New York May Boost Term-Limit Movement Across the Country

ED KOCH used to call himself New York's ``Mayor for Life.'' Now, the feisty ex-mayor is planning to vote Nov. 2 for a city referendum to limit future city politicians to two terms.

What changed Mr. Koch's mind? ``Because I feel only when you have a major turnover do you find out what happened in the prior years,'' explains Koch, who served three terms.

If the polls are any indication, almost 70 percent of New Yorker's agree with the former mayor.

Passage of the ballot measure would turn New York politics upside down. It would also buttress the burgeoning term-limits movement nationwide.

Voters in 17 states and at least a dozen major cities have approved term-limit initiatives - including Los Angeles earlier this year. ``New York would be the Apple on top,'' says Paul Jacob, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group US Term Limits.

Term limits have picked up in popularity as grass roots political dissatisfaction has grown. ``What has given it legs is that with each initiative succeeding, people say ``Ah-Ah, oh yeah, we can do that too,'' says Lynne Brown, a political scientist at New York University.

They have also gotten something of a boost from Ross Perot's anti-government speeches. With his acerbic comments, he has put words to the electorate's frustration. ``He has gotten people interested enough in politics to hate it,'' explains Ms. Brown.

Some politicians have added to the allure by running for office on the basis of only serving for a few terms. Former Rep. Tom McMillen (D) of Maryland only served two terms. Mr. McMillen always explained that he felt it was the intention of the Founding Fathers for individuals to only serve a few terms.

Mr. Jacob says this concept has gained acceptance. ``The American people believe serving in public office is something people do for a short period of time,'' he explains.

Even though term limits have picked up momentum, voters often continue to reelect the same officials. Ms. Brown compares it to offering people the choice of changing members of their family. ``People generally say they like their families but would be willing to trade a few slots for one or two people of their own choosing,'' she says.

The term-limit issue received national attention after the Speaker of the House, Tom Foley (D) of Washington, filed suit in Seattle seeking to overturn Washington state term limits for federal and state officials. Mr. Foley argued that the term limits are an additional criteria not set in the Constitution.

So far, most of the legal challenges to term limits have been stymied by the courts.

New York's political establishment went to court to try to prevent a referendum on the subject. However, on Tuesday the city exhausted its appeals and the proposal to limit politicians to two terms will be on the Nov. 2 ballot.

OPPONENTS of term limits like to point out that voters already have the ability to limit the terms of politicians by voting them out of office. ``There is a way to have as much turnover as you want,'' says Brown. For example, the 1992 Congress was about 30 percent freshmen without term limits. The imposition of term limits, argues Brown, shifts power to more permanent centers, such as legislative staff or lobbyists.

Term limits certainly are not popular among professional politicians. Take New York, for example. After proponents of the concept collected 65,000 signatures, the City Council would not hold hearings on the issue. Instead, the proponents of the measure had to collect another 65,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot. Then, the city clerk would not certify the signatures, requiring the proponents to go to court.

The Big Apple term-limit supporters were fortunate that they were financially supported by Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder fortune and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 1989. Mr. Lauder spent $800,000 of his own money to get the issue on the ballot. ``He has seen the ossification of city government, seen the entrenched bureaucracy and saw that this type of initiative succeeded in other states,'' says John Buttarazzi of New Yorkers for Term Limits.

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