Friday, October 24, 2008

A Blessing Incognito

As we march headlong...into court on the issue of term limits, we are watching closely the mood of the citizenry. Having awarded themselves a self-served helping of another term, a healthy percentage of the 51 council members should be prepared for a considerable backdraft. One in particular, the first termer Diane Mealy, appears to be dead woman walking. Another, our buddy Jimmy Vacca, made a last minute about face that has his friends wondering.

As the NY Post reports this morning: "As late as Wednesday, two members - Darlene Mealy of Brooklyn and James Vacca of The Bronx - were planning to vote "no," but both flipped at the last minute, prompting more speculation that the mayor and speaker put immense pressure on members. Mealy ran away from reporters inquiring about her vote, and Vacca said he was moved by the personal pleas the mayor made to him but was not offered anything in return for his vote."

The storm clouds are gathering, the weather's gonna get a lot rougher; as the legal fight gears up, with its attendant public furor ratcheting up what many feel is a betrayal of the voters. As usual, the NY Times' Clyde Haberman captures this mood and its inevitable focus on our royal pretender: "Having legislatively muscled his way into a possible third term as mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg now faces what may be a more onerous challenge: How to convince New Yorkers that they can believe a single thing he says."

This lack of integrity is going to get played out for months, and just how disingenuous the mayor-and the council leadership-has been will be dramatically underscored for all New Yorkers. The fiscal crisis will be transmuted into a crisis of credibility for the little big man:

"His argument is that times are hard, that continuity is extra important and that voters deserve a chance to keep him. As on other occasions, he seems to believe that because his overall approval ratings are high, New Yorkers will smile on whatever he does. That isn’t the case. The trouncing that he took on big issues like nonpartisan elections, the West Side stadium and congestion pricing makes that clear. What the mayor plays down in his emphasis on the financial crisis is that he was exploring ways to cling to office long before the stock market went into a kamikaze-like dive. But he hemmed and hawed for months. Had he not done that, another referendum on term limits could have easily been put on the Nov. 4 ballot to see if New Yorkers had changed their minds."

And as Haberman reminds us: "There can be no doubt how New Yorkers feel. In a survey issued this week by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, 89 percent said that a new referendum — not a City Council deal — was the way to go. A mere 7 percent preferred to go through the Council. Till now, had you ever known 89 percent of New Yorkers to agree on anything? “You just don’t get numbers like this,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the polling institute."

Of course, the speaker's credibility is also stretched thin: "That turns the spotlight on the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, who has been the mayor’s handmaiden on altering term limits and whose own credibility took severe hits. She, too, used to preach about the sanctity of the people’s voice. Ms. Quinn said on Thursday that her sole interest was the common weal. New Yorkers, she said, now have a chance to vote for “consistent leadership” during this crisis. When reminded at a news conference that she used to hold a diametrically opposite position on how to change term limits, she said that elected officials go off course if they “do not evolve” when circumstances change.In other words, she had to be inconsistent to provide consistency. We’ll let you parse that one."

So we may be witnessing our own Charge of the Light Brigade; and the battle may not even get to its potential bloodiest culmination if the lawyers for the opposition get their way. As the NY Times reports this morning: "Now that the City Council has approved changing term limits to allow Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to run again, this much is certain: The battle will move to the courtroom. Two lawsuits challenging the move are already in the legal system and more are expected."

So its a roll of the dice for council members in particular who have eyes for higher office. If the courts over rule the legislative fiat, than those who voted for extension are going to be coming to the voters viewed by many of the 89% as damaged goods. And the mayor will limp home to the end of his current term with as tarnished a legacy as we could possibly imagine.

That outcome, however, is certainly not preordained, since the legal hurdles are significant: "One point discussed was whether a provision in the municipal home rule law stipulating that a referendum is needed to alter the term of an elected office might apply in this case, several of the participants said. Another suggested that the challenge should be based on the City Charter, which does not specify how term limits ought to be changed — if by law or, as opponents of the Council’s actions have contended, by referendum. Of the many approaches discussed at the meeting, the lawyers are exploring two main avenues, each of which may prove difficult, in part because there is limited legal precedent to guide their argument but also because the courts might simply refuse to interfere with the political process."

The first, a voting rights challenge appears to be a long shot to us; but the other more arcane rationale may have greater promise: "One point discussed was whether a provision in the municipal home rule law stipulating that a referendum is needed to alter the term of an elected office might apply in this case, several of the participants said...The second alternative being considered by the lawyers who met with Mr. Siegel is a lawsuit arguing that extending term limits ought to require a referendum, just as changing the number of years in one term does."

All of which didn't make yesterday's procedures an exercise in good government by any stretch. Haberman gets the last word: "The mayor’s hope is that voters will eventually see Thursday’s action as not a betrayal of democracy, but as a blessing in disguise.Those were the words used by Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, after British voters ousted him as prime minister in July 1945. “It may well be a blessing in disguise,” she told him. To which Churchill replied, as many New Yorkers may be saying today, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.”