," Klein said.

With Avella, the majority coalition has 29 Republicans, conservative Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) and five members of the Independent Democratic Conference. That totals three more votes than are needed to control action in the chamber and provides a bigger cushion against continued gains in elections by the traditional Democratic conference. There are 26 other Democrats in the 63-seat Senate.

Two Senate seats -- one held by a Democrat, one held by a Republican -- are vacant.

The four-member Independent Democratic Conference was formed in 2010 after a tumultuous two-year majority run by the traditional Democratic conference. It aligned with Cuomo's policies and quickly forged a working coalition with Republicans in danger of losing majority control.

Although New York is dominated 2-to-1 by Democratic voters, Senate Republicans who ran the chamber for decades have maintained a share of control by joining with the Independent Democratic Conference.

Conservative Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-Bronx) said Avella's move may be followed by other Democrats.

"To my colleagues in the Democratic conference, I say that now we can really kiss the majority good-bye and as some of you have wished, we're going to be in the minority for a long time," Diaz said.

With Yancey Roy

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