Bloomberg's Term-Limits Coup: Heroes, Villains, and Wimps

Brutal brawling in the first throwdown of the 2009 elections

So much for New York City sophisticates. Last week's rush by 29 self-inflated council members to gut term-limits laws—approved by voters in two separate referendums—was the kind of thing that's supposed to happen only in countries south of the border, or those with "-stan" at the end of their names.

Council opposition leader Bill de Blasio hit that note squarely outside City Hall after the vote. "This is 2008 in the biggest, most sophisticated city in the United States of America, and what happened here was more reminiscent of a banana republic," he lamented.

Right before the roll call on a vote he knew he was about to lose, de Blasio rose in the council chambers and tried one last weapon: shame. "George Orwell in particular would love the arguments being made today by the Speaker, the Mayor, and others, that by taking away the voters' right to decide this issue, we are giving them more of a choice." He added a warning: "The people of this city will long remember what we've done here today, and the people will rightfully be unforgiving. We are stealing like a thief in the night their right to decide the shape of democracy."

Mark that claim as the first throwdown of the 2009 elections. As he furiously lobbied for his term-extension bill, Mike Bloomberg famously promised council members that "people do forget about these things." He'd better hope so.

De Blasio predicted that Bloomberg and Council Speaker Chris Quinn's scheming and dealing to force-feed the bill to wavering council members last week will eventually be discovered and exposed. I'm not so sure.

For instance, who was that mystery man sitting in the Subway sandwich shop across from City Hall on the first day of the hearings? The guy with the cash-filled envelope doling out dollars to those who showed up early to grab front-row seats and wave pro-Bloomberg signs? One likely suspect, a well-practiced Brooklyn campaign worker, denied it. "It's nothing to do with me, man," he insisted. The search continues.

So does the hunt for the telephone bank that routed pro-Bloomberg calls directly into the offices of council foes of the mayor's bill. Who paid for that? Not us, said an administration official who suggested a friendly labor group was behind it.

The mayor's was a no-fingerprints operation. He closed out his 2005 campaign committee last year, never even bothering to report a poll his aides admitted he did last spring—months before the financial crisis hit—to check the public pulse for extending term limits (there was none; a pulse, that is).

And what was it that made council first-termer Darlene Mealy of Brooklyn burst into tears just before switching sides in the great debate? One minute Mealy was calling Bloomberg "a dictator," and the next she was meekly voting his way. After composing herself, Mealy explained to former allies that she was just looking for a few extras from the powers-that-be. "She said she was tired of not getting X, Y, and Z for her district," said one member.

Mealy's was the most pitiful of last week's performances. A former transit worker, she won office three years ago, beating an entrenched political dynasty in a campaign expertly run by the Working Families Party and its lead organizer, Bill Lipton. The WFP worked its heart out last week to defeat the mayor's bill, trying to make up for a total public default by its member unions. Mealy too walked away. Bad karma followed: After the vote, she broke her collarbone in an auto crack-up on the BQE.

The amiable Jimmy Vacca of the Bronx also went from hero to goat. An early "No" on the extension bill, Vacca wilted under pressure from Bloomberg allies. The carrot-topped councilman's voice squeaked on the council floor as he tried to justify his switch. Whose sentiments swayed him? Mom's. "She said, 'You mean I may not have the right to vote for who I want to?' 'Yes, mom,' I told her."

There's got to be a special place in a council hall of shame for the likes of Robert Jackson of Upper Manhattan. Explaining his "Yes" vote on the floor, Jackson invoked the memory of his excellent and long-serving predecessor, the recently deceased Stanley Michels. But it was Michels—as related in Jack Newfield's book The Full Rudy—who selflessly rejected an overture from the Giuliani administration to introduce a resolution ending term limits.

David Yassky's collapse may be the sorriest part of the whole sorry episode. One of the best and brightest in the council class of 2002, he earnestly pursued the business of government, paying special heed to matters of ethics. Somewhere along the line, ambition trumped honor. Last week, he chose the mayor's political shortcut over a tough hike up a moral mountain, wagering that district voters won't really care.

Quinn's own seamless transition from principled opponent of overturning term limits to ruthless architect of their undoing was equally hard to watch. Last December, after months of analysis, she pronounced herself irretrievably opposed to amending the law. It took Bloomberg a few minutes to flip her back his way. She adopted the mayor's mantra that crisis dictates change. She didn't bother explaining why first-term members deserve their own shot at a third term that won't begin until 2013—long after this particular crisis has passed. She didn't have to. She needed their votes. It was that simple.

You had to wonder what dybbuk got into the Council Speaker that she had the dismal Larry Seabrook give the opening prayer for Thursday's session. Seabrook, poster child for council slush-fund abuse, skipped the morning vote on the bill by the governmental operations committee, where he is one of just seven members. His excuse? "They were installing windows in my apartment."

The brutal drubbing that good government took last week could be read plainly on the faces of its staunchest advocates. Public-interest lawyer Gene Russianoff—the city's conscience for 25 years—sat forlornly in the council chambers before the vote. His usual powerful ally, the Times editorial board, had that morning shamed itself again with another pro-Bloomberg pitch. "It doesn't look good, does it?" he said. Behind him sat Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union, which twice endorsed the mayor and relies on a hefty annual Bloomberg contribution. Dadey courageously bucked him on term limits nonetheless.

Still, there were flashes of hope. As you looked across the room wondering where New York's Barack Obamas were, up popped feisty and resilient Letitia James of Brooklyn, denouncing democracy's hijacking. A few rows behind was Gale Brewer from the West Side, as true a public servant as the city has. Brewer openly pined for a third term at a job she loves, but ultimately cast her vote against the mayor she admires, saying, "We bear a heightened responsibility." Rosie Mendez, of the Lower East Side, did the same, as did Charles Barron, David Weprin, Tony Avella, Eric Gioia, John Liu, Jimmy Oddo, and a dozen others who stood tall.

Bloomberg and Quinn may have carried the day, but you had to believe they bought themselves a world of future political pain in doing so. As any tinpot banana republic generalissimo will tell you, the next coup is always around the corner.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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