Michael Bloomberg is a popular and successful mayor. The city has thrived with him in City Hall. Increases in crime that have bedeviled other large cities in the United States these past years have either been non-existent or far less severe, depending on the category, while police tactics have been less punitive than they were under Rudy Giuliani. A troubled budgetary state following Giuliani’s largess and misspending was stabilized. Public schools have a higher graduation rate since the city took control of their operations. New York has been a leader in an aggressive pursuit of illegal firearms sales. Bloomberg has also been a consummate advocate for the city, traveling to Washington to secure fair treatment from a government too willing to ignore the problems of big cities.
He hasn’t been perfect. Bloomberg is a friend of big developers, helping to secure public money for stadium and arena projects that create few permanent jobs, alter the landscape of neighborhoods, have ticket prices beyond the reach of average New Yorkers, and amount to welfare for wealthy sports franchises and their owners.
Bloomberg’s positive record far outweighs his bad. He is a commonsense liberal in a city of liberals, surrounded by a country that leans to the right. He has been effective at cutting through the logjam of city politics, keeping the city from entering into a decline that many foresaw after 9/11. He has been a welcome change from the bluster and criminality of the Giuliani administration.
Bloomberg is scheduled to leave office New Year’s Eve next year, having served two consecutive terms as mayor, the limit imposed by local legislation. However, there have been rumblings for months that he would seek a third term. Yesterday, these rumblings grew louder, as multiple newspapers in the city reported active, behind the scenes maneuvering for support from city council members to repeal or alter the term limits legislation.
In many ways, the city would be lucky to have him for a third term. Navigating the city through the current economic crisis, predicted to last well into the next administration, will require knowledgeable leadership devoid of the machine politics characteristic of most of the city’s politicians. In a city rife with political dysfunction, trading in a functioning mayor for one of the established politicos could be hazardous in the best of times. These days, it could be considered downright masochistic.
However, the city’s term limit legislation is not some retributive action by the legislature to insure against the rise of another FDR, as is the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. Instead, the mayoral term limits, which also apply to city council members, were enacted by voter referendum...twice. In 1993 and 1996, city voters ratified term limits. Overturning these limits by legislative vote would clearly be defying the will of voters.
Term limits can be a difficult concept, as in the case of a mayor like Bloomberg, who has performed well, and may be deserving of another term. With term limits, the city is effectively being denied the chance to have a proven leader in office after 2009. Ousting good leadership is an unfortunate characteristic of term limits. However, ousting ineffective, dangerous, or potentially dictatorial leadership is its strength. Term limits are designed to prevent the establishment of lifetime power positions and the temptations such power would hold. There is no predictor of when the powerful become corrupt, but extended periods in office only increase the danger of abuse. Term limits remove this danger.
In the case of incompetent leadership, term limits force a reorganization of government. George W. Bush and his team are amazing at winning elections, but terrible at running our government. Term limits address this disparity between electability and governing ability, containing runaway government incompetence to as long as a leader is permitted to be in office. Admittedly, the Bloomberg administration is not incompetent. Future administrations, benefiting from a restructuring of the term limits law, could be. The point is, we have seen incompetent people run government. Allowing these people the possibility of staying in office is more dangerous than kicking out the competent.
Also, the country is full of talented people with fresh ideas. Term limits create turnover in political office, allowing other, just as worthy people, to hold on to the reins of power for a while. Term limits ensure that an ever-changing nation with ever-changing cities also has ever-changing leadership, presumably more responsive to differing needs that inevitably crop up over time.
Changing term limits to allow a single person to run for an extra term in office is dangerous. Put simply, with the good, comes the bad. If Bloomberg is allowed to run for a third term, any future two term mayor or city council member would be able to run for a third term. This includes potential future mayors who would wield power like Newark’s former mayor Sharpe James — corrupt individuals more concerned with power and enriching themselves than with the welfare of their constituents. Some of these people are in the city council chamber now. Despite the best intentions of voters, people like this have an uncanny ability to hang on to power for a long time. Term limits help to ensure that power remains with the people. This sounds like a contradiction, considering the greatest power the people hold is choosing their leaders, something term limits denies. But it’s not. Term limits help to keep a politician grounded, denying the time necessary to become entrenched and disconnected from the electorate, forcing a politician to remain beholden to their will, and not contemptuous of it.
In addition, overturning legislation approved twice by public referendum is a dangerous precedent. The will of the voters should be close to sacrosanct. Denying this will for personal advancement is exactly the type of behavior term limits is meant to prevent. A Times editorial posited that unhappy voters can express their discontent with any altering of term limits at the polls, but this ignores the grip machine politics has on New York. With incumbent races that are largely uncontested, how is a voter to express their unhappiness with their representatives except by not voting? That is no solution.
The future of the city is uncertain. With the prospect of Michael Bloomberg serving another term, that future looks less so. But we as a city are looking forward with timidity. We don’t know how another mayor would perform, while we are reasonably certain how this one would approach another four years. Even further down the road, however, is the uncertainty of how a less scrupulous person would treat their position in City Hall. Times of crisis inevitably pass. Indeed, Bloomberg has over a year left on his current term. In that time, the country and the city could have a better handle on the economy, making the base argument for another Bloomberg term superfluous. Rushing into a decision to extend term limits for the mayor and city council will have dangerous, long-term implications. We should remember that Michael Bloomberg is a good mayor, but elevating him to the role of savior, making a third term a do or die necessity, is ridiculous. If the suggestion is disingenuous on the part of Bloomberg supporters, then it just reaffirms the need for term limits.
Hopefully, at the end of next year, Michael Bloomberg will exit the stage gracefully, handing power voluntarily to a new mayor. Then, he can run for Governor of New York.