It took him nearly seven years in office, but Mayor Bloomberg finally is acting like a typical politician.
Mr. Bloomberg has let it be known that he likes being mayor so much that he is not necessarily going to let a little thing like term limits end his run. New York City voters have twice ratified a two-term limit on local elected officials that would force Mr. Bloomberg out of office at the end of next year, but now come published reports that he is preparing to cut a deal with the City Council to pass legislation that would give him the opportunity to run for a third term.
Can Mr. Bloomberg accomplish this maneuver legally under New York law? Surprisingly, yes. But can he also then expect to pay a heavy political price and tarnish his legacy by thwarting the will of the voters and breaking his own public commitments on term limits? Undoubtedly, yes.
As a legal matter, there is little doubt that Mr. Bloomberg can have his way. In 1993, New York City voters first approved a ballot initiative to impose a two-term limit on all local elected offices. Then, in 1998, they rejected a ballot initiative to overturn those limits. The fact that term limits were born at the ballot box does not mean, though, that they remain the exclusive province of the voters.
Under New York law, the city's charter can be changed by legislation, even after voter ratification, with one exception. The city's charter cannot be changed by legislation if the amendment in question alters the powers of an elective office or the "term of office." Here's the catch: New York courts have interpreted "term in office" to mean only the number of years in a single term, not the number of terms of an elected office.
So Mr. Bloomberg could legally seek legislation to permit him to run for a third term. And the City Council would undoubtedly accommodate him — as long as councilmembers got the same deal for themselves.
Before facing the end of his own time in office, Mr. Bloomberg felt very differently about the City Council's attempt in 2002 to alter voter-approved term limits by legislation. "I would oppose any change in the law that a legislative body tries to make," he declared. "I do think after you've asked the public to express their views twice, you don't try to circumvent the will of the public."
That was then. This is now. "The City Council has the right to change term limits if they want to," Mr. Bloomberg said last week, amid reports that he has been personally lobbying the publishers of New York City's three largest daily newspapers for their support.
As mayor, Mr. Bloomberg could have stayed true to his word and appointed a mayoral charter commission to put a term limits proposition on the November ballot for voter approval. Instead, according to published reports, he did what a typical politician would do: He had a poll conducted that determined that, as popular a mayor as he is, New Yorkers overwhelmingly still favor term limits. Going the referendum route the mayor would hit a dead end.
Ultimately, that's the problem for Mr. Bloomberg. He won over New Yorkers as the anti-politician — the incorruptible private businessman who was above politics and would always put the public's interests first. Yet his latest machinations seem like politics as usual motivated by personal self-interest. He risks irreparably tainting his brand by so blatantly reversing himself and ignoring the will of the people on term limits.
The mayor seems to be banking on perceived dissatisfaction with the prospective field of mayoral candidates to propel a movement to keep him in office. But the prospective field of mayoral contenders — a maverick congressmen with a sharp wit, long-time local elected officials with broader appeal, a "law and order" champion with crime-fighting credentials, and a successful entrepreneur who is spending millions of his own money to try to get elected — reads a lot like those who rose to lead our city during the past three decades and, for the most part, did a pretty commendable job doing so through some trying times.
New Yorkers also had their doubts about Michael Bloomberg when he first ran for mayor as a billionaire businessman with no government experience whatsoever. Yet after winning one of the closest mayoral elections in history, Mr. Bloomberg has proven himself on the job. The next mayor, vetted by the voters, should also be able to rise to the occasion. As no less an authority than Mayor Bloomberg has assured us: "I've always said a new guy can do better."
The question with which Mr. Bloomberg is now grappling is similar to the dilemma that a term-limited Rudy Giuliani faced in 2001. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a groundswell arose that Mr. Giuliani should remain in office, at least for a several-month transition period, to help the city through that difficult period. That proposal also would have required legislative approval. While a well-intentioned response to a crisis, the proposal seemed undemocratic, and it was Mr. Giuliani himself who finally put an end to it.
Today, there is no such crisis in our city — only a popular mayor at a crossroad. That Mr. Bloomberg should even be at this crossroad is proof that term limits have served their purpose, giving new faces a chance to serve and reinvigorating our city government with fresh perspectives, for he almost certainly never would have run for that office had term limits not created the opportunity.
Moreover, third terms are notoriously unsuccessful, even for our most popular elected officials. Just ask Ed Koch. Or Mario Cuomo. Or George Pataki. So on reflection, Mr. Bloomberg will hopefully think better of this ill-conceived gambit, respect the will of the voters in repeatedly ratifying term limits, and heed his own words that "democracy has been given a chance, and we should live with the results."Mr. Mastro, a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, is a lawyer who has litigated term limits issues.