October 22, 2009
Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, occupies a paradoxical position in the polls as the November 3 election approaches. The latest survey, conducted by Quinnipiac University last month, found that 69 percent of likely voters approve of his performance but only 52 percent intend to vote for him.
It's not that his Democratic opponent, city comptroller William Thompson, presents an even better alternative — the same survey found that 44 percent of voters "don't know enough about him to form an opinion." It's that a year ago, Bloomberg shepherded a bill through the City Council to modify a referendum passed by voters in 1993 limiting all elected officials to two four-year terms. The mayor and his supporters lengthened the limit to three terms, arguing that the economic crisis demanded "continuity of leadership." The legislation gave Bloomberg a third shot at mayor and 35 two-term Council incumbents a windfall opportunity to hold on to their seats for another four years.
They never realized what a backlash of resentment their action would cause. Bloomberg's been good for the city, people are saying, but I won't vote for him because he trampled on the will of the people. Who does he think he is, a king? In perhaps the most radical slap, the Spanish-language paper El Diariocompared him to Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez, whose attempt to tamper with the term limit was defeated in a referendum: "New Yorkers," it editorialized, "were not even given that chance."
If there were no term-limits law in the first place, Bloomberg would have had no problem at all: He's been the quintessential New York mayor — on the spot in every emergency, creative and effective in his policies, takes the subway to work. Even in this overwhelmingly Democratic town, voters would have elected him, once a Republican and now an independent, enthusiastically. He'll still get elected — Thompson has been unable to get traction — but many citizens will pull the lever reluctantly, with his manipulative behavior sticking in their craw and his reputation for integrity sullied. The third term will not be like the other two.
Such is the paradox of term limits. On one hand, don't limits short-circuit the democratic process, preventing voters from endorsing or repudiating their officials at the ballot box? And on the other hand, shouldn't public office be not a career but a temporary calling, a work demanded of an array of competent citizens who, like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome, would serve as needed and then speedily return to private life?
In the first instance, the problem is that it's not all that easy to "t'row da bums out." Politicians, even the worst of them, easily become entrenched in office, amassing huge war-chests that make opposition almost impossible and relying on the complacency of an electorate that would rather vote for a devil they know.
Alternatively, too-short term limits put office-holders in a revolving door; as they go in and out, the business of the public is left in the hands of bureaucrats and lobbyists, the only ones maintaining "continuity." Furthermore, as the California legislature's experience with severe term limits show, there are few Cincinnati among the politically driven — rather than returning to the plow, they just plow ahead from one office to another.
Plus, there are many creative ways to get around term limits — nepotism, for example. Here in the South Bronx, when Councilman Wendell Foster was forced to relinquish his 24-year sinecure, his daughter Helen stepped right in and was handily elected. After two terms herself, she was delighted to vote for Bloomberg's proposal; with no significant opposition, she'll extend her career on the Council for another four years.
Actually, a 12-year term limit might in fact be the best, or least worst, of both worlds. My own sense is that eight years is the turning-point for politicians: Either they've hit their stride and deserve more time, or they've hashed things up enough for voters to decide for themselves to get rid of them. After 12 years, most of these ducks are pretty lame on their own account and should be mercifully retired, like it or not.
The New York state legislature is as dysfunctional as California's, but for exactly the opposite reason: an insularity that results in immobility. In the Assembly, for example, almost half of the 106 members have been there two decades or longer, feathering their nests. A 12-year limit would help break the stranglehold of the old and liberate the legislature for productive work.
So despite the uproar, extending the term limit in New York City may be ultimately beneficial, giving voters the opportunity to have a positive say on third-term candidates while capping their tenure at a reasonable time.
Whether Mayor Bloomberg emerges unscathed, however, remains to be seen.