The City Council Elections: The Big Issue Is What’s Left of Democracy

11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the City Council district where I live there is a rare event going on: a contested election for a legislative office in New York City. The election is being contested because the seat is open, and the seat is open because its current occupant - Councilmember Bill DeBlasio - is running for something else. Generally, aside from citywide and statewide positions such as Mayor, Governor, and Senator, we don't really have contested elections in New York. The House of Representatives and state legislature can barely be considered elective offices in New York State at this point - incumbents can keep citizen challengers off the ballot, challengers motivated primarily by ambition don't bother taking on the long odds of running against an incumbent, the media has over the pasts 25 years generally only covered incumbents, and retiring legislators generally leave mid-term, so a new perpetual incumbent can be appointed in a special election few people know about.

At the New York City Council, however, we have had real democratic elections, thanks to term limits. Term limits are not popular with incumbent members of the City Council, even those who say otherwise, because they would like the office to once again be a permanent sinecure that can be willed to the next generation, like the state legislature. Faced with their own possible political demise the Council, working with Mayor Bloomberg, has already voted to modify the limit to three four-year terms, rather than two four year terms, over the heads of voters who had endorsed a two-term limit by referendum, twice. The courts upheld their right, under the City Charter, to change the number of terms as they see fit, even if voters are opposed. The question is what happens next? "Extending" term limits to ten terms, a de facto repeal? Unfortunately, the only candidate I trust on this all-important issue is Rock Hackshaw, who is a candidate in a different district.

I have always favored term limits, in theory and in practice. In theory even if we are to be ruled by a privileged elite, it is good to have a "circulation of the elite," to bring in fresh perspectives and insure they are forced to pay attention to the rest of us every now and then. I believe it has helped the City Council, and have far more general respect for the Councilmembers I'm about to blast than the state legislators. In practice a comparison between the New York City Council under term limits, and the state legislature without them, provides the equivalent of a double-blind test in science, a decade long controlled social experiment. The results are in, and this has been proven with certainty: open seats mean real elections, term limits provide open seats, and there are no real elections without term limits.

In the face of the evidence, the assertion by some that "we already have term limits - elections - and incumbents can always be voted out" is beyond naive - it is dishonest. Particularly when asserted by newspapers that generally only cover the incumbents, or ignore a local election entirely, when a sitting incumbent is running. Might it be better if the political conditions of the long ago past could be re-created? With broad opposing political movements battling it out in primaries within each major political party, minor parties forming and having an impact, a viable Republican Party in New York, and high participation by informed voters? That depends on one's point of view.

What doesn't depend on one's point of view is the actual situation we have today. Most people who pay attention at all only pay attention to elections for President, Mayor and (perhaps) Governor, and ascribe most of the outcomes of public policy to those executive offices. Leaving legislative bodies free to serve narrow interests in anonymity and without the threat of reprisal. The role of local members of these bodies is only brought to the voter's door by the legislators and would-be legislators themselves, and only when a contested election provides an incentive to do so. And real contested elections, between those skilled in politics, only occur if the seat is open.

I suspect that many of those who oppose term limits are really uncomfortable with democracy in general, and see the position of legislator as a job like any other - better held by someone with experience, barring a truly disqualifying event. Particularly if that legislator is from the party that person or organization favors. Unless one is from the proper caste, he or she has no more business running for elected office than I have becoming, without training, a funeral director. Instead of asking whether an incumbent has proven to be uniquely qualified, among all the people living in a district, to serve as a leader, these term limit opponents seem to believe incumbents should only be removed from "their" office if they are uniquely unqualified compared with other politicians.

The New York State Legislature provides evidence of how little value "experienced" legislators have to most people. Most of our long-serving perpetual incumbents have acquired neither knowledge of broad areas of public policy, nor the reputation and trust necessary to remain in office despite taking temporarily unpopular stands, as a result of their experience. What they have acquired is funding connections with special interests, knowledge of how to work the system for personal gain, and expertise in manipulating the election laws to reduce or eliminate electoral competition.

What if we were lucky enough to get a superior public servant in a local legislative office? Wouldn't term limits mean he or she could only serve for eight or twelve years? Actually, with a twelve-year term, they could serve for 48 years: twelve each in the City Council, State Assembly, State Senate, and House of Representatives. Do you believe that even the greatest member of today's NYC Council would have virtually no chance against a hack incumbent in one of the other offices? That once again proves the point about term limits. Every time you shake the tree a few bad apples will drop off - the whole tree rots otherwise.

Now you know, if you didn't already, my position on term limits. Rock Hackshaw's position, from his campaign website, is as follows: "I am for term limits being imposed on all elected officials (federal, state and city/local)." As I've said here on Room Eight, Rock ought to position that statement more prominently. What about those running for office in the district where I live?

I generally make a point of avoiding discussions of individual political races, and individual politicians. For one thing I am far more qualified to evaluate what they have done, and what they say they would do, than the totality of their fitness from office. After all, I don't know these people. For another thing at the state level, my primary focus (because that's where the problem is), they are all on the same side, and the deals and non-decisions I object to pass 212 to 0 or close to it.

But I did make an effort to read through parts of the "issues" section of the seven candidates identified by the Campaign Finance Board. As best as I can determine from a quick read (I couldn't load one website), four of them didn't mention term limits at all. And three have adopted the weasel words pioneered by Councilmember DeBlasio: they are against overturning term limits without a referendum.

Lander: "Brad will respect the will of the voters on term limits, and will not vote for any future changes unless they are approved by public referendum."

Skaller: "Josh opposes the recent extension of term limits that our Councilmembers recently granted themselves, the Mayor, the Comptroller, and the Public Advocate. He was a member of a coalition formed to promote a referendum on this issue."

Zuckerman: "As a Council Member, Bob will fight to ensure that matters first voted upon by the people of New York City in a public referendum, whether on term limits or another issue, can only be undone by the voters and the voters alone."

None of these candidates say flat out that they oppose term limits. But none says flat out that they are in favor of term limits, although they clearly would like voters to think so. What they do imply is that term limits should be gotten rid of the right way, in a referendum so the Council can claim it is what the voters wanted.

For a proposal to extend term limits to ten terms, thereby making them moot, would this count: legislation passed on December 24th to submit the proposal to a referendum in a special election on January 2nd, after first reaching a deal with certain organized interests to get out and vote in favor? How about a referendum on primary day in 2011, when there are otherwise no federal, state or local elections in New York City? Recall that I predicted this would happen in 2007, as a sleazy way of getting rid of term limits by referendum. It turned out that my cynicism, far from being excessive, was in fact insufficient. At the time, in another example of insufficient cynicism, I believed Mayor Bloomberg when he said he was in favor of term limits.

Can we even be sure, moreover, that the three who even bothered to mention term limits would keep their referendum pledge, when push came to shove? I trust Rock because his long history of being a challenger, supporting challengers, and working for challengers shows his view of what elections should be. Not to mention all his Room Eight posts before he became a candidate. How about those who have adopted DeBlasio's position: silent on term limits themselves, but against overturning them without a referendum?

Did the journalists correctly describe Bill DeBlasio's position on term limits, when he was competing with Christine Quinn to become the Speaker of the City Council back in 2005? According to articles I read at the time, there was a bidding war for support between aspirants to that office on the one issue that mattered most to the council members - getting rid of term limits. From the New York Times: "In January, the Council will elect as speaker one of seven Democrats: Christine C. Quinn of Manhattan; Mr. de Blasio and Lewis A. Fidler of Brooklyn; Leroy G. Comrie Jr., David I. Weprin and Melinda R. Katz of Queens; or Joel Rivera of the Bronx. All but an undecided Mr. Weprin said during a recent forum at Baruch College that they favored extending term limits legislatively." Said at a forum? Doesn't sound like an assumption that might be a mistake. I guess these are the things one must do if one is to be a serious politician, and not a person for whom a foolish consistency implies a small-minded hobgoblin.

Of course the Times later endorsed DeBlasio despite that inconsistency. Then again, the Times, like the Post, is entirely consistent about getting rid of term limits by whatever means necessary. Said the Times just before the City Council vote: "This page has always strongly opposed term limits, and we continue to oppose them...If we had our way, the Council would be voting to abolish term limits altogether." That's the City Council, not the voters in a referendum. Perhaps the Times would also favor having he Council eliminate initiative and referendum legislatively, so term limits couldn't come back.

The only non-hypocrite on the list of ex-Speaker candidates is Lew Fidler, who has also been out front opposed to term limits the way Rock is out-front in favor. I've disagreed with just about every stand Mr. Fidler has taken that I've ever heard of, but at least he's a person with whom you can have an honest argument, so at least he sort of has my respect (though being clearly in favor of more privileges for those already favored by New York's public policy, and more sacrifice for those already disadvantaged, only gets one so far with me). Who is to say the other candidates for City Council won't shift with expedience on such a personal issue when the time is right? After all, none of them have said they are in favor of term limits. Not one.

There isn't much to choose from here on the most important issue, which perhaps makes it a good thing that it isn't my choice, as I am not a member of either of the two big political tribes, given what each has done in the era of Generation Greed. So I won't be voting in the primaries. But if I were?

All the candidates in my district promise lots of additional services and benefits, no additional taxes, tolls or fees, and a reduction in the local presence of anything with a citywide benefit, such as development. Only the details vary, as if the choice were between San Claus, Kris Kringle, and Father Christmas. Someone else, somewhere else would presumably be sacrificed. Thus, all these candidates promise to "fight" against the city government they are seeking to join, in reality promising to make things worse for those elsewhere as resources become more scarce. Compare this with Rock:

"Accenting only those issues relating to your district -and isolating the potential solutions without sensitivity to the overall impact on the city- is myopic at best; keeping a narrow-minded focus on issues pertinent mainly to your district, and becoming demagogic when the issues are of the 'Not In My Backyard' (NIMBY) variety is exactly what we don't need in the council."

Now to be fair, there is plenty of Santa Claus in Rock's platform too. But I happen to know that he is sufficiently knowledgeable that if elected, he won't he surprised when they hand him a bag of coal, and believe he would be responsible enough to take a constructive role in deciding who gets how much and why.

The candidates on my side of the park also tout the fact that they refused to take campaign contributions from developers, implying that the real beneficiaries of their advocacy would be those they did take campaign contributions (and other support) from. In general, however, I don't pay attention to "X is endorsed by Y" and "Z is associated with Q." That isn't what is important.

None of the candidates are addressing our reality. As a result of deals and non-decisions to benefit some people in the past, the next decade will feature the distribution of burdens, not benefits. The situation is so serious, the debts and institutional deterioration so severe, that extraordinary leadership will be required to convince an increasingly hostile public to contribute to those institutions, which for most of them will be a ripoff. Can people trust their leaders and accept that the additional taxes they pay, or services and benefits they must do without, aren't merely facilitating the enrichment of those with connections? The situation is so serious, the debts and institutional deterioration so severe, that an institutional collapse is a probable outcome. In that case, extraordinary leadership will be required to create new institutions that are not discredited, and not a ripoff, to preserve what is left of our quality of life in the face of a falling standard of living, once we can no longer borrow our way to a false prosperity.

One candidate, however, did put forward a few ideas that aren't the usual platitudes, or something for nothing pandering. According to the CFB site (I didn't read everyone's platform in their entirety), he suggested shifting tax burdens to promote commercial condominiums, which are common in other high rent metro areas such as San Diego, a residential parking permit plan (ie. someone will have to pay something) to fund local improvements, and a new type of school that will require parental volunteer hours (ie. someone will have to do something). That's a small bit of the innovation this country, state and city will need. So if I had a vote in this primary, I would probably vote for Zuckerman (since I can't vote for Rock), based on that alone. But in reality, I won't make up my mind until I do have a vote, in November.

One more point. There are those who might point to this primary as proof that regardless of one's opinions, one has to be a Democrat in New York City (and presumably a Republican in other places) to vote in the primary. Don't worry. Once term limits are extended to ten terms, the City Council will gradually degrade to the level of the state legislature, with perpetual incumbents who hand off to their successors by resigning mid-term and creating special elections. To the extent that anyone actually knows about those elections, they are non-partisan.

Read more on Room Eight

Suggest a correction