Tuesday, December 09, 2008

More Attitude, Less Gratitude

After Prolonging Their Tenure, Councilmembers Turn on Mayor, Challenging Him on Substance

By Henry J. Stern

October 31, 2008

“Beware. Answered prayers cause more tears than unanswered ones.”
- St. Theresa of Avila (1515-1582).

Mayor Bloomberg has reason to consider St. Theresa’s wise words. On Thursday, the Council extended the term limit on city elected officials from eight to twelve years. The act is in direct contravention of Section 1138 of the New York City Charter, which was adopted by the voters in 1993, and reaffirmed by the voters in 1996 on the specific issue of barring a third term. The Council and city lawyers believe that they have the wisdom and the authority to over-ride Charter provisions, adopted by referenda, which govern eligibility for election of city officials.

Councilmembers are specifically forbidden by the Charter (Section 38) from extending their own terms, but at the time the Charter was adopted (1989), term limits were not an issue, so there is no direct prohibitory language in the Charter. Similar provisions governing elections are protected from political tampering by that Section, and it was the clear intent of the Charter drafters not to allow politicians to interfere with the election process by changing the ground rules themselves.

The dispute now goes to the courts. The U.S. Department of Justice is required to determine whether the Council action interferes with the rights of minorities. It certainly precludes additional seats for minority challengers if the non-minority incumbents, whose names are better known, are allowed to seek four more years in office. But no one can be certain of what the courts or the Justice Department will eventually do.

What Did the Self-Extending Councilmembers Do First ?

To everyone’s great surprise, the first day of the new era of emancipated Councilmembers, now free to seek third terms, ended in bitter disputes with the man who made their third terms (along with his own) possible, Mayor Bloomberg.

On page A1 of today’s Times, which means the local story is regarded as very important, the headline is: AFTER TERM LIMITS VOTE, MAYOR FINDS A LESS COMPLIANT COUNCIL. The story is by Michael Barbaro and David W. Chen of the City Hall bureau of the Times. It is illustrated by a an artistic photograph by Ruby Washington of an unsmiling Mayor with a glowering Speaker standing behind him, taken in the Blue Room of City Hall.

The lead paragraphs of the Barbaro-Chen account are of major significance in the arena of the personal politics of survival. Read them here:

“Tensions between City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn and aides to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg are erupting just a week after Ms. Quinn shepherded the mayor’s divisive legislation to loosen the city’s term limits law through the Council.

“Feelings are raw between the two sides largely because Ms. Quinn took heavy political shrapnel for the mayor during the term limits battle as she rounded up support for what became an unusually difficult vote.

“The strains at City Hall could stymie the Bloomberg administration’s agenda in the middle of the deepest financial crisis to strike New York City in decades. In closed-door meetings over the last few days that occasionally escalated into shouting, Ms. Quinn has told the mayor’s aides to back off a plan that would change how hundreds of programs for the elderly are financed, a proposal that has infuriated several council members. …

“The tensions reveal the degree to which the bruising term limits battle, initiated by the mayor so that he can run for a third term, altered the political landscape, with Ms. Quinn and her colleagues feeling empowered to challenge the Bloomberg administration as never before.”

The Times story then jumps to pA28, where it continues for parts of four columns. It totals 1137 words. The account is comprehensive, well written, and quotes numerous sources. If you will have time over the weekend, the story is worth reading in full. It is history in the making. Print it out.

What is remarkable here is that the Councilmembers believe they did the Mayor a great favor by extending term limits. That is because he and his aides put so much pressure on their weaklings, swiveling a few from prior commitments. But their payoff for helping Bloomberg was extending their own eligibility by four years. If the Mayor does not serve a third term, he will be able to devote himself to the public interest with his foundation and through national activities in which he has been engaged (guns, smoking, public health, the economy). He could be a great public citizen.

However, If the Councilmembers are found ineligible to seek a third term, or are defeated in their attempt for a threepeat, their prospects will not be nearly so bright. Only a small percentage of them will pull in the $122,500 (including lulus) per year which they collected for the past seven years.

Some will go back to fighting poverty (their own, first), others will go to nonprofits. At least one should find a home in the Bloomberg administration, if he should be re-elected and she not be. A handful will return to their prior careers as community organizers. The relatively few lawyers will continue to ply their trade, unencumbered by occasional Council meetings and the need to use their partners' names while suing the City of New York.

The silver lining is that some of that some of the cuppies (Council urban professionals) may be elected to higher offices which will be vacated if term limits are upheld. There are eight senior elective positions in city government which will be contested in 2009: mayor, comptroller, public advocate and the five borough presidents. Some councilmembers have already raised millions of dollars to compete for these positions. We cite rule 7-G; “Go for it.”

Our suggestion to the mayor is that he not sign the term limits bill on Monday, because he will lose his last hold over the Councilmembers once his signature is on the bill. He has saved their seats, but is already being rewarded with abuse. Those who voted with him will be accused by their rivals of being his stooges, and the frightened legislators will criticize the mayor as much as they can to dispel that image. Their primary opponents in 2009 will show them no mercy.

Let the Mayor bring the issue of term extension for himself, or the three city-wide officials, to the public in a referendum which he should win, because most New Yorkers value his unique services, even if they do not agree with everything he does. Let the “emboldened” Councilmembers fend for themselves. They have already begun to throw the Mayor under the bus. He should reciprocate their courtesy.

You have seen the Council story on page one of today’s Times. If you give those seeking extension five more years, they will make you suffer, day by day. They are animals wounded by public abuse, and who knows when and where they will strike.

At her press conference one hour before the October 23 meeting on term limits, Speaker Quinn said that one reason to extend Councilmembers’ terms was the good relationship they had with the mayor, and together they would bring the city to fiscal stability, etc. Today is October 31, and the relationship has already turned sour. If the Council succeeds in defeating the voters and the Charter, they will all be up for re-election and they will pander their hearts out for whatever support they can find. BTW, another value in a two-term limit is that, in their second four years, most Councilmembers will not be candidates for office, and might therefore have a greater incentive to do what is right rather than what is popular.

We promised last week to give you the names and boroughs of the 22 members who VOTED AGAINST the Council’s decision to overturn the referenda. Here is the list, by borough.

Bronx (1): Annabel Palma

Brooklyn (5): Charles Barron, Bill de Blasio, Mathieu Eugene, Vincent J. Gentile, Letitia James.

Manhattan (5): Gale A. Brewer, Daniel R. Garodnick, Jessica Lappin, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Rosie Mendez

Queens (8): Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., Tony Avella, Anthony Como, James F. Gennaro, Eric N. Gioia, John C. Liu, Hiram Monserrate, David I. Weprin

Staten Island (3): Vincent M. Ignizio, Michael E. McMahon, James S. Oddo

Two Relevant Rules, and a Bit of Homework

We close with two rules, which we believe are particularly pertinent to this sorry story:

Rule 35: United States Senator Robert F. Wagner (1877-1953) made this observation: “Gratitude is for favors yet to be received.”

That rule was passed along to me to me by my City Council colleague and friend, the Senator’s late grandson, Bobby Wagner (1944-93). Bobby was one of the best public servants of his generation. His early death was a great tragedy..

Rule 29-D-2: “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.”

This Rule is taken from Poor Richard’s Almanack, by Benjamin Franklin (1706-90). The saying was published in 1733, with the following wording:

“He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”

Homework for the reader: Figure out the relevance of these historic quotations to today’s article. There will be prizes for correct answers.


All four Councilmembers who are seeking election this year voted No. They are McMahon (running for Congress), Addabbo and Gennaro (running for the State Senate) and Como (running for a one-year term as Councilmember). When I was on the Council, we used to call that 'Going off the reservation'. It was all right if you received a pass from the leadership. Standards have loosened since then..

Councilmember Letitia James of Brooklyn, a plaintiff in the term limits lawsuit, also attended and spoke at the press conference on October 29.

Enjoy the weekend. Link to the Times story if you can.

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