By Henry J. Stern
January 11, 2010
In his State of the State message Wednesday, Governor Paterson made one proposal which, if adopted, would change the very heart of New York state politics. For the first time, a governor called for term limits for elected officials: two four-year terms for the governor, comptroller and attorney general; and six two-year-terms for State Senators and Assemblymembers. That comes out to eight years for executives and twelve years for legislators.
Term limits have less chance in the Legislature than the proverbial snowball in hell. What politician with the chance to be re-elected for the rest of his life will vote to make himself ineligible to serve after twelve years? The governor knows that, but he is positioning himself squarely on the side of the angels in what is likely to be a recurring controversy. Term limits would require amendment of the State Constitution, which would have to be preceded by approval by two successive elected legislatures. Unlike the practice in some other states, including California, there is no way for individuals in New York State to place constitutional amendments on the ballot.
But even if passing term limits is a legislative pipe dream, it is still a discussion that voters should engage in seriously, even if their representatives won't. The new possibilities of grassroots organizing through social networking websites has given the public an unprecedented tool to insist that their legislators be more responsive to their wishes. A Facebook page titled CITIZENS FOR TERM LIMITS IN ALBANY has been created to stimulate public discussion on the reform of state government. Hopefully, if more people became involved with this issue, more progress might be made. There is a Youtube video of me speaking on this subject, you can link to it here. It includes a 1965 picture you might find interesting.
Years ago, we were opposed to term limits. It was conventional wisdom that the voters have the right to re-elect or defeat any incumbent, and that term limits deprive them of the ability to retain an elected official whom they want to keep. Term limits were first viewed as a pet project of the billionaire Ronald Lauder, who had been the Conservative Party nominee for mayor against Rudy Giuliani in 1989. The proposal looked to many like an anti-government initiative to frustrate voters' preference.
Although term limits were approved by referendum in New York City in 1993, and reaffirmed by a narrower margin in 1996, the result was attributed to expenditures by Mr. Lauder (which have been dwarfed, however, by personal expenditures in mayoral races since 2001). In order to provide an orderly transition, the Lauder plan provided for term limits to take effect in the 2001 city-wide election. At that time, three quarters of the Council was (were?) term limited out of office, as was Mayor Giuliani. (After 9/11, he might have been able to win a third term. Before the tragedy, that was unlikely.) In 2009, the class of 2001, most of whom were elected only because term limits made their predecessors ineligible to seek re-election, approached the end of their second term. However, at the instance of the mayor, in October 2008, the Council had voted to over-ride the Charter and make themselves, as well as the city-wide officials and the borough presidents, eligible for third terms. Five Councilmembers were defeated in primaries, but most survived. Seven competed for city-wide office, of whom two were elected. The mayor was re-elected, but by a substantially reduced margin, in part because of his manipulation of the term limits issue.
If the mayor had kept the commitment he made in his January 2008 State of the City address, he would have appointed a Charter Revision Commission that year, which would have brought proposals, including the extension of term limits if desired, to a referendum in November which would have cleared the way for a third-term candidacy.
In prior years, the mayor had appointed Charter Commissions under different chairs with varying degrees of success. We are told that private polling indicated that the outcome of a public vote on the third term would be doubtful. For whatever reason, no Charter Commission was appointed in 2008.
If the issue of term limits were put to referendum today in the city, the limits would most likely be approved because disapproval of government is at a height. In the State, there is no provision for such a referendum. Consequently, state term limits are doomed, at least until 2017, when the public will be asked whether it wants a new State Constitutional convention. The last time this question was on the ballot, in 1997, it was defeated after a costly advertising campaign by special interests who feared that their privileged positions might be adversely affected by changes to the state constitution.
There are a number of sound reasons to support term limits, dealing with the fairness of elections. Here, for example, are some advantages incumbents enjoy:
1) Gerrymandering. Sitting members of the legislature draw political districts to suit their own interests. The districts come in odd shapes and sizes, with peninsulas drawn to include an incumbent's home, and sometimes to exclude a potential rival's home from the district. Because it is the leadership of the legislature that ultimately decides what the lines will be, a member cannot act independently too often or s/he will end up without a district to run in.
2) Mailings. Members have the right to send periodic reports to their constituents at public expense. These are usually self-serving brochures, describing the achievements of the incumbent, and illustrated with numerous photographs of you know who. Over the years, these mailings build up name recognition for the incumbent, which give him or her an advantage in an electoral contest with a challenger.
3) Political clubs. The organized party machinery in any district generally supports the incumbent. S/he has made contributions to the party over the years, and is friendly with many of the active members. People take pride in knowing their local elected officials. The relationship, whether it is real or artificial, enhances the constituents' sense of self-importance. They know someone who is in authority, which is preferable to them than not knowing anyone who has influence. If and when there is a challenge, they will stick with the representative they have unless there is some compelling reason not to do so.
4) Constituent service. Legislators have staffs and district offices, paid for by the state. These offices handle matters where individuals seek help from their representative, sometimes in dealing with federal, state or city agencies, at other times with personal issues or making referrals to other offices or social service providers. They may help people not fluent in English, or persons with disabilities. The passage of time increases the number of people who will be served by these offices, and those people are more likely to vote for the incumbent who has helped them.
5) Lobbyists. It is the practice of many lobbyists to make regular contributions to politicians, primarily those of the majority party. They comprise the bulk of the donors at fund raisers held in Albany, where few downstate contributors venture in the winter. An expectation arises that the incumbent will not vote against the interests of the donors, whether they are business corporations, public employee unions, or others particularly affected by legislative decisions. Having taken money over the years from these special interests, some legislators believe it would be unethical to bite the hand that has been feeding them. Sometimes huge donations are made, as when Senator Bruno's son was hired by Cablevision, which blocked the construction of a West Side stadium because it would compete with Madison Square Garden, which they own.
6) Media. Newspapers, television and radio stations report on the activities of incumbents. A challenger, unless he is already well-known, has a relatively brief time to attract public attention in a political campaign. The networks of relationships that incumbents have built over the years are very difficult to overcome by a new candidate, who basically starts from scratch in terms of public recognition.
7) Leadership protection. One reason Speaker Sheldon Silver remained in power is that he protected his members, a function he performed well. For example, on the controversial issue of congestion pricing, he did not allow the bill to come to the floor, so his members did not have to cast individual votes on the proposal. This protected them from the wrath of the editorial boards who were for the plan, while many of their constituents were against it. Silver took the rap for killing the plan, and the Democratic caucus, which elects him every two years, was grateful that their members did not have to vote on an issue which could lead to a primary challenge. That is one of the reasons they supported him, apart for concern over their own advancement or blacklisting.
For all those reasons, incumbents have an enormous advantage and are generally re-elected, unless they have done something outrageous. Even then, they often win.
The problem resulting from the numerous advantages of incumbency is that people who seek a particular elected office for a lifetime, and will depend on its income, both direct and indirect, to support their families, will make decisions on the basis of what will preserve, protect and defend their careers, which are their and their families' livelihood. They lose the ability to make judgments on the merits of legislation, even if they were able to discern the merits, an ability which often eludes them. Their support for a measure is the property of their leaders, and is bargained for and bought (or rented), usually not directly but as part of larger arrangements.
The result is that decisions are not made by citizen-legislators, who know they will return to their own profession, but by professional representatives, dedicated to promoting and extending their own careers, and willing to make decisions which will help them to pursue that goal.
Another problem is that, after many years, people go stale in office, offer fewer bills, and become more withdrawn from the public. Some lose their energy or faculties as they grow older; that happens naturally to the human animal. The average age of Republican state senators last year was in the '60s, with many holding on for years after they could retire in order to save their seats for the party. An open seat is more likely to swing to another party than an occupied seat.
SORRY ABOUT THAT: In last Thursday's article, we suggested that former Comptroller Bill Thompson become a judge. We assumed that as the son of a prominent Justice of the State Supreme Court and a longtime public official, he was a lawyer. We were wrong. Thompson is a graduate of Midwood High School and Tufts College, class of '74. Tufts is a fine college. On graduation, Thompson went right into politics, serving for eight years as an assistant to Brooklyn Congressman Fred Richmond. Later he was Deputy Borough President of Brooklyn under BP Howard Golden. He was president of the New York City Board of Education from 1996 to 2001, in the years just before mayoral control. He was elected Comptroller in 2001 and re-elected in 2005. We meant the suggestion for a judicial appointment as a compliment.
We want to thank the readers who called the error to our attention, in order of the e-mails they sent us, they are: Michael Oliva, John Tepper Marlin, Arthur Greig, Hon. Mark Friedlander, Allen Bortnick, Joyce S. Johnson, Jeanne Millman, Hon. Richard Weinberg, Hon. Joseph S. Levin, Hon. Richard A. Brown and Hon. Milton Mollen. It is when we make mistakes that we find out how many distinguished people are among our readers.