Gotham Gazette

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Musical Chairs: Shuffling Seats in City Government

Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

March 31, 2008 -- This story was updated to reflect the latest campaign finance information.

Pink slips are on the horizon for more than 40 of the city's elected officials, and many are scrambling to keep them at a distance.

To do so, some officials are playing musical chairs, hoping to land seats -- possibly with larger constituencies -- when the music stops in November 2009. Others are shuffling their political decks a little sooner, fishing for possible employment in Albany, where the entire Senate and Assembly will be up for reelection this November (To find out what politicians wants what office, go to Gotham Gazette's "Who's Running for What," our new feature that allows you to check what candidates have already emerged for the 2009 races and where all those term-limited New York City officials may be heading).

All of this is possibly an unexpected consequence of the city's term-limit law -- passed twice by referendum in 1993 and 1996 -- which caps political positions in the city at two full terms. No such limit exists in Albany, where officials can -- and some do -- serve virtually for life.

Aimed at opening up the political process and weeding out career politicians, the city's term-limit law is forcing out about three quarters of the City Council next year, four out of the five borough presidents, the comptroller, public advocate and, of course, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

While the public clearly passed term limits twice, some question whether the eight-year restrictions breed good policy and if it has bolstered the democratic process and public participation. Others wonder whether term limits perpetuate a system of backroom politics where a stagnant staff controls the reins in City Hall and politicians shuffle between the city and Albany or vice versa.

The Mass Exodus

Following the second referendum on term limits, City Hall saw a complete turnover. Officials who had been serving since the 1970s were kicked out of their offices and a barrage of new blood stormed city government in 2001. Outgoing officials predicted disastrous consequences. Incoming leaders said novel ideas would flourish.

Seven years later and some say a little wiser, there were no catastrophes or revolutions, leaving some advocates to question whether a push to extend term limits is merely the work of politicians who want to protect their jobs.

With another upheaval on the horizon, ask one of the 36 council members who are term limited how they feel about the policy, and you might be able to guess their answer.

"I feel like it should be 12 years," says Councilmember Gale Brewer, who is term limited in 2009. "I think eight years is not good for public service, not good for government, particularly not good for the nonprofit community," which needs to get to know their councilmember to provide quality service.

Question some of the members who still have another term, and some of them have a similar answer.

"I've always opposed term limits and believe that we really should go back and rethink term limits," said Councilmember Letitia James, who is not term limited until 2013. "What we are doing is creating a permanent government that consists of lobbyists and staff members."

Before her election as City Council speaker, Christine Quinn expressed support for expanding the term limit cap from two terms to three -- or eight years to 12 -- a position popular among the council members whose support she needed to become speaker in 2005. At the end of 2007, however, she retracted that position. According to a prepared statement, the speaker said: "I believe that overruling the will of New Yorkers -- who have voted twice in favor of term limits -- would be anti-democratic and anti-reform."

Quinn, by the way, is term limited and eyeing a run for mayor.

Any hope for a term-limit extension is lost, at least for now. And for some advocates, that's good.

"It's worse and disingenuous for the City Council to anoint themselves that they are more important than the voters," said Kenneth Moltner, founder of People to Stop a Self Serving Council -- a group that opposes the council's pursuit of an extension of term limits. "The voters may give them 12, if people want to give them 12. If the voters want to give them 16, give them 16."

The Expected Consequences

So far, 120 candidates have filed with the Campaign Finance Board for a 2009 candidacy. Many of those names are new to city politics. Even more officials are mulling a switch, looking at a New York City position from their perch in Albany (more of that later).

According to an analysis by Gotham Gazette, nearly 80 candidates, both declared and undeclared, do not currently hold public office and are looking toward a City Council run in 2009. Some of those candidates said they were more likely to run because they would not be challenged by an incumbent -- who would most likely have the backing of the city's powerful political machinery and the benefits of name recognition among his or her constituency.

"If there weren't term limits, I would have a much, much harder time getting my voice out," said City Council candidate Constantine Kavadas, who is running to replace John Liu in Queens. "Most of the attention always goes to the incumbent."

Bringing in new faces is one goal of the city's term-limit law. But so is eradicating government paralysis and so-called sedentary politics. If officials are constantly changing on eight or four-year cycles and the city is in a perpetual state of campaigning, the reasoning goes, officials will work that much harder to satisfy their constituents.

"The truth of the matter is there is a disconnect after a certain amount of time," said Terry Hinds, a declared candidate for 45th district, a seat currently held by term-limited Kendall Stewart. "You know you're going to win and you stop taking the concerns of the community as seriously as you should."

Another consequence of term limits is many races already have multiple candidates, forcing some to start their campaigns and their fundraising years before the actual election.

In district 19 in Queens, currently held by term limited councilmember turned mayoral candidate Tony Avella, four individuals have already declared their candidacy. One -- Paul Vallone, whose family has a history in Queens politics -- has already raised nearly $50,000 for the race, which is still almost 18 months away.

For citywide office, candidates, many of whom already hold public office, are chasing campaign cash at a far faster rate. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a mayoral candidate, has raised nearly $3.6 million for his 2009 bid, while Comptroller William Thompson has snagged $4.23 million for the same race.

According to a report by the city's Campaign Finance Board, net campaign contributions have surged, far surpassing what they were during a similar election cycle in 2001. Comparing the most recent campaign contribution filing period to a similar period in 2001, contributions have increased by 30 percent.

And the Not So Expected

Meanwhile some term-limited city officials are turning toward the State Legislature to continue their political careers, while some state officials look to snag a spot closer to home.

Already, nearly a dozen state officials have expressed or are rumored to have an interest in swapping out their state seat for one within New York City -- be it a spot in the City Council, a borough president position or city comptroller. For example, both Assembly members Michael Gianaris and Annette Robinson, who had left the council in 2001, are considering seats on the City Council, while Councilmembers James Gennaro and Charles Barron consider runs for state office.

Those attempting to make the switch from Albany to New York City argue that new blood and fresh ideas will come to both bodies, because the two places work very differently.

"The only same thing is that you're elected and that you have a constituency that you have to answer to," said Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, a candidate for Queens borough president.

This shuffle is certainly not unprecedented. Several members of the City Council, including Al Vann and Vincent Ignizio, served upstate before their current positions and vice versa. The trend is on the rise, though, as officials see the effects of term limits settling into City Hall.

"If that’s the case and all you're doing is musical chairs, that begs the question for the proponents of term limits: Have you really met your goal in terms of new leadership and new faces?" asked Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, Jr., a candidate for Bronx borough president.

Under the city's term-limit law, officials are forced out of office when they have served two full consecutive terms. But they are not barred from coming back. So, some former council members, officials who have already been the "victim" of term limits, are hoping for an encore in city government.

Tom Ognibene, a member of the City Council from 1992 to 2001, has declared his candidacy for a special election for Dennis Gallagher's seat in Queens. Gallagher recently resigned as part of plea deal on rape charges. Ognibene said his experience would help him deal with the daunting task of running in back-to-back elections, which is what occurs when an official resigns and special elections are called.

"If you don’t think people should come back and run again, then you don’t vote for them," said Ognibene, who questions the efficacy of term limits.

Swapping Seats and Switching Cities

Voters will have a full house come November 2009, with pairs from Albany or City Hall or even an ace newcomer making their way through the city's political hands. They will see some familiar faces -- and maybe some not so familiar ones.

So turn up the music and watch politicians attempt to swipe seats quickly before their time runs out and their song stops.


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