Here They Run Again: Term Limits Don’t Seem to Faze Council Members
For New Yorkers who voted to impose term limits on the City Council, the promise was to sweep clean a moldering institution and fill it with “citizen legislators” who would bring energy and fresh ideas from the private sector, where they would return after their eight-year allotments.
But as the first class of councilors elected under the term limits law in 2001 prepares to leave office next year, the very opposite is becoming reality: With lawmakers seeking new elective offices and career politicians looking to join, or rejoin, the body, the Council may well become a political revolving door.
Already, 20 of the 35 Council members who are being forced from office have filed with the city’s Campaign Finance Board to run for another position. And at least a dozen of those planning to compete for open Council seats have budding or established political careers, including state officials, relatives of Council members and even a few former councilors who collectively have decades of service under their belts.
For instance, Karen Koslowitz, the Queens deputy borough president who once worked for Andrew J. Stein, a former council president, is contemplating a run for the seat she held for 10 years in Forest Hills, Queens. And Herman D. Farrell Jr., who has represented Upper Manhattan in the State Assembly since 1975, is planning to run for a City Council seat representing the same area.
Paul Vallone, whose father, Peter F. Vallone, represented a district in Astoria, Queens, for 27 years until his brother Peter F. Vallone Jr. took it over in 2002, is running to represent the Bayside area. Paul Washington, a former chief of staff for Councilman Charles Barron, is running for the councilor’s East New York, Brooklyn, slot, while Evan Thies, a former spokesman for Councilman David Yassky, is competing to represent Mr. Yassky’s Brooklyn district, which stretches from Park Slope to Williamsburg.
And then there is Thomas V. Ognibene, who represented Middle Village, Queens, for 10 years before leaving office in 2001 because of term limits. He recently lost a bid to replace Dennis P. Gallagher, his former chief of staff, who resigned from the Council this year after admitting to a sexual assault.
“The person who runs for the office is a relative, a chief of staff, a protégé of the person that was in there in the first place,” Mr. Ognibene said. “Insurgency is virtually impossible. You cannot generate the money or the support,” he said, adding, “So you don’t get the people in there that had been contemplated, the people with the fresh start, the new view.”
Ronald S. Lauder, a wealthy cosmetics heir who spent millions pushing for the change that limits officeholders to two terms, said in a 1993 statement that it would “take the power away from the politicians and return it to the people.” Officials would serve “long enough to make a contribution,” his statement said, “but not long enough to make a career.”
After Mr. Lauder’s costly campaign, New Yorkers approved the limits in 1993, despite the howls of protest from City Council members who predicted the coming of a bureaucratic apocalypse. The law withstood an effort in 1996 to add a third term, with voters reaffirming their wish to restrict service for council members, the mayor, the public advocate and the comptroller to eight years, and survived Council plans to overturn it.
But officials and analysts say that it was naïve to expect term limits to take the politics out of politics, especially since the Council lacks sufficient glamour — and power — to woo many people from their day jobs.
“A lot of people who are successful in the private sector aren’t going to be attracted to be in the City Council,” said Mr. Yassky, who has made unsuccessful bids for Brooklyn district attorney and Congress and is now running for city comptroller. “The reality is that voters will elect people in government.”
For those who are interested in a public sector career, the Council, which pays members $112,500 to $141,000, depending on the leadership positions, and gives them two parking placards and at least $277,366 in operating expenses, can be a steppingstone to higher office or a landing strip after years of trekking to the State Capitol. And what had been a steady flow between the Council and the State Legislature is threatening to become a torrent as officials in Albany who are frustrated by their relative lack of power look to win an office that keeps them closer to home.
Mr. Farrell at one point considered trying to become the next Council speaker but dropped that ambition while still eyeing a Council seat. And Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris, with his sights on the speaker’s post, is considering a bid for the Astoria, Queens, district seat that Mr. Vallone Jr., a likely candidate for Queens borough president, will vacate.
With the Queens Democratic Party backing City Councilman Hiram Monserrate in his bid to snatch the seat of State Senator John D. Sabini, consultants are suggesting that Mr. Sabini reclaim the Council seat he gave up in 2001, which would be open again.
Moving in the other direction are several council members who are seeking state positions, including Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who announced last week that he would not compete in the crowded field for city comptroller but would try to unseat State Senator Kevin S. Parker.
Evan Stavisky, a political consultant who is active in state and local elections, said term limits provide “expedited promotions for chiefs of staff and other people active in local politics” while increasing “ancillary competition, so there are more state legislators who have races.”
At the same time, officials and policy analysts say, term limits have strengthened the Council’s focus on politics at the expense of governance. As a result, consultants and lobbyists say, there is now a professional class of candidates whose members focus on making names for themselves and eyeing the next offices rather than returning to the private sector, as advocates of limiting public service have promoted.
“It’s not reasonable to expect somebody to interrupt their life for eight years and then go back to the farm — you’ve set on a career path,” said Lewis A. Fidler, a Brooklyn councilman who has not determined his next move. Speaking of his fellow council members, he said, “Their attention is being diverted as to what they’re going to do to feed their family and continue on their career path.”
Eric Lane, a law professor at Hofstra University, found in an analysis of the Council in 2004 that nearly all of those elected had political backgrounds and planned to stay in politics.
“If your interest is a future in the Council, then you worry about compromising and getting legislation passed,” he said. “But if your interest is the next office right away, then you’re interested in outshining someone else and you’re going to play to the crowds much more and you’re going to play to lobbyists much more.”
Supporters of term limits see it differently. “Term limits have always been about creating opportunities, not dictating outcomes, and undeniably term limits have opened doors for new people,” said Nelson Warfield, a spokesman for New Yorkers for Term Limits, an advocacy group that campaigned for the restriction.
“Term limits has clearly increased the diversity of government,” he said, pointing to the rise in black and Hispanic representation, as well as to the election of John C. Liu, the Council’s first Asian-American member.
For many council members, gaining office can instill a sense of self-importance and self-worth, making it difficult to see a future outside of government.
“You are the one who is in charge of what happens in your district,” said Ms. Koslowitz, the deputy borough president in Queens. “It was one of the best experiences of my life because I helped a lot of people. I still walk through the streets and people are thanking me and remembering what I did for them and for the community.”
With the election more than a year away, it is too early to say who will end up back in the Council and where the class of 35 forced departures will land. But with a finite number of offices to be won, many are bound for disappointment.
Judging from the fates of their predecessors, some will snare work in government while others will seek to become lobbyists or pursue jobs related to law.
Still, they can also rely on inevitability: Their old seats will eventually open up, perhaps even earlier than the typical eight-year cycle. Take the case of Thomas White, who had to leave office in 2001 after representing a district in South Jamaica, Queens, for a decade, and has already returned. His opportunity, like Mr. Ognibene’s, came in the form of a sex scandal.
After the City Council censured Allan W. Jennings Jr. for the sexual harassment of two female employees in 2005, Mr. White won back the seat that fall, becoming the first of his generation to return. Time will tell if he showed up early for the reunion.