Did Term Limits Test the Voters' Limits?
September 16th, 2009

At least four and as many as six City Council members lost their jobs yesterday. That may not sound like many — there are, after all, 51 council members and at least 37 of them got four more years. But given that 97 or 98 percent of incumbents generally get re-elected, yesterday’s election seemed akin to bloodletting — “not quite a revolution but a revolt,” as the Daily News put it.

In the last 12 years, according to the News, only three incumbents have lost. Yesterday, four — Alan Gerson, Helen Sears, Kendall Stewart and Kenneth Mitchell — went down to defeat. Maria Baez remains 90 votes behind Fernando Cabrera, and Thomas White is holding on to his seat by a six-vote edge. Some other members just managed to hang on to their posts. Darlene Mealy, for example beat out her closest competition by 133 votes, while Diana Reyna won with a 273-vote edge. Even Christine Quinn, the council speaker who has never faced a primary in her Manhattan district, encountered heavy competition, though she bested two challengers with 52 percent of the vote.

So what happened? It depends on who you ask, but many believe the council’s extension of term limits played a key role.

“What tied Ms. Baez and all the defeated veteran council members was their vote last fall to extend the two-term limit that had been upheld by voters in two earlier referendums,” Sam Roberts wrote in the Times. “This was the voters first opportunity to register their disapproval, and a record number of candidates took advantage of the backlash by mounting challenges in the primary. The groundswell may be a bad sign for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who was instrumental in persuading the council to grant the extension so that he, too, could seek a third term.”

That, certainly, is what the Democratic mayoral candidate William Thompson Jr. hopes. Leading a crowd in chant of “eight is enough” at his victory speech last night, Thompson said, “Mike, you told us over and over again that overturning term limits would be a disgrace. But the fact is, when it was in your best interest, you hijacked democracy and overruled the will of the voters.”

While term limits played a role for some voters, others issues were on the table too.

For one, term limits likely had nothing to do with Mitchell’s defeat. He was not even in the council when the vote took place.

In Gerson’s case, Washington Square Park blog thinks issues other than term limits “tipped the scale,” including the controversial renovation of Washington Square Park.

As for Baez, Bronx News Network said anger over the term limits extension “was not the prime reason” for her defeat” and noted that two other embattled Bronx incumbents, Larry Seabrook and Oliver Koppell, won yesterday. Koppell not only voted for the extension — he championed it.

Baez, though, Bronx News Network said, was on the losing side in the fight for control of the Bronx Democratic Party and “had been the subject of investigative articles [that questioned her low attendance record (she attributed this to health problems) in the City Council as well as allegations of doling out tax funds to questionable charities.”

Stewart also faced a panoply of issues. Two members of his staff pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges arising from the City Council slush fund scandal. Stewart has denied any wrongdoing — and has not been indicted — but at a forum in his East Flatbush district last week, several residents expressed skepticism. Articles have noted numerous longstanding violations in an apartment building he owns, and he claimed the support of several politicians who said they had never endorsed him. In past elections, he managed to eke out narrow victories in very crowded fields. This year, his good fortune ran out.

Sears, Michael Saul of the Daily News observed on the Brian Lehrer Show this morning, is “pretty elderly and is viewed as not being aggressive or helpful with constituents.”

Still, Saul said, in all three cases, “term limits played a role.”

Other observers teased out other trends.

In comments on Facebook, political consultant Joseph Mercurio said, “The single most important reason why so many council incumbents went down was the extraordinarily low turnout” because “when it gets down to such low numbers casual knowledge and name recognition mean less … and actually knowing a large number of voters, having organization, personalized contact, a real social network and known accomplishments mean more.” The idea of a voter revolt over term limits, he wrote, “is goo goo wishful thinking.”

While having voted for the term limits extension hurt, having the Working Families Party endorsement helped, City Hall found. (The party runs its own slate in the general election, but also endorses candidates in the Democratic primary who, if they win there, then run on both lines.) According to City Hall, every Working Families Party candidate won on Tuesday except for Richard Aborn, the party’s choice for Manhattan district attorney, and Queens council candidates Lynn Schulman and S.J. Jung.

The party may pick up more victories in two weeks, City Hall said, when its choices John Liu and Bill de Blasio are in the runoffs for comptroller and public advocate respectively. The Working Families Party and its private company, Data and Field Services, which has been the target of investigative reports in City Hall over the past weeks, have been particularly aggressive in pushing de Blasio’s election.

By on September 16, 2009, 11:04 am
In category: Electoral Politics,Gotham City,Governing | Comments Off on Did Term Limits Test the Voters' Limits?

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