Harlem — A few hours before the Rent Guidelines Board's major public hearing on June 17, out on the plaza at Cooper Union, a landlord and a tenant activist had just traded curses. One renter wrapped up a speech in Mandarin about the ever-higher rent she's paying, then another tenant delivered a similar salvo in Spanish. The crowd was chanting "Rent freeze now! Rent freeze now!" And City Councilman Tony Avella of Queens was explaining to a man in the audience why he wasn't getting more Council support for his proposal to halt any hike in stabilized rents in New York. "He's told everybody, 'Don't help Avella,'" he said. “Bill Thompson has. Because he's afraid of me."

Though he may have won the support of some tenant activists, it's not clear that Avella – who's running for mayor on a shoestring budget and trailing in the polls – is all that fearsome to Comptroller Thompson, the presumptive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. (Thompson's campaign wouldn't say.) But Avella could yet be a factor in the 2009 New York City mayoral race. Avella's volunteers are circulating petitions to get him on the ballot and force a Democratic primary on Sept. 15. He will likely meet the funding and polling qualifications to participate in televised debates against Thompson. And he's getting the backing of a few political clubs and civic organizations. At the very least, Avella could make this year's campaign—generally portrayed as a token contest along the way to thumping by Mayor Michael Bloomberg—a little less drowsy.

So could the Green Party candidate for mayor, the activist performance artist Rev. Billy Talen, who leads his own Church of Life After Shopping. While the Greens usually mount a mayoral campaign that attracts but a hint of voter support, they've never had a candidate armed with a blonde bouffant, a gospel choir, and the supposed power to exorcise demons from Starbucks shops, Wal-Marts and even personal credit cards.

On paper, neither candidate has a chance. The most recent survey of city voters, conducted by Quinnipiac University, finds that among Democratic primary voters, Thompson earns 36 percent to Avella's 8 percent (with the majority saying "don't know"). In a separate question about the general election, Talen didn't even get a mention by the pollsters, who found only 1 percent of respondents saying they were looking to vote for "someone else" other than Bloomberg or Thompson come November. As Thompson has spent $1.8 million to date trying to stay afloat amid Bloomberg's more than $18.6 million in campaign outlays, Avella has mustered a mere $117,000 outlay and Talen has spent only $33,000.

But while Avella and Talen lack name recognition and money, they both have one advantage over the mayor and comptroller. If there has been an undercurrent of dissent and dissatisfaction during the Bloomberg years, it's been about the city's support for real estate developers over neighborhood opposition, and centralized decision-making over community control. And on street corners and in public hearings, the councilman and the preacher have been among the most visible faces of that discontent. If there's a rationale for ousting the popular two-term mayor this fall, Avella and Talen have spent most of this decade articulating it.

Avella's campaign slogan is “The Revolution has begun!” Talen raises his hand to the heavens and prays for “Change-alluiah!” And they both really mean it.
Not playing nicely

Avella is not modest about what he sees as his role in the 2009 race: The man with the guts to speak truth to power. “It's a fight every day to do the right thing in this city. I'm doing this because somebody has to do it. Somebody has to stand up,” he says.

And beyond taking a stand, someone has to enact a new agenda. That's why he's running: “If you want to make real change, you've got to be the mayor.”

“I'm not a political person. I hate politics,” he adds. Yet the Queens native has spent most of his life in politics. After graduating from Hunter College with a B.A. in political science in 1974, Avella wanted a city job but there were none to be found, so he took a gig running a warehouse for a soda company. Two years later he signed on with then-Council Majority Leader Peter Vallone as a part-time staffer, and quickly moved to Mayor Ed Koch's community affairs operation. He stayed there into the Dinkins administration until 1991, then served as chief of staff to the late State Senator Leonard Stavisky and his wife and successor, Toby Ann Stavisky, and became a leader of several neighborhood groups, like the Preservation Alliance of Northeast Queens and the North Shore Anti-Graffiti Volunteers.

He first sought election to the City Council in 1991 and lost. He ran and lost again in 1993. In 2001, he finally prevailed—winning with 29 percent in a five-candidate primary and eking out a 415-vote margin in the general election. In that race, for a district comprising Bayside, College Point, Auburndale, Beechhurst, Whitestone, Bay Terrace, Robinwood and parts of Flushing, Douglaston and Little Neck, Avella was the choice of the Democratic establishment. But it was not a title he held for long. Avella's tenure in the Council has been a long wrestling match with the power structure.

In 2003, Avella bucked then-Speaker Gifford Miller and opposed the mayor's 18 percent property sales tax; he was punished by losing a committee assignment. During the first three years of the current term, Avella voted "no" in the Council 119 times – second only to Brooklyn firebrand Charles Barron. He and Manhattan's Melissa Mark-Viverito are the only members whose salaries remain at $90,000, having refused the 2006 pay hike taking Council salaries to $112,500. Avella is the only member who refuses a stipend for committee leadership; he would receive $8,000 for running the zoning subcommittee. He boasts perfect attendance at Council hearings and meetings. When the Council's leadership balked at a proposal to ceremonially rename a street after the polarizing 1960s black activist Sonny Carson, Avella backed the renaming—it was, he said, an issue of community control.

His independent streak manifests in many ways: Despite representing a largely suburban and fairly conservative district and being a member of the Knights of Columbus, a conservative Catholic fraternity, Avella supports abortion rights and the right of gays and lesbians to marry.