Many prominent New Yorkers saw it as the coming of the
“Disastrous!” -- City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr.
“Shambles!” -- Councilmember Stanley Michels.
dastardly!” -- Councilmember Julia Harrison.
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
- 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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
“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.
RELATED ARTICLES AND LINKS:
Gotham Gazette’s Campaign 2005
Who Is Term Limited Out of Office in 2005?
Brief History of Election Law in NYC
1999 Citizens Union Report “The Big Turnover: Term Limits in New York City (.pdf)
Power of Incumbency
The Speech that Saved Term Limits - Stephen Fiala, 2001
U.S. Term Limits
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