Compared to New York State, New York City is leading the way in governing itself. Are the people of the city better educated or are they just more enlightened about self-government? Are there more Democrats in the big city than in the upstate? Maybe New York’s high school civics teachers do a better job than their upstate counterparts.
To begin with, the city’s body politic voted to impose term limits on politicians. We all know that a political class has major drawbacks. In a self-protected group like this there will be people like Richard Gottfried, who has just announced his intention to retire after 51 years of service, has played his role brilliantly as chairman of the Health Committee of the assembly. But for every Gottfried, there are dozens of people who are elected and, like Monty Woolley in “The Man Who Came to Dinner”, never leave. They make rules that benefit them, and with a few notable exceptions, they don’t really work hard. They don’t have to. Indeed, it might actually be counterproductive for them to exercise a little more.
As long as these people respect the authority of their leaders, they can stay. For the most part, they show up on Tuesday and are more likely than not to come out a day or two later. They claim they work hard to serve their constituents from their over-staffed offices. The point is, their efforts are mostly devoted to raising funds from the well-to-do.
Compare that with what’s going on in New York City. There they can serve two terms (unless their name is Bloomberg), and then they have to find another office to run for. As it turns out, everyone who opposed term limits was just plain wrong. They predicted chaos, which did not happen. They predicted that the staff would take over. This does not happen. Indeed, this staff did much of the hard work, allowing elected lawmakers to relax.
Term limits opened the door for others to have a chance. It means the same old people, the same old people don’t hang on to the desk. This is all good and anyone who predicted these changes wouldn’t work has turned out to be completely wrong. This leads me to believe that if you gave the people of New York State the opportunity to vote for term limits for state legislators, the proposal would pass by an overwhelming majority. Oh, they might not want to see their own elected representative go, but they’ll love the general idea because we all know what the game is.
On the other hand, consider a magnificent civil servant like State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. He used the years given to him to become an extraordinary financial specialist. You may want to change the rules to exclude his office from the same term limits as lawmakers.
This brings us to the idea of term limits for executives like the governor and lieutenant governor of New York. We just saw what happened when Andrew Cuomo crossed the line for a fourth term, possibly competing with his own father, who tried but couldn’t get that accolade. Cuomo could have done it, but he was so brutal with the political class that they rebelled and seemingly kicked him out.
Some might argue that if you have term limits for lawmakers and governor, you should do the same for others, like nonprofit executives. That may be the case, but elected officials, it seems to me, are in a different category and we need to impose tighter controls on them. They did it in New York City, but the state government still has a long way to go.
Sunday Freeman columnist Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, editor of the Legislative Gazette and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at email@example.com.