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Avella ahead of Saffran in close race for council

The third time appeared to be the charm for Democrat Tony Avella Tuesday as the longtime civic activist headed toward victory over Republican lawyer Dennis Saffran to succeed northeast Queens City Councilman Mike Abel (R-Bayside), according to unofficial results.

With 95 percent of the precincts reporting, Avella had edged out Saffran, a Douglaston resident, by 1 percentage point in Tuesday’s general election, New York 1 said. If the victory holds, Avella would become the first Democrat to hold Abel’s 19th Council District seat, a district first carved out in 1991. A College Point resident, Avella had run for the post twice before, failing both times to win the seat.

A fixture in the district, Avella appeared to have the upper hand throughout the race. But the rising popularity in Queens of Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg led some to question whether Saffran would be carried on Bloomberg’s coattails to success.

Though the 19th Council District has more than two registered Democrats to every Republican, it has elected Republicans. Abel’s successes and the popularity here of current Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani led some to believe the Republicans could retain the district.

Abel, like the rest of the Queens city council delegation, is prohibited from running for office this year because of the city’s term limits law. Abel was one of only three Republicans in the City Council.

The 19th Council District covers most of northeast Queens and includes the communities of Bayside, Bay Terrace, Whitestone, College Point, Malba, Douglas Manor, Beechhurst, and parts of Douglaston, Little Neck, Auburndale, Linden Hill, and Murray Hill.

Handily beating four other Democrats in a Sept. 25 primary, Avella based his campaign on a lengthy record of public service in the district. The race was also a challenge for Avella because two Democrats who lost Sept. 25 — Jerry Iannece and Arthur Cheliotes — were on the ballot for the general election on third party lines, drawing votes away from Avella in what turned out to be a close race.

Citing the Republican history of the district and the apparent drawing power of Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg in the area, Avella said he considered his apparent win “a great victory.”

Avella campaign coordinator Evan Stavisky said the Democrats had earned a significant victory with Avella’s success in the race by taking back at least one of the three Republican council seats in the borough.

Saffran, the only Republican in the race who also ran on the Conservative Party line, had been criticized by some as a Democrat who turned Republican just to run for office. The Douglaston lawyer worked as a Democrat with state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer before heading the conservative think tank, the Center for Community Interest.

Leaning heavily on the successes of the Giuliani administration, which included reducing crime, Saffran sounded a similar theme throughout the campaign: a desire “to fight to preserve and build on the Giuliani reforms of the last eight years.”

Despite the difference in political parties Avella and Saffran named similar goals during campaign stops, including denouncing illegal zoning and touting the need to preserve the residential character of the district’s northeast Queens neighborhoods.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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