Giff’s Gamble: Plans to Revoke Term-Limit Law

Gifford Miller, the 32-year-old Speaker of the City Council, has only been in power six months, but he’s already a lame duck. Due to a bizarre wrinkle in the city’s term-limits law, Mr. Miller is one of an unfortunate handful of Council members who will be forced out of office on Jan. 1, 2003. This means that the young man known as “Giff” will abruptly lose the fund-raising clout, the high visibility and the city-funded minivan (complete with TV and fax) that are the perks of being New York’s second most powerful elected official.

But Mr. Miller plans to change that. His allies are now openly saying that he will introduce legislation within weeks to amend the current law to allow members who are facing extinction in 2003 to run for another term. Although Mr. Miller won’t say so publicly, his most knowledgeable supporters, including senior Council members and other sources who are close to him, say that he’s going to introduce such a law, perhaps even days after budget negotiations come to an end.

“Once the budget is over, it will be fully appropriate and in the city’s best interests to introduce a bill to rectify these inequities,” said City Council member Eric Gioia of Long Island City, a top ally of Mr. Miller.

“Any thinking person who sees the poorly drafted nature of the law and its unintended consequences will see that it is ripe for change,” Mr. Gioia added. “It would be irresponsible not to take a look at it.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Miller has been quietly sounding out advisers, Council members and other top Democrats to help develop a strategy for modifying the law, according to people familiar with the discussions. In those conversations, Mr. Miller has wondered aloud how to alter the law without being painted as an old-line clubhouse pol trying to manipulate the process for personal gain, one person familiar with the talks said. While the fine points of such a bill have yet to be worked out, Mr. Miller has decided to begin building support for a change in early July, the moment budget negotiations are concluded, the source said.

“Giff’s senior advisers have been discussing this for a period of time,” one Council official said. “We’re going to do it.”

One of the first steps for Mr. Miller, his supporters say, is to persuade fellow Council members that a vote in favor of a change in the law will not be turned against them when they seek re-election.

“No Council member is going to be voted out of office because they supported a modification of the current formula,” said Ethan Geto, a public-relations consultant who is an influential outside adviser to Mr. Miller and has volunteered to help the Speaker in his efforts to change the law. “Term limits is a big political issue for a handful of insiders and editorialists, but it’s not a defining issue for voters.”

Mr. Miller’s predicament is one of the strangest that City Hall has ever seen. It was the term-limits law that allowed Mr. Miller to ascend to the Speakership at such a young age, and he has made the most of his good fortune. During budget negotiations at City Hall, he has successfully played Ed Norton to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Ralph Kramden, delivering the occasional zinger about the Mayor and darting away when Mr. Bloomberg so much as raises his fist-an approach that has inspired some mirth, but which has nonetheless raised Mr. Miller’s profile. People are already talking about his future prospects, discussing the possibility that he will run for Manhattan borough president, or even Mayor, in 2005.

But whatever pleasure Mr. Miller may take in the perks and power of his post is tempered by the harsh reality that they will all vanish in exactly 18 months, one week and five days–thanks to the very law that enabled his ascension in the first place. This is potentially a huge problem for Mr. Miller, because it means he will fade from public view during the two years leading up to the election cycle of 2005.

“It’s important for him to change the law in order for him to remain viable politically,” said one key supporter of Mr. Miller. “Being a lame duck undermines him in two ways. It weakens his authority within the Council, and it impairs his fund-raising because people will think he’s not a good long-term investment.”

But Mr. Miller faces a stiff fight in his effort to amend the law. He will have to figure out a way of selling the public on the idea that there’s something wrong with a law passed -twice-by referendum.

“They are going to have to make their case to a very skeptical electorate,” said Bill Cunningham, the director of communications for Mayor Bloomberg, who favors term limits. “This Council is a product of term limits; they have to tread very carefully so they don’t injure themselves. They have a really delicate balancing act here.”

There are already signs that Mr. Miller is feeling his way around this volatile issue. At least two of Mr. Miller’s senior staff members have devoted some time to studying the issue behind closed doors as the budget negotiations drag on. Even so, the Speaker is said to be wary of going public with discussion about the law, because it would appear untoward to be contemplating such matters at a time when the city is struggling to negotiate a budget during the worst financial crisis in years.

While this reluctance is understandable, the aura of secrecy shrouding Mr. Miller’s discussions are already making it easy for opponents to attack these machinations as nothing more than a back-room plot to hold onto power.

“If they’re thinking of changing what the voters have mandated twice, they should do that in full public view instead of behind closed doors,” Mr. Cunningham said. “We’re not talking about the invasion of Europe to end World War II here. This is a public matter. They ought to just tell us what’s going on.”

In many ways, the behind-the-scenes nature of the talks obscures the fact that proponents of changing the law have a strong case.

The law stipulates that only one of a Council member’s two terms need be a four-year one. This means that the handful of Council members who were elected to their second term in 2001-which because of redistricting will be a two-year term-will be out of office in 2003. Most of the remaining Council members can serve until 2009-creating an arbitrary imbalance that unquestionably runs counter to the spirit of the law. If Mr. Miller fixes that provision, it will not change the law’s central goal of limiting Council members to two terms.

A Lauder Voice

But such arguments are unlikely to persuade the pro-term-limits forces, who aren’t exactly known for shedding a tear over the plight of public officials. This means that Mr. Miller undoubtedly faces a bruising political battle with Ron Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire who spent millions to get the law passed in 1993. Mr. Lauder is almost certain to throw more gobs of cash into a public campaign trashing Mr. Miller when he goes public.

Jeanine Kemm, the director of New Yorkers for Term Limits, Mr. Lauder’s group, refused to elaborate on the group’s plans in the coming battle, noting succinctly: “We’re still in business.”

Given the likelihood of a protracted fight with Mr. Lauder, Mr. Miller’s forces have all but ruled out the prospect of another referendum, leaving only the option of new legislation. But that, too, is fraught with potential problems.

Mr. Miller will almost certainly be forced to mobilize at least 35 Council members to support his position in order to override a likely veto by Mr. Bloomberg. This imperative has already produced a good deal of intrigue around City Hall among Council members whose official line is that they’re wholly focused on the budget. It’s in the interests of other ascendant Council members with their eye on the Speakership for Mr. Miller to vacate his post sooner rather than later. Some City Hall insiders say that two Council members from Queens-Melinda Katz and David Weprin, neither of whom will be forced from office in 2003-have been casting sidelong glances at the Speaker’s office.

Still, Mr. Miller has some noteworthy allies in his fight to modify the law. Enter Mr. Miller’s predecessor, Peter Vallone, who has an inkling of what Mr. Miller is going through, having himself been dispatched by term limits after 15 years as Speaker.

While in office, Mr. Vallone never challenged the will of the voters on the matter of term limits, arguing that the electorate had made its voice heard.

But now that he’s in retirement from politics, Mr. Vallone said he’s placing his personal political-action committee, V-PAC, at the disposal of Mr. Miller in his efforts to alter the law.

“The current law is manifestly unfair,” Mr. Vallone said. “I’m going to use all my time and energy to fix it.”

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