Third Term's a Charm

It is a woman's prerogative to change her mind -- or so the saying goes. But in New York City politics these days, it seems that middle-aged male billionaires are the ones flip-flopping down the avenue.

After months of coy flirtation with the idea of a third term, Mayor Michael Bloomberg formally announced in October that he would ask the city council to amend New York's charter to allow all sitting and future mayors and council members to serve three terms. No matter that Bloomberg heartily endorsed the two-term limit in the past, before it was clear that he wouldn't be running for president. The financial crisis, Mayor Mike now argues, is poised to ravage New York City's economy, and only a former investment banker like himself can be trusted to deal with the fallout from the problems created by, er, investment bankers.

Never underestimate the caprices of the superrich, for Hizzoner's cynicism is exceeded by that of Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics scion who sank $4 million of his own fortune into the successful 1993 and 1996 ballot initiatives in favor of city term limits. Lauder has offered to back Bloomberg for a third term in exchange for a seat on a committee that could put the two-term limit back on the ballot in 2010. How craven. Lauder should either support a three-term limit for every politician or support it for none.

Bloomberg has been, undoubtedly, a more-than-competent mayor. Though advocates for issues ranging from education to affordable housing to historical preservation call his record mixed, the facts on the ground are that crime is down, tourism is up, and the mayor has built his second term around a bold plan to make New York City a worldwide leader on environmental sustainability, with the goal of cutting carbon emissions by 30 percent over the next two decades.

So given his 70 percent approval rating and credible claim to a progressive legacy, should liberals and good-government types throw caution to the wind and embrace Bloomberg's power grab? After all, the drive to enact term limits during the 1990s was funded by private interests and part of a nationwide conservative attack on the concept of making a career out of elected public service. In hindsight, many states and municipalities that embraced term limits have come to regret it, realizing that governing, like any other job, is done best by those with expertise and a long view.

Phil Hardberger, the mayor of San Antonio, recently told The New York Times that term limits have been an "unmitigated disaster" for his city. "We do a lot of churning here, but we don't produce a lot of butter," said Hardberger, who is leading a ballot drive to allow officials to serve four terms instead of two.

What's more, term limits haven't brought the rush of new blood that proponents promised. Such laws were supposed to bring waves of women and minorities into office, and they did -- at first. But after the initial crop of new legislators was term-limited out, guess what happened? The next group who stepped up to run for office was predominantly male and white. Under term-limit laws, female and minority politicians never get the opportunity to develop the power bases that white guys have been cultivating for centuries. As a result, since 1995, female representation in state houses has grown faster in states without term limits than those with them.

The evidence certainly suggests term-limit laws, at least for legislators, should be reconsidered. And as distasteful as it is to see Bloomberg ask the city council to overturn a measure approved twice by voters at the polls, ballot initiatives have never been the best way to produce deeply considered, evidence-based public policy.

Complicating any consideration of term limits, though, is the political infrastructure of New York City, where it is notoriously difficult to get onto the ballot. Mayor Bloomberg himself fought tooth and nail in 2005 to prevent former Councilman Thomas Ognibene from challenging him in a Republican primary. And the Democratic Party machine is so entrenched in New York that "independent Democratic" neighborhood organizations, such as the New Kings Democrats, have sprung up throughout the city to provide progressive candidates with an alternative allegiance. Many New York City reformers are irate at Bloomberg's chutzpah and the establishment support it has generated.

The bottom line? With deep support on the city council and in the local press, a third run for Bloomberg is all but assured. The mayor's push was opposed by some of his closest advisers on the grounds that it would detract from their boss' good-government legacy. But ironically, regardless of developments in New York, Bloomberg's self-interested ploy could end up shining a national light on the disappointing track record of strict term limits, a policy whose heyday has come and gone.

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