The city was facing an unprecedented crisis. Its outgoing mayor had demonstrated unique leadership ability, rooted in decades of professional experience. None of his potential successors in the upcoming mayoral election had similar strengths. And so, some suggested that the popular and effective mayor stay in office—amending the term limits law that the people of New York had voted on twice.
The New York Times, however, voiced thunderous disapproval. “This is a terrible idea. Neither New York City nor the nation has ever postponed the transfer of power because the public was convinced it could not get along without the current incumbent. The very concept goes against the most basic of American convictions, that we live in a nation governed by rule of law.”
That was 2001. The mayor was Rudy Giuliani. And the city was burning.
Fast-forward seven years, almost to the day, and the New York Times sings a different tune.
“The [term limits] law is particularly unappealing now because it is structured in a way that would deny New Yorkers—at a time when the city’s economy is under great stress—the right to decide for themselves whether an effective and popular mayor should stay in office . . . Mr. Bloomberg, who is expected to announce on Thursday that he will seek a third term if he can, likes the idea a lot. We do, too.” This is situational ethics backed up by politics, not principle—the opposite of what a newspaper editorial board is supposed to do.
The main difference between the crises of 2001 and 2008 is obvious: an actual attack, with thousands of casualties, versus mere anticipation of a long-term budget crisis in New York City and State. A less obvious difference is that in 2001, Mayor Giuliani’s supporters were talking about extending his term in office only by six months or less, to allow for continuity in the clean-up of Ground Zero and a more orderly transition. They were not arguing for overturning the term limits law or ignoring the will of the voters. As it turned out, continuing with the election as planned, even in 2001, proved to be a wise and practical decision. Our city proved that no man is indispensable.
Let’s be honest: the Times opposed Rudy Giuliani’s bid for a term extension because it opposed his dramatic reforms and confrontational style from the beginning. Mayor Bloomberg’s more consensus-building approach, pro-business but steadfastly liberal on social policies, has been much more congenial to the Times editors’ political beliefs. Michael Bloomberg may well be the best man (or woman) among those running to get our city through the oncoming economic crunch and inevitable budget cuts. He might even use this crisis as an opportunity to reduce the city government headcount, a critical but difficult task that he can accomplish if he has the political will—especially since he is not beholden to the municipal unions. If reelected, Bloomberg’s best days as mayor might still be ahead (though history shows that most mayoral third terms end in failure).
But a City Council vote in collusion with the mayor’s office is not the best way to achieve a third term. Nor is such a tactic “democratic,” as the Times attested with almost Orwellian absurdity. There is nothing democratic about doing an end run around the voters.
A far better way would be for the mayor to appoint a Charter Revision Commission, which would put forward a proposal to voters in a special election next spring. The proposal should be limited to extending the mayor and City Council members to three terms each—perhaps staggering Council members’ terms to minimize overlap. Overturning term limits altogether, as the Times suggested, would lead to an ossified permanent government perpetuated by low-turnout city council elections and further undercut the idea of a citizen’s local legislature.
Putting off resolution of this issue until a spring special election would allow sufficient time for voters to deliberate and decide. Given Mayor Bloomberg’s broad popularity, he is likely to get the green light. But going about it in the right way would provide a more stable and democratic foundation for him to govern effectively in a third term.