Many prominent New Yorkers saw it as the coming of the apocalypse:
“Disastrous!” -- City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr.
“Shambles!” -- Councilmember Stanley Michels.
“Deadly and dastardly!” -- Councilmember Julia Harrison.
“Chaos in government!” -- an editorial in the New York Times.
For years, the message was repeated in television commercials, newspaper articles, courtrooms, and on the steps of City Hall. But it was not an economic recession, a Wall Street crash, or even the possibility of a terrorist attack that caused such alarm.
It was term limits.
Despite the dire warnings, New Yorkers voted twice - in 1993 and 1996 - to restrict local elected officials to just two terms in office.
Of course, not everyone shared in the doom and gloom.
In a City Council with some members who had been in office since the Nixon administration, many predicted a civic renaissance of new people and ideas in government.
“New York City cast a historic vote,” said Ronald Lauder, the billionaire who financially backed the term limits movement. “And government here will never be the same.”
On December 31, 2001, New York experienced the greatest turnover in government in the city’s history. The mayor, comptroller, public advocate, four of the five borough presidents, and two-thirds of the members of the City Council were kicked out of office.
This year, term limits will once again play a role in the political season. (See Gotham Gazette's Campaign 2005) Seven more legislators - the Manhattan Borough President, the Speaker of the City Council, and five veteran council members - will be forced to leave office. (See a chart of who is term limited in 2005)
But more than three years after term limits went into effect, how much has changed in government and in New York City?
TERM LIMITS: PRO AND CON
The debate over term limits is as old as democracy in America.
George Washington voluntarily stepped down after two terms as president, a tradition that continued until Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only president to serve longer; the 22nd amendment passed in 1951 made sure that never happened again. Since the subject was debated at the first Constitutional Convention, the arguments for and against term limits have remained generally the same.
Proponents argue term limits can:
- Bring fresh views and opinions to government
- Make representatives more responsive to the people
- Help eliminate abuses that come with an unlimited tenure
- And overcome the insurmountable advantages of incumbency and make elections more competitive.
“The more secure an office holder, the more his interests would diverge from those of his constituents,” Andrew Jackson once said.
Those opposed to term limits argue that they:
- Remove the most experienced people from government
- Strengthen the role of lobbyists and government staff
- Weaken the legislative branch of government
- And create politicians who are more concerned about their next job than serving voters.
If voters want to kick someone out of office, opponents of term limits say, they can always do so in the next election.
“Much safer is it, and much more does it tend to promote the welfare and happiness of society to fill up the offices of government after the mode prescribed in the American Constitution, by frequent elections of the people,” argued Samuel Adams.
HISTORY OF TERM LIMITS IN NEW YORK CITY
Term limits came to New York City in 1993, thanks to wealthy businessman Ronald Lauder, who after an unsuccessful run for mayor decided to financially back the movement. The group New Yorkers for Term Limits gathered nearly 130,000 signatures, took the city to court, and won a State Supreme Court ruling to put the issue on the ballot.
In November 1993, New Yorkers voted to “limit all elected officials in New York City to two consecutive terms in office” by a vote of 59 to 41 percent.
Term limits has never had support from the traditional sources of power in New York. Most politicians, newspaper editorial pages, and good government groups opposed the measure. (Read a Citizens Union report on term limits in pdf format)
Lawmakers have tried to overturn it at various points in recent years.
In 1996, the City Council tried to amend the term limits law, placing an initiative on the ballot to extend terms from 8 to 12 years and creating “staggered terms.” Voters rejected the idea.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, outgoing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that given the dire state of the city, he should be allowed to remain in office at least for a few months to help ease the transition in government. The effort stalled in Albany, where Democrats were eager to see the mayor out of office.
In 2002, term limits again became an issue when City Council Speaker Gifford Miller proposed an amendment, arguing that a quirk in the law would force him and five other members out of office after serving less than eight years. Michael Bloomberg opposed the measure, but the council overrode his veto. A court upheld the new law, allowing Miller, who is now running for mayor, to stay in office until the end of 2005.
WHAT HAS REALLY CHANGED?
In the first few months of 2002, the dire predictions that term limits would lead to chaos in government were proved wrong.
Mayor Bloomberg hired new staff and the City Council elected Gifford Miller as the new speaker. Both branches of government quickly began the tasks of managing the city and trying to address a serious budget deficit.
It is impossible to predict what a Giuliani third term would have looked like and how he and the former council might have handled situations like the rebuilding of lower Manhattan, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s financial problems, and the fiscal crisis.
But there are a few tangible things that probably would not have occurred without term limits.
Michael Bloomberg was successful in gaining control of the city schools, something Giuliani and other mayors sought, but Albany refused to give. (Many New Yorkers do not agree that reforms have had tangible results.)
But one can argue that some of Bloomberg’s ideas -- such as the 2012 Olympics, the 311 non-emergency line, a plan to build 100,000 units of housing, or new efforts to address homelessness -- would not have happened if Giuliani had been reelected.
In the City council, lead paint legislation is one of the clear distinctions from the past. The courts eventually struck down the version of the law passed by the previous council. The current more stringent regulations, which former Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. opposed, would probably never have come up for a vote.
Other bills like “living wage” legislation, domestic partnership benefits for employees of city contractors, and bans on predatory lending were discussed in the past, but never voted on.
Today, many of those who once opposed term limits as an anti-democratic measure that limited the choice of voters have been pleasantly surprised by the result.
“My initial reaction to the term limits was negative, but the experience of how they have worked has changed my mind,” said John Mollenkopf, professor at the City University of New York. “On balance, I think this feature of government does create openings for fresh thinking and new leadership.”
“The days of ridiculing the council as 'less than a rubber stamp’ are long gone,” said Neil Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which opposed term limits. “And the days when the council spent most of its time naming streets are also over.”
A CIVIC RENAISSANCE?
Predictions that term limits would spark a radical change in government have not materialized either.
Critics of the City Council point out that the lawmakers still debate resolutions about international relations, draft meaningless legislation, and hold hearings on matters over which they have no authority.
Many of the old political traditions continue. Committee assignments are still doled out in return for political favors, and nearly every vote in the City Council is unanimous because the speaker controls the legislative agenda. And the City Council does still change street names.
There have also been a fair share of scandals and embarrassments at City Hall in recent years, including indictments, charges of sexual harassment, and corruption in city agencies.
“At best I’d call it a wash,” said Republican Councilmember James Oddo, who was a proponent of the term limits legislation. “In the previous council, a bunch of dead wood was forced out, but a lot of good people were pushed out as well.”
A NEW FACE OF GOVERNMENT?
Part of the reason for the continuation of the status quo is that those elected since term limits went into effect are remarkably similar to their predecessors.
The majority of the new officials came through the traditional pathways to power, working on the staffs of elected officials or in city government, earning the backing of the county parties, and seeking the endorsements from the outgoing official. Ten of the 51 current council members are relatives of New York politicians; four are former state legislators.
When it comes to gender and race, little has changed. Of the 59 people holding local elected office today, there are the same number of women (19), one more Latino (11), and three more African-Americans (15) than in 2001.
The most notable exception is Flushing Councilmember John Liu, who is the first Asian American elected to city government, having replaced Julia Harrison, a council member who served for 16 years and once referred to immigration in her district as “an invasion.”
In a city where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans five-to-one, term limits has not radically altered the political landscape. Including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there are only four Republicans in local office, two fewer than in 2001.
However, one of the biggest beneficiaries of term limits may be the Working Families Party, a political party formed by labor and community organizers in 1998.
In the 2001 elections, many candidates, looking for additional support outside of the Democratic Party, sought out the Working Families endorsement. Once in office, these officials have advocated for changes in welfare-to-work regulations, worked closely with labor unions, and lobbied against budget cuts to social programs.
“Term limits has been deliciously ironic,” said Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party. “It was instigated by the right and has done nothing but help the left. Ronald Lauder’s millions helped community organizations and labor become better represented in the council.”
MORE COMPETITIVE ELECTIONS?
In the past, incumbent City Council members were basically assured of reelection. Proponents of term limits have long argued that the only way to create competitive races is to bar the incumbent from running.
In 2001, term limits, coupled with the city’s campaign finance program, which offered as much as $4 in public money for every $1 a candidate raised, produced a record number of new candidates, sometimes with half a dozen candidates or more running for one seat.
But many less experienced candidates found that while the incumbent was out of office, there were other significant obstacles to overcome.
District lines are drawn with specific political goals in mind. Hundreds of candidates were knocked off the ballot for minor irregularities when the local Democratic organizations took them to court. And others dropped out under the strain of mounting legal bills.
"Using these type of shenanigans to deny the voters the right to choose is shameful," said Inderjit Singh, a candidate who has been repeatedly knocked off the ballot in Queens.
In 2003, the power of incumbency was once again evident; all incumbent council members - two thirds of which had only served two years - were reelected, most by a wide margin.
Again this year, the vacant seats are generating the most interest. The race for Manhattan Borough President, for example, already has ten candidates, most of whom currently hold political office.
THE ROLE OF STAFF AND LOBBYISTS
Another concern about term limits was that when a new class of less experienced lawmakers came into office, the government staff and lobbyists who work behind the scenes would gain more power.
Most experts argue that staff and lobbyists already have more influence than politicians want to admit, and that they haven’t seen a great shift in the power structures of City Hall.
“A staff member has always whispered into the ear of the council member to tell them what question to ask or how to vote,” said Neil Rosenstein of NYPIRG. “And they still do.”
But some advocates say term limits has changed their strategies.
Rather than working for years on the same issue with the same group of politicians, advocates are already looking ahead to the next election to influence candidates and build a relationship with the next speaker.
“You don’t have to wait for 20 years, until someone dies or their kid takes over or they are indicted,” said Joshua Klainberg of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “With term limits you lose friends, but you also lose enemies.”
One significant change from the past is an escalating battle over legislation between the mayor and the City Council.
In his first three years in office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vetoed 27 bills passed by the City Council, four more than Rudolph Giuliani vetoed in eight years in office. And the City Council, with its overwhelmingly Democratic caucus, has overridden every veto.
Some argue that the constant back and forth of vetoes and overrides is healthy, an essential part of the system of checks and balances.
But some say term limits have created unnecessary conflict between lawmakers who are looking to establish a record to distinguish themselves for their next run for office.
“Vetoes paralyze government,” said former Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr., who remains an adamant opponent of term limits. “A veto should be the exception and not the rule. There is not time to analyze and consider and reach compromises as in the past.”
LESS RESPONSIVE OFFICIALS?In 2001, term limits cleared out a class of people who had been in office for decades, but in the future it will put many politicians, who are just beginning to establish a record and a political identity, out of a job.
Gifford Miller, for example, is 35 years old with nine years of experience in the council; he has only been speaker since January 2002. If he is unsuccessful in his bid for mayor, he will have to wait for another opening in government if he wants to remain an elected representative. Three current council members are running for Manhattan Borough President.
On one side, politicians are eager to make a record for themselves and to win over voters.
“People realize they have a shelf life and have to make a name for themselves quickly,” said Oddo.
On the other side, some believe this lack of job security may actually be bad for citizens.
“You have bright people with experience focusing on their career rather than the job they are doing,” said Councilmember Phil Reed, who will be forced out of office at the end of the year.
A WEAKER LEGISLATIVE BODY?
Many experts say that it is still too early to tell the lasting impact of term limits particularly in the City Council, which was expanded and given more powers in 1991 and is still learning how to exercise all of its authority.
“It seems to me the next turnover and what happens in its wake - for example who gets the speakership after Miller leaves office - will be particularly instructive as to how the council as an institution works with term limits,” said Mollenkopf.
Many say that it takes a legislator one or two years to really get a sense of the job. And it is likely that the next Speaker of the City Council will only serve for four years, which means shortly after gaining the position he or she will be considered a “lame duck.”
New York already has a strong mayoral system of government and the legislative branch is at a disadvantage. A weak speaker, many believe, also means a weak council. And with a revolving door of officials constantly leaving and arriving, it may be difficult for the council to establish an identity and agenda.
“The longer term limits continue the weaker the legislature will become,” said Peter Vallone, Sr.
But term limits is not likely to change anytime soon. For the measure to be appealed or amended it would take an act of the state government in Albany, a place where government has become so entrenched with incumbents and political interests that some wonder if the only way to bring change is to institute term limits on the state level as well.