Until Mayor Michael Bloomberg stepped in to quiet the conversation on Monday, there was talk last weekend of an effort to undo the city’s term-limits law so Mr. Bloomberg could run for a third four-year term. It was just a trial balloon, but the fact that the conversation took place at all was troubling. Mr. Bloomberg has done a remarkable job as the city’s chief executive, but the law is the law. And it’s a good one.
The city’s voters, not its political class, approved term limits in 1993 in a citywide referendum. For the most part, the complaint was not with long-standing chief executives, but with calcified council members who hung around forever at considerable taxpayer expense. Mayors rarely stick around very long—in fact, only three have served more than two terms since the formation of greater New York in 1898: Fiorello LaGuardia, Robert Wagner and Ed Koch. Council members, on the other hand, tended to regard their first two terms as mere preparation for a lifetime on the public payroll.
There have been several efforts to subvert the term-limits law in recent years. For example, in 1996 the Council sought to persuade voters to give members an extra term, but voters rejected the proposed revision in a referendum. And in the aftermath of 9/11, outgoing Mayor Rudy Giuliani suggested that the 2001 citywide elections be postponed, allowing him to continue in office beyond the expiration of his second term. That idea also went nowhere.
It’s clear that the city’s voters like term limits. While it’s fair to note that the Council loses a sense of institutional memory as members leave after eight years, the alternative is worse. In Albany, where legislators are not bound by term limits and district boundaries are drawn to protect incumbents, senators and assembly members routinely hang on for decades. Some serve with honor and integrity, like former State Senator John J. Marchi of Staten Island, who retired in 2006 at the age of 85 after winning election for the first time in 1956. Others, however, appear content to treat the Legislature as a well-appointed retirement home.
Given a choice between fossilization and constant change, New York has opted for the latter, trusting that energy and new ideas will make up for the loss of experience and—dare one say it?—wisdom, which is an unfortunate consequence of term limits.
That’s why Mr. Bloomberg is wise to squash any talk of a third term. That battle has been fought, and the voters have spoken. If Mr. Bloomberg seeks to override the people’s will, his reputation will suffer.
It’s understandable, however, that the mayor and his staff may be finding it useful to suggest that there may be a third act in his remarkable career. Who can forget the slew of glowing news stories about his non-run for the presidency? At the moment, Mr. Bloomberg is suffering from an unavoidable case of Lame Duck Syndrome, which has been known to produce a sudden weakness in a patient’s political muscles. The state lawmakers who rejected congestion pricing, the mayor’s pet project, knew very well that Mr. Bloomberg has only a year and a half left in City Hall. If they suspected the mayor might be harboring, say, gubernatorial ambitions, they might not have been so quick to defy him.
With a third term out of the question, it still may not hurt the mayor to drop a realistic hint here and there about his plans for the future beyond City Hall. Ambition, as any political operator can tell you, is the only cure for Lame Duck Syndrome