Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fighting Bid to Extend Term Limits,

Politician by Politician

Published: October 8, 2008

They are angling for the magic number: 26. That is how many City Council members it would take to defeat a bill introduced on Tuesday, at Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s request, to change the city’s term limits law.

On Wednesday, they took to the streets — a band of volunteers and organizers with the Working Families Party, which is spearheading a campaign against the bill.

Clipboards in hand, they approached passers-by and asked, “Do you have a minute for term limits?” and tried to persuade them to sign a petition.

To the party’s members, the issue is not the term limits law itself, but how it should be changed. In their opinion, it ought to be changed the same way it was passed: by referendum.

“Our issue is not about whether the mayor should run for a third term,” one canvasser, Sarah Abernathy, 27, told a man in jeans and workman’s boots. “It’s just really about leaving it up to voters to decide whether there should be a third term.”

The move to extend term limits through legislation, allowing city elected officials to stay in office for 12 years, instead of 8, has been viewed broadly as a carefully orchestrated maneuver between Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, both of whom have in the past opposed tinkering with the current law.

The Working Families Party, which has among its members some of the city’s largest unions, has chosen to resist the move by putting pressure on individual council members, holding protests on the steps of City Hall and fanning across their districts. The goal is to get a majority of the 51 members to vote no on the bill.

“We’re going to give it our all to claw away those 26 votes,” said Dan Cantor, the party’s executive director.

But on Wednesday, the first day of a petition drive, Mayor Bloomberg and Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir who twice financed referendums setting terms limits for city elected officials, agreed that Mr. Lauder would support the mayor’s plan to extend term limits this time around.

“This kind of deal does have the whiff of class warfare almost, where the voices of two billionaires meeting privately substitutes for millions of regular people having a chance to vote,” Mr. Cantor said.

He added that the party had been raising money and that he was confident it would be able to spend several hundred thousand dollars, “maybe half a million dollars,” on a media campaign — online and possibly on the radio, but probably not on television.

Hours before the deal, outside the gates of City Hall on Broadway and on the streets of Chinatown, about 20 canvassers approached pedestrians, collecting page after page of signatures for a petition aimed at the area’s councilman, Alan J. Gerson.

It was the first of several petition drives that the Working Families Party plans to hold in the coming days, concentrating primarily on council members who have not yet taken a position on the term limits bill, like Mr. Gerson and Speaker Quinn, who said in December that she was against changing the limits, but who now says she is no longer sure what to do.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Gerson said that he had always been a proponent of extending term limits through a referendum held on Election Day. “But the mayor waited until it was too late to put the question on the ballot this November,” he said.

Councilman Gerson added, “My colleagues and I are now left in the difficult position of weighing the needs of the city in this time of financial crisis versus the cost of holding a special election so that voters can have their say.”

Outside City Hall, whenever the canvassers succeeded in getting someone to hear them out, which was often, many of the responses sounded like that of Francine Civello, 46, an actress who lives on nearby Harrison Street. “I like the mayor,” Ms. Civello said. “But in spite of all the good he might do to the city in another four years in office, it should be up to the people to decide if he should have the right to run again.”

Macallister Wells, 33, a copy machine salesman who lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, put it a bit more bluntly: “Doing a good job doesn’t mean you can bully your way into a third term.”

Some of the respondents stopped and signed the petition right away. Others took more time, sometimes reading aloud the words at the top of the page: “Whether you’re for them or against them, setting term limits should be up to voters alone. Councilman Gerson, we want you to respect our vote!”

One woman, Raisa Gonchar, first said she would not sign, but turned around after just a few steps and told the volunteer who had approached her, 16-year-old Olivia Mata, “I changed my mind.”

Ms. Gonchar, 70, who moved to the city from the Soviet Union 20 years ago, praised Mr. Bloomberg’s leadership after the attacks of Sept. 11. “The way he helped the economy, no one else could do that,” she said.

“I want him to help the economy again,” she added, “but to decide if he can be mayor a third time, it has to be the people.”

Mr. Cantor, of the Working Families Party, said that the party would also send e-mail messages to voters, urging them to sign the online petition at, the Web site it created this week. He estimated that the messages will have landed in 90,000 in-boxes by early Thursday and could reach as many as half a million people by the end of the week as they are forwarded by the unions, tenant associations and civic groups affiliated with the party.

There will also be phone drives and visits to voters’ homes, all with the same purpose, Mr. Cantor said.

“We think that momentum is shifting our way,” he said. “And we’re going to fight as hard as we can to capitalize on that.”

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