Monday, September 08, 2008

Soiling for a Fight

Well, it looks like it won't be all clear sailing for those who want to alter the term limits law so that the emperor penguin can remain in office. Ron Lauder, the old term limits nemesis, appears to be back in the hunt. As the NY Times reported last week, Lauder has launched an ad campaign that appears to be a warning shot for the mischief makers: "In the first signs of organized opposition to changing the city’s term limits law, Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, is bankrolling a series of television commercials, set to run this weekend, that strongly defend the current rules."

The ads' focus, however, is more on the city council than the mayor; a move that makes sense considering the popularity disparities that are present: "Mr. Lauder, for example, appears to take pains not to insult Mr. Bloomberg, a fellow billionaire. The ads he is financing this weekend refer pointedly to the Council, reminding voters of a “slush fund scandal” involving fake community organizations, but conspicuously ignore the mayor."

And the Lauder effort is not an isolated one: "At the same time, two influential good-government groups in the city, Citizens Union and the New York Public Interest Research Group, signaled on Friday that they opposed amending the law without a public vote. Both said they were not coordinating their efforts with Mr. Lauder’s. In a statement, Citizens Union said, “Any attempt to change the limits by legislation would undermine New Yorkers’ confidence in government by making it appear that our elected officials are acting in their own self-interest, rather than in the public interest.”Gene Russianoff, a senior lawyer at the research group and the staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, a transit rider advocacy group, said, “It is wrong to overturn the will of the voters.” He added: “I am astonished it is coming up at this late date. It smacks of a limited appreciation of the American style of checks and balances.”

The tenor of the ads is quite graphic, with the use of dirty diaper references designed to convey to voters the underhanded nature of the political purpose of changing the law. As the NY Daily News points out: "The commercial likens politicians to diapered babies, saying they "need to be changed regularly," is to air Sunday on the network public affairs programs: ABC's "This Week," CBS' "Face the Nation," NBC's "Meet the Press" and "Fox News Sunday." It will also air next week on New York 1."

Given the recent revelations regarding the City Council earmarks, it is no wonder that Lauder places greatest emphasis on the arena that the voters will see most clearly as acting in a self serving fashion: "The ad goes on to knock the City Council for "talking about killing term limits so they can stay in office longer." It cites tax hikes and the budget "slush fund scandal" that rocked the Council this year."

The News goes on to muse that the Lauder ad buy-a modest $50,000-isn't something that would daunt the mayor, saying: "The mayor isn't commenting on term limits, but given that he spent a combined $158 million of his own dough to win his two terms he may be undaunted by Lauder's lob."

This seems to us as somewhat cavalier, since the Lauder effort represents a reflection of the will of the the voters-twice reflected in an unequivocal manner. Lauder doesn't need to get into a dollar for dollar pissing contest with the mayor; and Bloomberg better be careful here since, if he does start to spend millions, it can come around to bite him in his legacy if an aroused public sees him attempting to suborn the popular will.

This is brought home by the Times' account of the opposition to all of this by the Citizens Union: "A few years ago, Citizens Union called for a public discussion about term limits and recommended in a report [pdf] that a charter revision commission be created to look more closely at the impact of the laws.“New York now has the benefit of experience, but has not analyzed the experiment Friday’s statement said. “Any attempt to change these limits by legislation would undermine New Yorkers’ confidence in government by making it appear that our elected officials are acting in their own self-interest rather than in the public interest. The expressed will of the citizens rises above all other considerations.”

Beware-the blowback is just beginning.