This week, the Mayor of New York, Michael R. Bloomberg, citing the fact that the City was on the verge of a "meltdown," declared that he would seek to overturn the City's term limits law, which, if left in place, would forbid Bloomberg from running for re-election next year. Bloomberg almost certainly believes that he has the singular ability to lead the City through a time of financial crisis. He may very well be right. But by subverting a term limits bill that had achieved overwhelming support from voters in 1993 and 1996, Bloomberg chose to place his own ego above the voices of millions of New Yorkers, and in so doing, damaged democracy in a particularly pernicious way: by deeming himself the savior of the moment for whom the rules must yield.
It is a truly odd choice by a man who continues to defy definition. After all, Bloomberg was only able to achieve his place at City Hall because of the term limits bill. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was chatter about suspending term limits to allow Rudolph W. Giuliani to remain as mayor for another term. However, even in that moment of overwhelming fear and uncertainty, New Yorkers rejected the urge to maintain the status quo and embraced, instead, the uplifting notion that it would be the people of New York who would rebuild the City, regardless of who held court in City Hall.
The New York Times, in an editorial supporting the mayor's action, stated, "They [term limits] areâ€¦profoundly undemocratic, arbitrarily denying voters the ability to choose between good politicians and bad, especially in a city like New York with a strong public campaign-financing system."
How quickly we, and the Times, forget history. For it was only three years ago that the Times endorsed Leslie Crocker Snyder for District Attorney of New York County. The editorial board acknowledged the storied tenure of Robert Morgenthau, but concluded, "we believe that there is a limit to how long any manager can stay at one job and continue to administer with vigor and openness to new ideas." Granted, Morgenthau was 86 at the time (though in very good health) and had been DA for thirty years, but the notion that an eminently qualified candidate had earned an opportunity and that the City would be better off with fresh blood applies with equal weight to the Mayor's office.
At a broader historical level, it is important to note that Tammany Hall, a Democratic political machine, dominated New York's politics for nearly 80 years. The organization was insular and awash with patronage and corruption. Boss Tweed's machine, depicted in political cartoons of the day as a tiger mauling democracy, was a network in which new ideas were shunned and familiar faces reigned.
We would like to think that we are beyond the era of party-bosses manipulating politics from smoke-filled back rooms. However, the proof that incumbency still dominates our politics is clear. In the 2000 Congressional elections, incumbents enjoyed a 98% win rate. This is largely due to their superior name-recognition, which leads to better fundraising (not an issue for Bloomberg), and the very nature of incumbency.
Even Congressmen whose self-interest would dictate that they reject term limits seem to appreciate the benefits of limits to the functioning of democracy. Indeed, in 1995, the House of Representatives narrowly defeated the Republican-sponsored Citizen Legislative Act, part of the Contract with America, which would have amended the Constitution to limit members of Congress to twelve years of service. Conscience doth make cowards of some, but not the two-thirds majority needed.
My colleague, Chris Szabla, criticizes my position as paternalistic. However, paternalism is generally understood in politics to refer to practices in which the sovereign makes decisions on behalf of others for their own good even if contrary to their wishes. New York's term limits rule is the antithesis of paternalistic government. Indeed, it is a limitation on the sovereign imposed by the people themselves. Only the most ardent supporter of the Lochner Era could interpret a popularly-passed referendum, the goal of which was to improve the machinery of democracy and the ability of the people to govern effectively, to be a usurpation of popular will.
Unfortunately, Chris' position has found support from a broad array of influential leaders in New York. Even Ronald S. Lauder, son of Estee Lauder and the foremost proponent of term limits, has supported Bloomberg's executive action, "I believe that for a city poised on the brink of economic disasterâ€¦a prosperous future depends in large measure on a mayor with a deep understanding of finance, governance and politics." This statement, taken alone, is a cogent assessment of what New York City needs in its mayor at all times, not merely in its moments of crisis. Bloomberg may be one of the wealthiest men standing on a battered Wall Street landscape. And the Mayor undoubtedly has connections with influential leaders in the private and public sectors. But the audacity to believe that the City needs him in order to avoid another fiscal collapse is the apogee of arrogance.
Candidates must have the courage to lose, the courage to leave, and the modesty to realize that the world is not lucky to have them; they are blessed to have the opportunity to serve the world. For those of us who love New York City, it is certainly understandable that Bloomberg would like to maintain his position as Mayor of the greatest city on Earth. The power and influence are extraordinary. The capacity to develop innovative legislative and administrative techniques, improve the lives of millions, and serve as an example to the rest of the nation and the world is unparalleled. But part of the brilliance of New York is the sheer magnitude of talent enjoyed by its 8.2 million people. Michael Bloomberg might not think so, but there are plenty of New Yorkers who are eminently capable of handling the current crisis, and millions more who believe enough in themselves to say thanks, but no thanks to his undemocratic power grab.