Today, the City Council voted to preserve itself, and quite probably Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty, by pushing back term limits, sharply reducing the odds that next year’s elections will do much to change the make-up of New York City government.
In fact, the hard-fought victory of Bloomberg and his circumstantial allies on the Council felt a lot like a prelude to his re-election to a third term, with the mayor’s current approval rating hovering above 70 percent approval and reports saying he’d spend even more money than the record-breaking $76 million he burned through in his 2005 campaign.
And hard feelings over the way in which he achieved his term-limits victory, at least some observers seemed to think, would be short-lived.
“Last time, his number was in the toilet and he still came back to win a substantial victory,” said Democratic consultant Joseph Mercurio. “Ads about this during the mayor’s race next September and October simply won’t resonate with people. Nobody is going to remember this next year.”
It looked suspenseful from the outside as the vote approached, but supporters’ initial vote-counts held up in the end.
“It’s already over,” declared Democratic Councilman Leroy Comrie of Queens, hours before the vote.
And it was.
The bill to alter term limits was supported by the mayor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, three major daily newspapers, and heavyweights in the business and labor community.
The people voting on it were the 51 members of the City Council, 35 of whom were being forced out of office because of term limits. With the exception of City Councilman David Weprin, who chairs the Finance Committee, the bill’s most vocal opponents were people who routinely criticize the mayor and City Council leadership: Bill de Blasio, Letitia James and Charles Barron, all from Brooklyn, and Tony Avella from Queens.
The result of the vote (29 to 22) was a foregone conclusion by mid-morning, as word spread around City Hall that some members who were undecided or opposing the bill were having a change of heart.
City Councilman Jimmy Vacca of the Bronx had said previously that he was against it, but by last night, he was saying that he was weighing his options. This morning, the freshman lawmaker told the Observer, “In my district, many people want the opportunity to vote for him,” referring to Bloomberg.
City Councilwoman Darlene Mealy of Brooklyn, who spoke out against the bill, and told New York 1 News she was opposed to it, had changed her position the night before the vote. A member of the Working Families Party – whose support was crucial to her 2005 election – spoke with Mealy in hopes of bringing her back around. Nobody was around while the two spoke for several minutes in the empty staircase. During the vote, Mealy stood up and said she would support the bill.
Before voting, Councilman Tony Avella directed his public comments to those who support this bill, and said, “You all should be voted out of office for voting for this.” The crowd in the City Council Chambers let lose a brief burst of approving noise, which was quickly hushed down.
Holdouts like City Council members David Yassky of Brooklyn, and Alan Gerson of Manhattan, complained about not sending the issue back to the voters, who approved the current form of term limits in two public referendums in the 1990s. But they both voted for the bill, saying, ultimately, that a 12-year term limit was better policy than an eight-year one.
In the end, the opposition was left to congratulate itself, at least, for putting up a brave fight in the face of insurmountable odds.
“Even though we lost a vote on the floor, very narrowly, we totally won in the court of public opinion,” said Working Families Party Executive Director Dan Cantor. “People were on fire for this. I think we now capture that energy and use it in some very productive ways.”
He added, “Sometimes, just standing up is winning.”
Cantor said Bloomberg’s re-election is not guaranteed since this maneuver tarnished his well-earned reputation as a reformer.
Still, though, he said Bloomberg is “in a very strong position” to win re-election.
“Nothing is guaranteed until you have an election,” said consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “But let me put it this way, You got to make him the favorite.”
“Yes, I think it’s going to look very similar,” said City Councilman Lew Fidler of Brooklyn, referring to the face of city government.
When asked if the mayor’s race was essentially over, Fidler said, “No. Fuck no — it’s not over.”
He said that the two leading Democratic mayoral candidates – City Comptroller Bill Thompson and Representative Anthony Weiner – were both capable of defeating Bloomberg. But, Fidler added, sportingly, “Maybe that makes me a fool. I thought Fernando Ferrer could win it.”
Thompson and Weiner, separately, spoke to reporters after the vote and insisted they would each proceed to run for mayor.
After the vote, Bloomberg walked through the front doors of City Hall and passed a crowd of people who had just left the Council chambers. Bloomberg turned to a few reporters and was about to give some remarks, when he said he was going to wait a moment for a few other reporters to show up.
Then, some demonstrators outside realized the mayor was present.“You liar — you thief” one man yelled.
“Get in your limousine and get the hell out of town!” said another.
Later, at a press conference outside the Grand Hyatt, it was much more welcoming. A throng of reporters assembled to hear Bloomberg talk about the vote.
The mayor was joined by Reverend Floyd Flake, who endorsed Bloomberg in 2005 and whose church has received money from the city.
Bloomberg said, “I heard the vote when I was interviewing judges,” and “I had a smile on my face,” but also “a little bit of a twinge, of ’Oh my goodness, I hope I know what I’m doing here.’”
Before Bloomberg left, I asked him if he thought this re-election would be harder than his previous one.
He said, “I think they’re all hard.” He was still smiling.