Struggling to Hold Back the Bloomberg Tide

Everyone who matters, it seems, is on board with a proposal to extend term limits legislatively to allow the mayor, and city lawmakers, the chance to run for a third term in office.

The popular mayor, who has lots of money, wants it. So does City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the leader of the body that has to approve it.

The only thing standing in the way at the moment is a hastily formed, ad hoc opposition group that includes two of the mayor’s would-be Democratic successors, labor organizations, good-government groups and, so far, more than a third of the sitting members of the City Council, as well as a handful of vocal citizen critics.

But that disorganized opposition is putting up a stronger fight than many observers expected.

“It’s something that’s good for most of the members, and both the speaker and mayor are for it. That’s a hard group to overcome,” said political consultant Jerry Skurnik.

But, he said, “it seems to me the opposition is stronger than I thought it would be.”

It should be said that, in the end, they’ll probably lose.

At press time, the opposition on the Council appeared to have a slight edge, with 19 members publicly declaring that they would vote against a bill changing the term-limits law, 15 members saying they were for it, and 17 members undecided, according to a running tally by New York 1 News. But 11 of those undecided members are in their second and (for now) final term in the Council, and do not have obvious second careers lined up.

And the public—ostensibly the offended party in an arrangement to undo the results of two referendums on term limits—isn’t exactly united in outrage at the idea of an extension, with a majority backing the idea of giving the mayor four more years, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released on Oct. 3, a couple of weeks into the Wall Street meltdown.

The political price, in other words, simply may not be steep enough to keep term-limited members from voting for self-preservation.

“It might offend some people in your district and they might not vote for you for reelection if you run,” Mr. Skurnik pointed out. “On the other hand, if you don’t vote for it, legally, you can’t run for reelection. My guess is, a majority will decide, ‘Well, I have more of a chance of getting reelected if I run than if I don’t run,’ and therefore they’ll do it.”

It didn’t have to be this way, say opponents of the mayor’s plan.

“I don’t understand something,” said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, after a protest on the City Hall steps Sunday afternoon. “I think all of us, I’ve said, would go out there and work for it,” and “then he’d win overwhelmingly.”

Ms. Gotbaum was standing next to Councilman David Weprin of Queens, who had earlier told reporters, “I’d prefer three terms to two terms. However, this is about the process. It’s about democracy. It’s about an abuse of power.”

Some elected critics are recent converts to the movement.

Take freshman Councilwoman Darlene Mealy of Brooklyn, who, after a Friday morning visit from NY1 reporter Roger Clark, said she opposed the plan. She had previously declined to state a position when asked by the Daily News. “It has to be done by the people,” Ms. Mealy told the station.

Another council member from Brooklyn, Eugene Mathieu, had walked out of City Hall last week telling reporters he was just “an observer,” and had not made up his mind on the issue. Then came an on-air question from Mr. Clark, and Mr. Mathieu declared his opposition.

Other members were early opponents of changing term limits. These have tended to be habitual contrarians, many already in bad odor with both Mr. Bloomberg or Ms. Quinn.

At an Oct. 10 press conference on the City Hall steps, critical comments by Mr. Weprin, a bookish number-cruncher who is not normally a rebel, were immediately followed by comments from Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who gives his Democratic colleagues fits on a regular basis.

“I feel the people already spoke,” Barron said. “In 1996 the people said they wanted us here for only eight years. In ’93, they said they wanted us here for eight years. I personally think we should defeat the mayor’s legislation and that should be it.”

He sliced his hand across the air.

Non-incumbent opponents include civil liberties activist Norman Siegel; Mark Green, the former public advocate; Gene Russianoff, the lead attorney for New York Public Interest Research Group; and Randy Mastro, former deputy mayor for the Giuliani administration.

Mr. Green, who narrowly lost the 2001 mayoral race to Mr. Bloomberg, took a direct and personal shot at the mayor, saying the bill is the result of an out-of-control billionaire who is “being misled by personal ambition”; Mr. Mastro has offered his legal services to the extension opponents pro bono.

Another group opposing Mr. Bloomberg is the Working Families Party, led by executive director Dan Cantor. His labor-backed organization has begun tracking the position of council members, and has been raising money to run ads in hopes of pressuring enough lawmakers to block the plan. The group even “blitzed” an undecided councilman, David Yassky of Brooklyn, sending volunteers unannounced into his district to pressure him on the issue.

Mr. Cantor has sought to portray this as an abuse of power being perpetrated against the masses of voiceless New Yorkers, which, generally, fits into the message labor often delivers to its members. The fact that Mr. Bloomberg negotiated, in private, and won over the support of billionaire term-limits activist Ron Lauder almost doesn’t need to be said.

“We’ve had two citywide elections on this very topic,” Mr. Cantor said at a press conference last week. “Even Hugo Chavez had a referendum and abided by the results. Mayor Bloomberg should do the same.”

Other labor officials not directly involved in this effort have said that organized labor was hoping to use the 2009 mayoral election to “leverage” better policies and contracts from the next administration.

And then there’s East Village artist Suzannah B. Troy, whose preferred medium is YouTube.

In one video, Ms. Troy says, “I’m embarrassed for the City Council people that want to decide for New Yorkers and not let us have a say.”

Ms. Troy speaks straight to the camera in videos, usually a minute long, that feature little more than her face, shoulder-length hair and background noise from whatever café she films from.

Her first video, posted the day Mr. Bloomberg announced he wanted another term, is titled “Mayor Bloomberg ‘King of New York.’”

In it, Ms. Troy says, “He’s not going to
break any laws to do it. He’s just going to change the laws.”

It is, Ms. Troy says, a “new, hideous New York.”

apaybarah@observer.com

Struggling to Hold Back the Bloomberg Tide