New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial - and confusing - campaign to increase term limits.
With much of the American electorate focused on yet another reshaping of Capitol Hill, the voters of New York City could be forgiven for being a bit distracted this election season. The Governor’s race was often farcical, the State Legislature was demonstrably broken, and then there was that perennial favorite, whether legendary Congressman Charlie Rangel's ethical problems would take him down before he could make it back to the ballot box (they didn’t). So as voters headed to the polls, it may very well have slipped their minds that during an election season in which a powerful anti-incumbent wave was sweeping across the United States, New Yorkers were finally getting their chance to weigh in on the once electrifying question of term limits.
It’s been two years since Mayor Michael Bloomberg waged a controversial campaign to revise a law forbidding elected officials from running for more than two consecutive terms. In 2008, nearing the end of his time in office and following a much rumoured Presidential bid that never got off the ground, he abruptly reversed his long-held position on term limits. After steadfastly supporting the two consecutive term maximum that city voters had overwhelmingly set in in both 1993 and 1996, Bloomberg began aggressively pressing New Yorkers on the need for a temporary, one term extension. Despite the election being over a year away, he argued there wasn’t enough time to put the question to voters – even though was enough time for the 51 members of the City Council to extend the limit for all elected officials, including themselves.
Many council members were intimidated by Bloomberg, a larger than life incumbent. Others were undoubtedly thinking about their own political careers. The extension passed in a relatively close vote, at least by New York City Council standards. In November 2008, a year out from the 2009 Mayoral election, Bloomberg signed the extension into law. The public felt passed over and disrespected, and voters vowed revenge. But over the next twelve months, something interesting happened. The controversy, which many Democrats believed would raise the ire of principled voters, dissipated somewhat, tempered in part by an oft-repeated sentiment among many middle class New Yorkers: the City was being run effectively.
In November 2009 the gambit paid off in full when Bloomberg squeaked by in a surprisingly close re-election, opposed by angry voters yet helped to victory by thousands of Democrats who went against their own party. He didn’t win because New Yorkers necessarily forgot his blatant end run around the democratic process. He won in spite of it. It was a testament to their faith in his performance rather than any change in their commitment to term limits.
In 2010, the debate resumed, albeit with a lot less fanfare. Bloomberg pledged to bring the issue back before voters and following the Mayoral election, a politically appointed commission held a series of poorly publicized and scarcely attended hearings on the issue. The process was hasty and haphazard, widely panned by the few political observers who cared to follow it. The board decided to include the issue of term limits on the 2010 ballot, but once again this was done with little care and apparently scant concern for the democratic process.
Voters were confronted with a poorly worded and confusing ballot question - two proposals were bundled into a single yes or no referendum on both term limits and the authority of the City Council. Two separate questions, one answer. One of the questions was also hidden away on the back of the ballot, in tiny print. There were no instructions on the front of the ballot about this – nothing to indicate that an important question was to be found on the reverse side. This is important, since New Yorkers were using a new electoral process that combines paper ballots and computer voting, introduced less than two months prior, after decades of a lever based method. Missing from the process was any apparent effort to publicize the initiative or educate voters.
In the months leading up to the vote, both journalists and good government watchdogs complained that the process would be confusing for many voters. To make matters worse, the referendum results only apply to lawmakers elected in 2010 or afterwards. This means current office holders get to serve for three terms, and while the new restrictions will be in effect starting next year, they won’t fully take effect until 2021, when politicians first elected in 2009 finally finish their third term in office.
On 2 November, as voters across the country kicked veteran lawmakers out of office, 74% of New York City voters approved the term limits referendum, in an impressive mandate for an enshrined system of routine political upheaval. But the lopsided margin hides a worrisome statistic for those more interested in civic participation and transparency. According to early released figures, although more than 1.1 million New Yorkers made a choice in the Governor’s race, less than 655,000 people actually voted on the term limits question. Was that due to a lack of interest, or a lack of awareness?
As for Bloomberg, shortly before election day he threw his support behind the referendum, saying he has always been a firm believer in holding politicians to just two terms in office.
Michael Kurtz writes and produces, primarily about politics, for New York 1 News, a 24 hour television channel based out of New York City.