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Death to Democracy!


Amidst all the good news about the upcoming Presidential Election, it’s easy to believe that the “fabric of democracy,” as John McCain referred to it in the last Debate, is about to prove itself fully intact and dressed to impress, despite its gradual unraveling during the eight years of the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, that fabric lies in tatters in New York City this morning, after the City Council yesterday voted to abolish “term limits,” thereby paving the way for billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for a third term next year. This in direct contradiction of the will of the people,

“as expressed in a 1993 voter initiative that established a limit of two consecutive terms and a 1996 referendum in which voters rejected a Council-led effort to change the limit to three terms.”

Term limits are a controversial issue. Because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, they’re an extremely useful reality check on Presidents, Governors where mandated and, yes, Mayors. (British readers: wouldn’t it have been a relief to have both Thatcher and Blair forced to step down after two terms?) At a more local level of the democratic process, where many good people (and many bad ones) work for comparatively little income on behalf of their constituents’ well-being, they appear less justifiable, and I sympathize with New York City Council members who are also held by the public referendum to two terms in office. But, hey, that’s the will of the people. You already knew that when you ran for office. And you don’t have the right to overturn that will of the people, as expressed in two referendums, just because your billionaire Mayor doesn’t want to give up his own absolute power.


Protestors in the balcony at City Hall yesterday.

If you’re coming fresh to the subject – and I admit, no longer living in New York City, this has not been top of my priority list the last couple of months (thanks Tom!) – you may simply ask: why not put the issue back out to the voters as an initiative in next year’s Mayoral election? But then you may have already guessed the answer: because Bloomberg, restricted to two terms, wouldn’t be able to run in that election. Why not hold a special referendum in the next few months? That’s a much better question. Apparently, there isn’t time to do so (cough, cough). Besides, even if there was, it would cost the city at least $15 million. Bloomberg is worth somewhere approaching $20 billion (assuming he doesn’t have his fortune invested in the stock market). He financed his election campaigns out of his own pocket. He could just as easily do so for a special election. (Would that be legal? I don’t know. But then I don’t think what City Council did yesterday is legal either.) Besides, the City has a budget running in the billions. If the City Council truly believed in representing the people, they would find a way to let the public have their say once more. But no. Bloomberg wants to stay in office and he’s prepared to bully his Council members to go along with him.

The vote was close: 29 to 22, and kudos to those in the minority who stuck to their guns. But hey, here’s a fun statistic:

“Of the Council’s 51 members, 35 would have been barred by term limits from seeking re-election next year. On Thursday, 23 of those members voted in favor of extending term limits, and 12 voted against.”


Yes, I know, he doesn’t look dangerous.

Every single one of those Council Members who voted for the Amendment, which will allow them to run for re-election should they choose to, claims to be a Democrat. All three (count them) of the City’s Republican council members had the decency to vote against it. You can’t always judge a democrat by their party affiliation.

After all, Bloomberg was a life-long Democrat who switched to the Republican party so as to run for Mayor, and this past year switched his party registration to Independent, leading many to suspect he was planning a run for President. How does an overwhelmingly democratic city like New York vote for a Republican mayor in the first place? Ask Rudy Giuliani. After running against a hapless David Dinkins in 1997, he served two terms as a Republican Mayor – and in the wake of 9/11, tried to get the City Council to give him another three months in office. The Council said no. As Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn noted yesterday, voting against the extension of term limits:

“The city of New York has never, ever in the history of our nation postponed a transfer of power, regardless of the circumstances,” she said, citing an editorial in The New York Times in 2001, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani sought, without his success, to extend his term by three months in the aftermath of 9/11.


At the point that I left Brooklyn, it felt like Letitia James was our Councilwoman: she was speaking up strongly against billionaire Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development. But by the strange borders of the electoral system, we were actually represented by David Yassky, who yesterday voted for the Amendment. Shame on him.

You may ask, why is it so important that Bloomberg holds on to the job of Mayor? I mean, it’s not like he needs the money, right? We come back to the issue of absolute power corrupting absolutely. In his seven years in office, Bloomberg has presided over a New York City that has grown progressively safer – progressively more suburban, you might also argue – and until the unfortunate collapse of the stock market this year (not that Bloomberg, who made his fortune out of selling stock market information, could have predicted that, of course), seemed to be doing pretty well financially, as well. His approval ratings are high, around 70% – which is still not as high as Rudy Giuliani’s in the wake of 9/11 when the City Council brooked no such nonsense about keeping him in office. And they won’t be so high this morning – let alone next year, when Bloomberg has to find a way to keep the City running without all the taxes generated by Wall Street profits. (I will be so glad I’m not living there at that point.) As befits the self-made billionaire businessman, Bloomberg thinks that the City can’t survive without him. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one. Crony Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr. of Brooklyn appears to agree:

He urged his colleagues to extend term limits, citing the economic crisis. He paraphrased Abraham Lincoln, who ran for re-election in 1864 during the Civil War, as saying, “When crossing a river you don’t swap horses halfway.”

Following that logic, what the hell are we doing having a Presidential Election right now? Why don’t we just let Bush stay in office for a third term and lead us out of the economic crisis? After all, he started it; he should finish it. Right? (Besides, what if the horse that you’re riding across that river is drowning? Would you still not want to swap it? What if the river was too deep and it made more sense to turn back? Of all pathetic metaphors…)

You may wonder what I have against Bloomberg. I’d like to say the answer is nothing, that my only consideration here is with the “will of the people” and the fact that no Mayor should attempt to rise above it or rewrite rules that, twice in fifteen years, have been before public referendum. And that I feel like the people of New York City, where I lived happily for 17 years and still spend more time than any other city, have just been kicked in the teeth. But unfortunately, we’ve seen Bloomberg play his hand before. Anyone remember the 2004 Republican National Convention? The one that was held in New York? The one where the public were disenfranchised of their right to protest, arrested en masse in egregious displays of police brutality, and locked up without charges beyond all legal limits in what was the city’s most blatant disregard of civil liberties in several generations? Remember who was Mayor back then, who welcomed the Bush, Cheney and co. to New York and never as much as apologized for the illegitimate muzzling of the protests? That’s right. Michael Bloomberg. A Republican Michael Bloomberg.

The closing words go to Councilman Tony Avella of Queens, who, according the New York Times

“called the term limits bill “an absolute disgrace,” and warned sternly: “You’re not conning anybody. The public of this city knows that the fix was in from the beginning.”

He added: “You should all be voted out of office for voting for this.”

The public will get its chance in November 2009, a year to the day after the Presidential Elections. I trust there will be as strong a Democratic candidate for Mayor by then as there is currently a Democratic candidate for President. After all, there’s Democracy…. And then, if you’re not careful, there isn’t.

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