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Periscope: McLaughlin on fence in race for Abel seat

Well, it’s drama compared to most of the council races in Queens where the results are preordained — thanks to the wise leaders of the Queens County Democratic Party, who are kind enough to choose our...

By Sajan Kuriakos

There’s drama in the council elections in Bayside.

Well, it’s drama compared to most of the council races in Queens where the results are preordained — thanks to the wise leaders of the Queens County Democratic Party, who are kind enough to choose our leaders for us.

The 19th Council District, which covers Bayside and a small portion of Flushing, has two heavyweight contenders: Tony Avella, a loyal soldier of the Queens Democratic Party, and Arthur Cheliotes, a prominent labor leader who heads the 7,500 member Local 1180 of the Communication Workers of America.

But the protagonist in this tale of democratic principles is neither of the two. He is Flushing’s powerful five-term state assemblyman, Brian McLaughlin. McLaughlin, as it happens, is also the president of the Central Labor Council, an umbrella group of some 500 New York City unions which boasts a membership of 1.5 million workers.

Avella has made two heroic tries for City Council, in 1991 and 1993. He lost both primaries because the county and the late state Sen. Leonard Stavisky denied him support. But Queens politics, being as predictable as a flighty teenager and about as clean as Flushing bay, makes for strange alliances.

Today, Avella is the chief of staff for Leonard Stavisky’s wife and heir, state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing). He is also the district leader of McLaughlin’s New Century Democratic Club. Charisma is not Avella’s strong point, but few doubt his loyalty to the party.

Hence, McLaughlin and Queens Democratic boss Tom Manton decided to reward him with a job at City Hall. He would, they decided, occupy the seat soon to be vacated by Republican Mike Abel.

Enter Arthur Cheliotes, who has less name recognition in the local community — Avella is better known through his work on quality-of-life issues, graffiti cleanup and the like. But Cheliotes, a longtime Bayside resident wants Abel’s seat.

Cheliotes’ ambitions pose a dilemma for McLaughlin. As a politician who has benefited from Avella’s services to him. McLaughlin owes his support to Avella. Yet, in his role as a labor leader he is expected by most union leaders citywide to support Cheliotes.

In fact, the executive board of the Central Labor Council, independent of McLaughlin, has already decided to support Cheliotes. This means free union help for the Cheliotes camp — volunteers to man phone banks, collect petitions and knock on doors.

Let it be understood now that McLaughlin’s influence extends outside his district. The stunning 1996 victory of Democrat Ann Margaret Carrozza, who snatched Bayside’s assembly seat from the Republicans’ slumbering Doug Prescott, was due in no small part to McLaughlin’s help. Cheliotes needs McLaughlin’s backing to win, even if the Central Labor Council has voiced his support for his candidacy.

In a recent phone interview, McLaughlin hemmed and hawed about his position. He has not endorsed anyone in the Bayside race he said. But what about the backyard barbecue he hosted for Avella, and the $250 he gave to his campaign? “That’s support, not an endorsement,” McLaughlin explained.

Now on the other hand, his wife Eva presented the Cheliotes camp with a $200 check. Both Avella and Cheliotes are understandably confused. In recent interviews both seemed to think McLaughlin was in their camp.

Avella might be closer to the truth. It is clear that Manton has given his nod to Avella. To date, McLaughlin has not crossed his chief. And he’s not about to do so now. Further, both Manton and McLaughlin stand to gain if Avella wins. Manton, because he will be all the more closer to keeping a firm hand on the Queens delegation in City Hall, thereby having some power over who the next speaker would be. McLaughlin would benefit because City Councilman Avella would belong to his club, thereby increasing the club’s power and influence.

It is important to note that the club is also fielding John Liu, a frontrunner in the Flushing council race. The New Century Democrats already has helped elect Joe Dorsa — sort of an older version of Avella — to the Queens civil court and two councilman would only enhance the club’s clout.

Labor leaders have also criticized Cheliotes for not being hard enough on McLaughlin. He has not insisted that the assemblyman show his hand. “The reason McLaughlin cannot be damaged as a labor leader,” said one union activist and Cheliotes supporter, “is because Arthur has not pushed him against the wall.”

In interviews with several labor activists, it was apparent that McLaughlin would most likely ride this squall out. “It might come to the other labor leaders giving McLaughlin a free pass on this one,” said one union leader. “They might decide this is his backyard and he should decide what to do.”

All right, but what does this prove? It proves that democracy is feeble and arthritic in this borough. OK, the entire city. Democracy is being propped up, guided and told where to go by a few powerful men like McLaughlin and Manton. The people have no say, either because they don’t care or are too tired to care.

In any case, every democracy deserves the leader it gets.

Sajan P. Kuriakos can be reached at skuriakos@aol.com. His columns appear every other week.

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