News, commentary and analysis by leaders of the Communist Party USA in New York State. We discuss State politics and issues in New York City, covering developments in labor, civil rights education, housing and more.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bloomberg Tries to Slip in a Third Term

Last week New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intention to run for a third term as mayor of the country’s largest city. He called on the City Council to pass legislation that would change the City Charter, which currently bars him (and City Council members) from holding office more than twice. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has obliged the Mayor and helped introduce a bill extending city offices to three terms instead of two. A competing measure was introduced by City Council members Bill de Blasio and Letitia James calling for a new public referendum on the issue of term limits. Two such referenda in 1993 and 1996 established then reaffirmed term limits.

The long-rumored move by the mayor has thrown city politics for a loop. Whether or not they support term limits, many New Yorkers are outraged at the prospect of the City Council overturning two voter referenda just weeks before the Presidential elections.

The debate over term limits is important. Frankly we are largely against term limits. But the proposal of the mayor does little to facilitate a real discussion of the pros and cons of the issue. It is a last-minute ploy for the mayor to hold power past his 2009 final year. Just as the introduction of term limits 15 years ago through a highly financed publicity campaign, the process largely serves the interests of city’s elites.

Any legislation, and certainly a major decision such as this, must be judged by its impact negative or positive on the working people of New York: all the workers, the racially oppressed people, immigrant, women and youth of the city. This proposal puts the city administration back in the hands of Bloomberg who has been a loyal servant of his fellow billionaires, monopolists and financiers. We need a champion of working people and their issues, not a budget-slashing billionaire who puts private development first and will be quick to tighten belts while he is immune to the suffering.

Bloomberg, who was recently ranked the 8th richest man in the U.S. by Forbes Magazine, has been good to the big developers and his Wall Street buddies over the past seven years. The mayor has championed massive capital developments like Atlantic Yards, various sports stadiums that are receiving huge city subsidies and tax breaks and other private projects that use public financing. City elites are unhappy to see such a friend leave office. A recent New York Times article detailed how developers, financiers and other mega-rich New Yorkers were desperate to find a Bloomberg clone to replace him. With an extension of term limits they don’t need one.

Richard Lauder, another billionaire on Forbes’ list, financed the original campaign to impose term limits. Lauder and other big business elites supported term limits at the time because it suited their interests. They wanted to keep the revolving door on city offices turning to minimize the impact of progressive and even centrist elected officials. Lauder and Bloomberg recently said they were against changing term limits. But now Bloomberg remaining in office serves the billionaires’ interests. Under the pretense of the financial crisis, they claim they were forced into the change. Suddenly Bloomberg has reversed himself and even Lauder is now on board, because “these are extraordinary times.” Of course, the mayor has also promised to make Lauder head of a “Charter Revision Commission” to bring a term limits referendum before voters in 2010. Apparently the mayor believes a unilateral decision to put another billionaire in charge will make the process very transparent and unbiased. We think not.

Of course, Bloomberg’s relative popularity is what makes the move appealing to the mayor and his backers. If he was lagging in the polls, you can bet that none of them would be raising the issue of term limits. Despite the skyrocketing rents, crumbling schools, devastation to communities, corruption and cronyism, erosion of construction regulation and enforcement, police abuse and misconduct and a host of other problems that New Yorkers face, many do not blame Bloomberg. Many of the mayor’s worst policies are invisible to the average New Yorker. And Bloomberg is masterful at the PR game (he is, among other things, a media mogul after all).

Even if term limits are extended, the election for mayor is a year away. It remains to be seen if Bloomberg’s popularity can stand up through the deepening economic mess, several major labor contract negotiations and increasing anger of gentrification.

Some commentators have hinted that New York ”needs” a billionaire like Bloomberg since he understands the Wall Street crisis, which is having disproportionate impact in the city. Of course, they fail to mention that Bloomberg and his friends in the financial district are part of the problem that led us into this mess. Bloomberg is a creature of Wall Street. He worked for Salomon Brothers, did business with Merril Lynch, and cuts deals every day with the very crooks who got rich playing games with the economy. Famously he promised $1.65 billion in tax breaks to Goldman Sachs to lure their headquarters to their Ground Zero site.

Bloomberg despite shedding his GOP membership to become an “independent” is of the same opinion as Bush, McCain and the Republican Party that regulation is bad and that “the market knows best.” The Bloomberg policies have brought cranes crashing down around our ears just as the financial house of cards has come tumbling down. The U.S public has been bombarded with the idea that business can fix what government screwed up. The financial crisis and the $800 billion-plus government bailout of the private banks should put that lie to rest for good. Bloomberg, however, is hoping to use this false logic one more time to get reelected in 2009. He remains the CEO Mayor.

Many people are also upset by the way the mayor wants to make the change. “People—even elected officials—are allowed to change their minds,” The Working Families Party (WFP) stated in a press release. “But doing so on a momentous, constitutional change deserves full deliberation and patience.” WFP has set up a website, which calls for New Yorkers to oppose City Council action whether or not they support term limits. They and others believe the problem is the City Council overriding the will of the people.

But that’s only part of the issue. The imposition of term limits at this time by the mayor is clearly aimed at manipulating the public fears over the financial meltdown and slipping the proposal in during the buildup to the Presidential elections. Bloomberg had time to introduce a referendum on the ballot for November, but he played coy (as he did with running for President) in order to play his advantage. The process should be slowed down and thoroughly debated.

Communists have long believed that term limits are largely undemocratic, taking away the right of the people to elect who they will. Proponents of term limits argue that incumbents have an unfair advantage and can rarely be elected out of office. They believe that term limits ensure new blood in the political arena. It may, but it also ensures that strong representatives for working-class constituencies have to leave office just as they become experienced and effective advocates.

Since term limits became law in 1993 by popular referendum, the rule has also created political seat-hopping which often pits progressives against each other for higher office once their City Council terms are up. This musical chairs scenario is costly and encourages using public office as a stepping-stone instead of encouraging elected officials to be real representatives of the people and their interests.

But the previous referenda should not necessarily the final word on the matter. It has been over a decade since the last public referendum. The vote at the time was heavily influenced by a big money public relations campaign to influence public opinion. And leaving he current matter to referendum faces the same problem. The public may swing the other way due to fear mongering and well-financed campaigning by Bloomberg and Co. Or people will support the change because of the candidate not the principle. The point is not just how term limits changes, but who it changes for and what they stand for.

At the federal level, Members of Congress and Senators face no term limits. Only the Executive Branch, the office of the Presidency is subject to term limits. This is part of the checks and balances that developed over time. The executive branch is perhaps too powerful to go on without limit, while the Congress is the voice of the people and needs stability to stand up for the people.

Perhaps the same should be true at the city level. As the real debate about term limits continues and New Yorkers decide how the city should be governed, why not propose that the Mayor’s office be limited to some number of terms while the City Council—which, of course, is much more susceptible to being voted out if they lose the favor of the people—have no limit.

Of course, the other tragedy of the timing of Bloomberg’s move is that is distracts everyone from the urgent issues facing working-class New Yorkers right now: the financial crisis and its impact on local tax revenues, jobs, etc.; the attempt to renew disastrous mayoral powers over public education; the proposed social service and jobs cuts in Albany and City Hall; negotiating fair contracts with city workers, transit workers and others; the impending crisis in public transit, etc. A decision on term limits will help determine the occupancy of the Mayor’s Office and the City Council for 2010, but working people have urgent concerns still in 2008. Finally, this is a big distraction from the most important election of our time, just weeks away.

Nonetheless, we encourage everyone to come out to the public hearings October 16 & 17 in City Hall and voice their opposition not just to the way these term changes are being introduced but also to the Bloomberg Administration and his policies. This issue is not clear-cut. Progressives, unions and grassroots organizations have ended up on both sides of the question and many others remain neutral or just downright confused. We have to approach it with an eye toward the main problem we face: a possible four more years Bloomberg Administration.

The real criteria for any decision should be, what is good for the working people of the city, the great majority of the people? What gives them the greatest voice and power in a city more and more ruled by a small set of billionaire elites, with Bloomberg as their direct representative?

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