The facts were different but the mayoral abuse similar. In 1999, when running for the U.S. Senate, NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to change the rules in the middle of a term. His effort to keep me, as public advocate, from succeeding him under the city Charter was rejected 3-to-1 in a public vote.
Is Mike Bloomberg, so different in approach and temperament, now imitating Rudy Giuliani?
After two public referenda (1993 and 1996) where New York City voters favored limits of two terms -- and after repeatedly saying that it would be "disgraceful" and "undemocratic" to overturn two public votes with contrary legislation -- Bloomberg's now telling aides, council members and publishers that he may flip-flop to support a superceding law so he (and others) can seek third terms.
It's one thing to change your mind on, say, whether the tax code should impose a 30% or 38% top rate or whether to continue supporting a war after it goes bad. It's quite another thing to do a 180 when you are ignoring voters to benefit yourself. The issue is not so much term limits, as Queens Councilman John Liu said, but who decides. "Is it 52 people -- the mayor and 51 council members -- or 8 million people?"
Reasonable people can differ over whether there should be term limits at all, or if so whether it should be two or three terms. But reasonable people cannot allow ambitious politicians to veto voters. Imagine that a mayor and council decided they'd had done such a terrific job that they each deserved, say, 1 $10,000 bonus. That would be repudiated by all as as corrupt. So why would it be ok if the self-serving grab is not for money but for power?
Mayor Bloomberg must think about history. When George Washington refused to seek a third term, he began a precedent that stayed intact until the War in Europe changed FDR's mind and he sought a third term. Then Republicans in Congress pushed successfully for a constitutional amendment limiting Presidents to only two terms in office. That amendment, enacted in 1951, explicitly exempted President Harry Truman -- because it was considered wrong to change the rules to affect a sitting official.
Some people who like Mike and don't think much of the current field of replacements insist that the quality of the leader is more important than these principles. And given the Wall Street meltdown this week, his supporters are now arguing that his business skills justify continuation irrespective of City law. But that "indispensable man" argument holds no water. As Mike himself has repeatedly and self-effacingly noted, "I've always said that a new guy can do better."
Earlier this year, his spokeswoman said that "he's absolutely ruled out a third term." Speaker Christine Quinn, his potential partner in any back-room deal, added, "I will not support the repeal or change of term limits through any mechanism, and I oppose aggressively any attempt to make any changes in the term limits law." What's changed?
Bloomberg has come to his fork in the road: One route ends with his reputation and legacy intact as an accomplished, nonpartisan mayor. The other leads to a dead end where no one can ever again believe what he says, which convulses ongoing city elections where scores of candidates were understandably relying on enacted term limits, and that allows him to run and then either lose because of a public backlash or win ugly, by the weight of his wealth.
Personal notes: I am the Mark Green who as a mayoral candidate in 2001 wrongly agreed to Giuliani's desire to have 90 more days to help recover from the 9/11 calamity. My mistake notwithstanding, what's the equivalent catastrophe justifying an extension not of 90 days but four years? This week's Wall Street crisis is real but not the War in Europe or 9/11 -- and for those who exploit this moment to advance Bloomberg, hell why not just cancel the election and just hire Buffett?
I have no partisan interest here. Though I was the Democratic nominee who ran against Bloomberg in 2001, I've lauded him since on 311, guns, tobacco, mayoral control of schools, rainy day budgeting and more.
But I can't be silent in the face of this abuse of power, especially when there's a good option. Bloomberg can put a referendum on the 2009 ballot and then bring together a coalition to figure out a proposal that asks voters whether they now want to go to three terms prospectively, like federal term limits and Truman.
That wouldn't help Bloomberg and Quinn, but at least it would be honest and honorable. In the spirit of the U.S. Open, where Mike and I chatted amiably last week, the ball's now in his court.
Green, former public advocate of the city of New York, is president of Air America Media.