Thursday, October 23, 2008

Third Term Turmoil

Update: It's official: term limits on NYC public officials have been extended from two terms to three. City Room has the details.

I'd like to take a break, just for a moment, from national politics.

Over at the NY Times, City Room is reporting that, "The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations voted unanimously on Thursday morning to extend term limits for New York City’s elected officials." This would be a big step forward for Mayor Bloomberg's aspirations of running for a third term.

There's lots of righteous indignation popping up in the comments below the article, which baffles me for a few reasons:

Mayor Bloomberg is wildly popular. Even after announcing his desire to run for a controversal third term, his approval rating remains at 69%, not far from his previously recorded 71% approval rating, which was noted by Quinnipiac University in July.

Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking: Mike, you moron, mayoral approval ratings are not the same thing as wanting to extend term limits. Well, that's a fair point, which is why I linked to that Quinnipiac poll. It notes a not-so-insignificant 56% of New Yorkers are against extending term limits. Why? I suspect they're confused. I will explain.

There are two refrains I keep hearing from people:

First, that getting rid of term limits makes "a shambles of democracy." But no one is proposing getting rid of term limits, just extending them. Yes, the President of the United States is restricted to serving only two terms. But Senators and House Representatives in Congress are not. Of course, the Mayor of New York City is neither of those things, so, how about we decide for ourselves?

Which brings me to the second oft-invoked refrain: the voters of this city have already voted against extending term limits. This is true, the voters did do this... over a decade ago! In 1993 and 1996, to be exact.

So, let's take another look at that Quinnipiac poll. Scroll all the way down to the bottom, where respondants graded the performance of NYC's recent mayors. Mayor Bloomberg has by far the best A and B ratings:

73% rated Mayor Bloomberg A or B
52% rated Mayor Giuliani A or B
52% rated Mayor Koch A or B
30% rated Mayor Dinkens A or B

But I'm not listing these other mayors because it makes Bloomberg look good. What's impressive is how poorly these other mayors were viewed, in particular Mayor David Dinkens, who, by the way, got a D or F from 31% of respondants, and who, by the way, was the Mayor of New York City when voters took up the issue of term limits in 1993.

As for 1996, that was Mayor Giuliani, who wasn't yet out of his first term, and who got a D or F from 25% of respondants. Only 10% gave Bloomberg either failing grade.

My point? There are certainly arguments to be made for or against term limits, but "the voters have spoken" is not one of them. Like it or not, voting on term limits is by and large nothing more than a reflection of the public's approval of a sitting mayor. The failure of voters to extend term limits needs to be seen through this lens, as nothing less than a repudiation of Mayor Dinkens and as uncertain, at best, of Mayor Giuliani.

Should the public get to vote on term limits again? Of course, and it will. It should (and will) also have the choice to vote for Mayor Bloomberg, by far the most effective and well-regarded mayor in New York's recent history.

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