Did Term Limits Drive Giff Into Premature Run?

In the hours leading up to his defeat in the Democratic Mayoral primary, Gifford Miller campaigned vigorously in front of retirement and nursing homes on the Upper East Side, shouting “You’re my luck!” to the senior citizens.

But Mr. Miller’s luck has, for now, run out.

After his poor showing in the primary, Mr. Miller faces the added agita of retiring from the City Council because of term limits. Despite his boyish energy and vast reserves of ambition, Mr. Miller, 35, will relinquish the crimson Speaker’s chair and bid adieu to the frescoed ceiling of the Council chamber at the end of the year.

Term limits, originally drafted to bring new blood to city government, have changed the city’s political landscape in myriad ways, and not just for Mr. Miller. In some cases, city officials have been prematurely forced to seek higher office, while some polished politicians of national pedigree have taken advantage of term-limit turnover to land placeholder jobs where they can mull bigger and better things. Indeed, there is still fervent debate over whether term limits has put an end to an old class of perpetual seat-warmers or spawned a new class of Machiavellian careerists, constantly plotting their next job.

“Clearly, term limits have had a profound impact on politics in this city,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College. “What you’ve got is no possibility of a career in an office or a long tenure in an office. You’re constantly looking for your next job.” Were it not for term limits, Mr. Muzzio said, Mr. Miller very likely would have served one or two more terms as Speaker before making a bid for higher office. “He would have aged and matured at the same time,” Mr. Muzzio said.

Mr. Miller’s aides aver that he would have run for Mayor this year regardless of when his term ended, yet they readily admit that his political destiny has been tightly tethered to the term limits approved by city voters in 1993. In 2001, when two-thirds of the Council was forced into early retirement, Mr. Miller, then 32, parleyed his improbable status as the Council’s senior member into the post of Speaker, arguably the second most powerful official in the city.

“Term limits are the reason he is where he is,” said Steve Sigmund, a spokesman for Mr. Miller, who declined to be interviewed for this article. “Term limits have their upsides and their downsides.”

One downside, according to some of Mr. Miller’s colleagues on the Council, is that they basically forced him into the kamikaze mission of running for Mayor, despite the obvious peril of a cluttered Democratic field battling for the prize of challenging a popular incumbent. The race for Manhattan Borough President was widely seen as winnable for Mr. Miller, but it would have meant a demotion in power and cost him momentum for bigger things down the road.

Mr. Sigmund said the only thing on his boss’ agenda now is leading the Council and helping to get the Democratic nominee, Fernando Ferrer, elected Mayor. But with two children and a wife (albeit a corporate lawyer) to consider, Mr. Miller must also be weighing his job opportunities.

So will it be a cushy lobby job at a non-governmental organization, like many of his predecessors on the Council have pursued? Or should he angle for a government appointment, or perhaps tarry until his mentor, Representative Carolyn Maloney, yields her seat in Congress?

“If I were him, I would go back to law school,” said Stanley Michels, who ran unsuccessfully for Manhattan Borough President this year and who served as a Council member from 1978 until 2001, when he was barred from running for re-election by term limits. “He’s 35, very talented and very bright. Why are we losing talented people like Gifford Miller?” Mr. Michels asked, adding, “Where are they are going to go?”

Mr. Michels wasn’t alone in lambasting term limits. Other critics said they were inherently undemocratic, in that they denied voters the opportunity to re-elect their chosen candidates. Some detractors noted that, while term limits supplied a welcome injection of new faces and ideas, that freshness came at the cost of draining government’s institutional memory. New York’s Byzantine budget can take time to wrap one’s head around, they argue.

Nevertheless, the era of politicians holding their posts for decades is clearly over. In a 1993 referendum, voters limited the city’s elected officials to two successive four-year terms, a decision that was upheld two years later. That change has had a huge impact on the City Council that Mr. Miller leads, especially since it picked up increased budgetary and land-use powers after the abolition of the Board of Estimate in 1989.

Since term limits came into force in 2001, sweeping away an entire generation of officials, the City Council has attracted not only community activists and local politicians, but candidates with résumés that suggest they might even be somewhat overqualified for their current positions.

Bill de Blasio, a Council member from Brooklyn, worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development before managing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successful U.S. Senate bid. Council member David Yassky, also serving Brooklyn’s affluent downtown area, worked under then-Representative Charles Schumer and helped enact such national legislation as the Brady Law.

A former law professor at Brooklyn Law School, Mr. Yassky has already floated the idea of leaving the Council to run for Brooklyn District Attorney.

“As soon as they get in there, they are looking for their next job, plotting rather than focusing on the job in front of them,” said David Mark, editor of Washington’s Campaigns & Elections magazine, who believes that term limits actually create career politicians.

He pointed to Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, who was Assembly Speaker in the California State Legislature before losing a bid for mayor in 2001. “Then he ran for City Council as a place-keeper. It kept him in public, and he used this as a springboard.”

All of the candidates who ran in this year’s Democratic Mayoral primary served as Council members at one time or another. But because of term limits, none of them—especially the soon-to-be-unemployed Mr. Miller and C. Virginia Fields, who is also term-limited—can use it as safety net.

That means officials milk their time in office for all the notoriety its worth. And some critics of term limits said that Council Speakers have used their power to promote their own agendas in the hopes of making themselves more appetizing candidates for higher office.

“What I’ve noticed, having served with two Speakers, is that term limits tend to result in much of the body’s work being driven by the ambition by the Speaker,” said Bill Perkins, a Harlem Council member whose term runs out at the end of the year and who ran unsuccessfully to replace Ms. Fields as Manhattan Borough President. “I came in the Council when [Peter] Vallone was running for Governor, and then under Gifford. In both cases, the business of the body was tailored to his needs. It’s not good for the body.”

Ready or Not

But for some supporters of term limits, such arguments—especially that it takes time for a Council member to cultivate a full understanding of the issues and budget—are downright risible.

“You tell that to corporate America and they’ll laugh. They do it on bottom lines, not people being around for a hundred years to learn how to do the job. It’s just an old idea that’s come and gone,” said State Senator and former City Council member Martin J. Golden. Mr. Golden clearly didn’t feel badly about Mr. Miller’s predicament.

“I think that Gifford Miller is an ambitious man. I think that he had Mayor on his mind before he came to the City Council. I’m sure we’ll see more of him in the future. But if I just saw the election results, I’d look for private industry.”

Eva Moskowitz, a City Council member who also failed in her bid to replace Ms. Fields as borough president, could have sought re-election but chose the B.P. race instead. She said that she supported term limits because, in a political environment where incumbents are so heavily advantaged, term limits amount to “the only tool in the toolbox.”

Ms. Moskowitz also noted Mr. Miller’s ambitions, but said that he had done an admirable job.

“Given that he was a lame duck almost as soon as he began, he brought the institution to an entirely new level,” she said, adding: “Would Gifford have run for Mayor if he had another four years? In general, does it make sense that term limits get people thinking about moving on more to other things? It’s a complicated calculus.”

Another Council member, Tracey Boyland of Brooklyn, will also be unseated by term limits at the end of the year. But unlike the overachieving activists or officials who went out on a limb in search of higher office, Ms. Boyland has the advantage of belonging to Brooklyn political nobility. Her father, brother and uncle have all held elected office, though her father tried, unsuccessfully, to succeed her in the Council.

She said that the talk in the Council chamber has moved off of budget issues and Mr. Miller’s Mayoral campaign and onto the foggy futures of many Council members.

“They are asking me, and I’m asking them. The key question is: What happens now? Everyone is taking a vacation now. We’ll see in a couple of weeks, and try and pin down what comes next.” Did Term Limits Drive Giff Into Premature Run?