The group has previously protested in the districts of state senators Jose Peralta of Queens and Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn. Along with Avella, the three are part of a group of eight state senators known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).
Protestors argue the IDC, by working with Republicans in the State Senate, negates the Democrats' majority in that legislative body.
“The Democrats should have the majority, but that is stolen from them by this rogue group that is looking out for their own best interests,” said protest organizer Paul Rabin.
He alleges the IDC keeps the state legislature from acting on issues like the DREAM Act and state support of sanctuary cities, to name two.
He said the protests were a way to make constituents aware of the IDC and hold their elected officials accountable.
“They think they are voting for a Democrat and think a Democrat is going to act like a Democrat, and then they disengage,” Rabin said. “This is a way to re-engage. Just voting for them is not enough, you have to be on their case.”
But across 39th Avenue, about 15 pro-Avella demonstrators held their own rally in support of the state senator. Many said they were unconcerned with Avella's Albany alliances, and that he makes decisions based on what is best for his constituents and not a political party.
“We are here to support Tony Avella because he is a man who listens to the people,” said Phil Wong, a member of the civic group Elmhurst United.
He said the state senators in the IDC still support many of the issues important to Democratic voters, such as raising the minimum wage, expanding paid sick leave and supporting universal pre-K.
“They are barking up the wrong tree,” Wong said of the IDC protestors. “They are not Republicans in practice.”
Whitestone resident Robert LoScalzo echoed Wong's sentiments.
“The reason that those of us who voted for him did is because he makes sound decisions on behalf of our community, regardless of partisanship,” he said. “If that means being a member of the IDC, so be it.”
LoScalzo pointed specifically to Avella's ongoing legal battle to stop the city from allowing a developer to build a mall on parkland next to Citi Field, a project that has the support of most of the elected officials in the area.
“It was Senator Avella and Senator Avella alone who took legal action to shut all of it down,” he said. “Whatever his own political cost may have been, he was willing to take the drastic step of filing a lawsuit against a project that is the darling of the Queens Democratic Party.
“That’s the perfect illustration of his independence,” LoScalzo added.
After approximately 45 minutes of marching several of the protestors, many who live in Avella's district, were invited into his office for a somewhat contentious meeting with the state senator. He attempted to explain his decision to join the IDC.
“All I did was twiddle my thumbs because there was no agenda, no leadership,” Avella said of the Democratic Party in Albany. “I wasn’t elected by any of you to sit there and do nothing. I’m saving groups in my district, I’m getting bills passed that would not normally have been passed.”
But Whitestone resident Rebecca Rodriguez said Avella's explanation illustrated it is more important then ever for the Democrats to work together to counter moves at the national level on issues like immigration, health care and the environment.
“Our Democrats have to form a forum on their own where they actually work against the other Democrats to get a bill passed,” she said. “If you have to do that just to get a bill passed, it tells me that you are only concerned about your reelection.”
“I’m concerned about getting things done, I could really care less about getting reelected,” Avella countered.
Avella tried to further explain that members of the IDC don't vote or caucus with the Republicans, and said that trying to gauge a Democratic elected official's level of “progressivism” and then attacking them if it is deemed unacceptable is counterproductive.
“All of this is detracting from the real issue,” he said. “There are places upstate where a progressive Democrat won’t win, and yet you want Democrats to win. You can’t have a litmus test on every single issue.
“As long as a person believes in general Democratic principles, that’s what you should be looking at,” he added.
After close to an hour, Rodriguez summed up the protestors' general mood.
“We're feeling scared,” she said. “We want to make America greater.”
“I understand the frustration because of what’s happening across the country, but attacking other Democrats is not the way to get there,” Avella said. “What we have to do is beat Republicans in the elections.”