Bloomberg: a mayor of few options

Will New York City's mayor do an end run around term limits?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Forget Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, Lehman Brothers, and AIG. The next casualty in Wall Street's financial crisis may be New York City term limits for public office.

Amid Wall Street's growing crisis, mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to announce Thursday that he will seek a third term, according to news reports citing unnamed sources.

Mayor Bloomberg is expected to ask the City Council to temporarily extend term limits by four years for elected officials already in office, according to The New York Times. Extending term limits would be in many council members' advantage: Unless the law is changed, more than 60 percent of the members will not be able to run again in 2009.

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Bloomberg's Thursday schedule was not available at time of writing and his office had no other comment on the reports.

It's relatively unusual for a legislative body to act so directly counter to the will of the voters, political analysts say. New York City residents voted to impose a limit of eight years, or two terms, on the mayor and city council 15 years ago. In 1996, voters rejected a proposal to extend term limits to 12 years.

"It tends not to happen by legislative act," says Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College in N.Y. "This is really undemocratic in a fundamental sense. It smacks of a coup by the legislative and executive [branches]."

Usually, the legislative branch doesn't have the authority to overturn voter initiatives. Still, it does happen. After voters in a spate of states and municipalities voted to institute term limits, legislatures in two states – Idaho and Utah – repealed the limits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. The state supreme courts of four other states also nixed term limits.

Officials in 15 states and many cities are currently bound by term limits.

Bloomberg and other local politicians may not have much to lose by overturning term limits.

"The issue is not 'Would the voters support this?' but 'Are the voters going to remember this and be mad and take it out on these elected officials?' " says David Karol, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. The risk is small, since most can't run for office under the current law and voters are unlikely to hold a vote to nix term limits for a politician who later runs for another office.

Bloomberg's reported change of heart on term limits – in 2005 he was widely quoted criticizing a proposal to extend term limits – comes as his own future is unclear.

"He's already done the presidency dance, the vice presidency dance, and the World Bank dance," says Professor Muzzio.

But many in the financial sector would like to see Bloomberg – a former equity trader who gained clout governing after the Sept. 11 attacks – stay right where he is.

"It's quite clear that given the decline of the investment banking model and the profound change in the city's financial center … many gut-wrenching steps will need to be taken to bring budget and spending outlays back in line with the new economic reality," says Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at Merk Investments. "As a member of the financial community, I would feel far more comfortable with Mr. Bloomberg staying in office than providing someone else with on-the-job training."

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