10/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg and the Arrogance of Power

A quick local note:

It's a banal enough observation that money often drags arrogance in its wake, and power even more so. Here in New York City, our Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is a very very rich man who bought himself a powerful office. Perhaps he's been saved from a reputation for obvious arrogance by the example of his predecessor, and by his own utter lack of charisma, an interesting trait in a politician. What is not obvious, however, can still be very real.

Last November 3—just hours before the Main Event that saw Barack Obama elected president, with public attention very much elsewhere—Bloomberg pushed a bill through the City Council that extended to three terms the two-term limit on elected city office that would have kept him out of the 2009 Mayoral race. He had previously argued that, with the economy in crisis, New York couldn't risk losing his seasoned services. That was Bloomberg's opinion, not that of the voters; his own internal polling had shown no support whatsoever for repealing term limits.

The emergency argument is a bit of a stretch: Giuliani tried that in the wake of 9/11 (how many remember that the attack took place on New York City primary election day? It was postponed) and got a very clear "No way."

The vote to repeal term limits was no sure thing. There are 51 votes on the New York City Council, and Bloomberg got 29 after a few last-minute defections from the opposing side. Councilman Darlene Mealy was one such defector. She apparently had to make some cold hard calculations about the power and resources available to her if she went against the Mayor. "She said she was tired of not getting X, Y, and Z for her district," said a colleague. Council Speaker Christine Quinn was an early opponent who later switched.

Let's be clear: Term limits are not a great idea. In a fully functioning democracy, there'd be no reason to throw out politicians who have been doing a good job and would otherwise cruise to re-election. The only argument in favor of term limits is the tremendous difficulty in unseating incumbents, because their connections are so marketable and valuable to the wealthy contributors who determine political viability. So we turn to term limits and call them a defense of democracy because we are too lazy to take on campaign finance reform, something that really is vital to democracy.

The problem I have with Bloomberg and his pet city councilmen is not term limits or their repeal. It's the fact that term limits for New York City officials were brought in by popular referendum—two referenda, to be precise. There is no more direct form of democracy, and overturning that decision of the people (whether it was a good decision is irrelevant) by a quick and furtive Council vote, in which the personal ambitions and pragmatic calculations of the officials were pathetically on display, just doesn't cut it.

As all observers of New York politics predicted at the time, the vote was brought to court, on the very reasonable grounds that the vote to extend term limits

  • Violated First and Fourteenth Amendment rights because it did not allow voters to be part of the decision
  • Was approved by the same elected officials who will benefit from it
  • Violated a state law that mandates a referendum to modify or annul any law enacted by referendum
  • Violated the city's conflict of interest regulations, because it conferred a political benefit on the elected officials who approved it

A federal court, and a panel of a federal appeals court, did not agree. So we're stuck with Bloomberg's repeal.

And with his sense of entitlement, his apparent conviction that New Yorkers deserve him and that he doesn't even have to make a consistent argument as to why. Take a look at Bloomberg's original announcement that he would seek repeal of the term limits law, if you haven't already (it's the first link in this article.) Did he justify his decision by the state of the economy? I think he did (he also misused the word "enormity," which may be of interest to my fellow grammar freaks.) Now here's the Mayor at the end of May, announcing that the economic situation is easing off and there are positive signs of recovery. Yet when asked if this fact undermines his argument for the necessity of a third term, he dismisses the question as "not serious," and went on to call the question and the questioner "disgraceful"—again and again and again and again.

All of this defensiveness, and the egotism that clearly lurks beneath it, makes me wonder just why the Mayor really does want to hold onto the office. No doubt he considers himself the best man for the job, but then so would a lot of people. Has he proved it to his own satisfaction? Then come to the people with a referendum on term limits repeal, or respect what we said before. Otherwise, it's easy to see him as just another politician who got addicted to making decisions, another ex-executive who has forgotten just who employs whom in his public role. After eight years in office, that is, ironically, a great argument for term limits.