Term Limits? We Don't Need No Stinking Term Limits!

So it’s nearly official that Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York (and onetime member of a fantasy New York trifecta in the presidential race), will seek to overturn the city’s term limits in order to run for a third term as mayor. Here’s an A.P. article and here’s an excerpt from the New York Times piece that broke the news:

Mr. Bloomberg, whose second term ends in 2009, is barred by law from running for re-election. So he will propose revising the city’s 15-year-old term limits law, which restricts him and dozens of other elected leaders to two four-year terms, those people said.

In his appearance on Thursday, they said, Mr. Bloomberg, a former Wall Street trader and the founder of a billion-dollar financial data firm, will argue that the worldwide financial crisis — with its potentially severe impact on New York City — demands his steady hand and business experience.

The decision to challenge the term limits law, which was twice approved by New York voters, represents a remarkable about-face for Mr. Bloomberg. He has repeatedly said he supports such constraints on elected leaders, dismissed the idea that anyone is indispensable, and once called an effort to revise the limits “disgusting.” People briefed on the matter said Mr. Bloomberg, 66, would seek to change the law through legislation in the City Council.

Mr. Bloomberg’s strategy carries significant political risk. Several polls, conducted over the last few months, show widespread support for keeping the law in place. City voters passed term limits by overwhelming margins in 1993, and reaffirmed their support in 1996.

I’m not sure I agree with the “significant political risk.” Because of his independence, wealth, and sky-high approval rating, he could probably win in a cakewalk and bear few scars from the electoral mud-slinging.

Bloomberg’s move made me think back to the September 11 attack in New York. The city happened to be holding primary elections that day: Mayor Rudy Giuliani was nearly done serving his second term and the race was on to elect a replacement. A few days after the attack, I wrote an Op-Ed arguing that Giuliani should be temporarily kept on in light of the extraordinary circumstances. The piece didn’t get published — I can’t remember why it was rejected — but, for what it’s worth, here’s what I wrote at the time:

September 18, 2001

I am not in the mood to, among other things, vote for Mark Green or Fernando Ferrer or Michael Bloomberg. I am not in the mood, given the war zone we collectively entered on Tuesday, to turn our city over to a mayor other than the one now on duty.

It is not simply the thought of squeezing in the primary, runoff, and general elections amidst the funerals. It is the thought of installing a new mayor less than four months after a catastrophe that will demand years’ worth of bold leadership. We cannot yet fathom the complexity of the puzzle that has to be reassembled: city services, transportation, real estate, communications, and our psyches have all been scrambled beyond recognition. As it now stands, a new mayor and an entirely new City Council will take over on January 1. They will step into a state of emergency, a state of chaos, their abilities further diminished by the loss of so many key fire, police, and administrative personnel. A better solution would be to delay the mayoral election, or at least the mayor’s installation, for three to six months.

This proposal, which is becoming a whisper campaign even among prominent Democrats, has nothing and everything to do with Rudolph Giuliani’s stewardship during the past few horrific days.

His harshest critics — and who, at some point, has not been among them? — concede that Mr. Giuliani has shown an inspiring fortitude and a deep-felt empathy. He has acted the way we would all like to think we would act in his shoes.

But more valuable than his pitch-perfect crisis management is the promise of continuity. It may be that Messrs. Green or Ferrer or Hevesi or Vallone or Bloomberg or Badillo would take many wise steps. And we will ask one of them to do so. But not yet; not without giving Mr. Giuliani the opportunity to put to work his eight years’ experience and his unique understanding of the landscape we have just entered. None of us can yet imagine how the following months will unfold; we don’t know yet how we feel about yesterday, much less tomorrow.

Every mayoral candidate will tell you that he is doing everything possible to divorce politics from the tragedy. The boldest and most humane recourse would be to defer the politics until the tragedy is more manageable, giving the mayor and the city time to begin a recovery, and giving the mayoral candidates a chance to hold an election that everyone can live with. Constitutionalists might say that moving the election breaks the orderly democratic transfer of power. But in fact, a postponed vote would produce a far more orderly transfer.

Privately, many Democrats will say they don’t want to give Mr. Giuliani one extra hour in office. Publicly, they say that extending Mr. Giuliani’s term by pushing the vote is impossible. It is not: it would, however, require an unprecedented show of unity among Democrats and Republicans in Albany. Legislation would be required to amend state election law and the State Constitution. Democrats cite other complications: the difficulties of holding an election in the heart of winter, for instance, or the need to recalculate government pensions based on an elongated or shrunken term.

The strongest Democratic objection is a democratic one. Martin Connor, the Senate’s Democratic minority leader (whose district includes the Financial District) and an election-law expert, concedes that moving the election is “a legal possibility.” But, Connor says, “The overwhelming political sentiment is to demonstrate that we will hold elections in the year scheduled. People feel strongly about this, [they are] pretty proud of the fact that during World War II, going back to the Civil War, we’ve always conducted elections in the same year.”

Moving the election, Connor feels, would award the terrorists another victory. The truth is, the important victory is the next one, measured by how quickly and well we right ourselves amid this extraordinary disaster, a disaster that in some ways has only now begun.

On the one hand, you could say I was spectacularly wrong that the city couldn’t rebound strongly without Giuliani.

On the other hand, maybe the reason it did rebound was because Bloomberg was the guy who got elected.

On the third hand, just because New York City is losing its appetite for term limits doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be embraced elsewhere … like in U.S. Congress?

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  1. DanB says:

    Why would he worry about “significant political risk?” I’d be more worried about the maximum political risk if he doesn’t get the law changed.

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  2. jonathan says:

    If you’re otherwise required to leave office, what risk is there in trying to change the law so you can stay?

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  3. doug says:

    By enacting term limits, the people have solved a major flaw in our representative government. It’s time for this to be given serious thought again at the federal level.

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  4. Colen says:

    Why was the term limits law passed in the first place? Presumably there was a reason. Then, is Bloomberg seeking a third term in defiance of that reason?

    I’m from the UK, so I don’t quite ‘get’ term limits.

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  5. JK says:

    Amen to term limits for Congress! I have never been so disgusted this week than to hear some congressman say that everyone was too afraid they’d lose their job to vote for the bailout. I don’t know if the bailout is a good idea or not. The point is that their priorities are to save their own jobs and not their constituents’ jobs. Wrong answer!

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  6. tim says:

    “On the one hand, you could say I was spectacularly wrong that the city couldn’t rebound strongly without Giuliani.”

    No one hand about it – you were spectacularly wrong. The beauty of our system is the peaceful transfer of power from one person to another. The risk of someone ‘good’ at the job being replaced by someone ‘bad’ is greatly outweighed by a single ‘bad’ person staying in the same position for 35 years. The system needs change to stay remotely honest and transparent.

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  7. Sean Samis says:

    Term limits are a bad idea. They don’t limit politicians, they limit voters; they limit democracy. If you don’t want Bloomberg to serve a third term, vote for someone else. If someone does want Bloomberg to serve a third term they should vote for him. Term limits take away this choice. It’s anti-democratic.

    We have always had term limits: vote for the challenger. If you can’t get enough other people to vote for the challenger, is it fair to take their choices away?

    sean s.

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  8. Alex says:

    I cannot get over how foolish this post by Mr. Dubner reads.

    The voters elected to have term limits, and expressed that will directly. Twice. Why did they do this? They were convinced that term limits would yield better results. I don’t happen to agree with that, but that was their decision.

    Now, with an official you like, you want them repealed or loosened? What happend to the rule of the people or the rule of law? You are talking about exceptionalism, where one mayor is worth changing the rules for. You like Bloomberg, so you don’t want term limits. Or, that is the only argument you are putting forth.

    The real issue is not whether you get your optimal outcome this time. It is whether the city is most likely to get the optimal outcomes in the series of electons down the road. In other words, it is not about Bloomberg or 2009.

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