Bloomberg’s Gift to the People: Moi
An e-mail pen pal of mine in Alaska (no, not her, someone else) wrote the other day mentioning Marshal Philippe Pétain. This was in the context of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s backroom campaign to keep himself in office beyond the limit of two terms that New York voters have quite clearly said are plenty.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Pétain led the wartime Vichy regime in France, which collaborated with Nazi Germany. In no way is this meant to compare Mr. Bloomberg to him. But a Pétain quotation from 1940 leapt to mind for my Alaskan pal. As he assumed leadership of the government under Nazi occupation, Pétain said loftily, “I make a gift of myself to France to lessen her misfortune.”
Which is essentially what Mr. Bloomberg is saying to New York as the City Council considers a proposal that might reasonably be called the Incumbency Protection Act of 2008.
These are obviously tough times. The stock market is cratering. Local tax revenues are sure to plunge more sharply than a major league sinkerball. In this toxic atmosphere, the multibillionaire businessman turned $1-a-year politician has in essence announced loftily to his fellow citizens: “I make a gift of myself to New York to lessen its misfortune.”
It is a present that many in the city would happily accept. The mayor remains remarkably popular after nearly seven years in office. At this stage of the game, government leaders tend to be about as well liked as oil company executives (see: Bush, George W.). Mr. Bloomberg defies the normal pattern. Recent polls suggest that most New Yorkers would be glad to have him stay at the helm through a financial crisis that is likely to be with us for a while.
But there’s this pesky thing standing in the way. It is called the expressed will of the people.
Twice in the 1990s, New York voters approved referendums limiting the mayor and other officeholders to two terms. There is no reason that Mr. Bloomberg could not have gone back to the voters to ask if they’d had a change of heart and would bend the system to give him a third term.
Instead, with the support of fellow billionaires and an amen chorus of newspaper editorials, he worked behind the scenes to have the City Council change the rules all on its own. It would also mean that three dozen council members scheduled to leave office at the end of next year would get a chance to stick around for an extra term. Ditto for the public advocate, the city comptroller and the five borough presidents. It is quite inclusive, the Incumbency Protection Act of 2008.
And working in tandem with the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, Mr. Bloomberg seems intent on pushing through this change with a minimum of public discussion. No doubt, he hopes that by the next municipal elections in November 2009, anger over this gambit will have faded and relatively few New Yorkers will resent what some now call a power grab.
Not all council members are in lockstep with this scheme. Some are sponsoring bills that would require a new plebiscite. It is “the only way to keep faith with the people,” Councilman Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn said.
For him and other public officials who rallied outside City Hall on Sunday, the issue isn’t whether or not Mr. Bloomberg has been a fine mayor. It is not even about whether term limits are good or bad, whatever their length. It is about who in a democracy gets to alter the rules on so fundamental a matter. Should it be the voters who approved them in the first place or the politicians who will benefit from the change?
The debate turns, too, on the desires and whims of a couple of billionaires: Mr. Bloomberg and Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir, who has a thing about term limits. Given Wall Street’s meltdown, this may not be the best time to argue spiritedly about how the moneyed class is a repository of wisdom.
As those at the Sunday rally saw it, this unwelcome mess did not have to be. A term-limits referendum could have easily been arranged for next month, with a high voter turnout assured thanks to the presidential election. But Mr. Bloomberg teased New Yorkers about his political intentions for so many months that time ran out on that option.
O.K., some officials said, why not hold a special election on term limits early next year? It’s doable. One argument heard against that idea is that turnouts in special elections are low. True. But are they lower than 51? “A couple of hundred thousand people voting is better than 51 council members,” said Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate.
Those several hundred thousand won’t get the chance if Mr. Bloomberg gets his way. He seems to have a preferred French quotation of his own. His is a variation on a line attributed to Louis XV. In the Bloomberg version, it is, “Après moi, moi.”