Bloomberg’s Term Limits Scheme


As it heads into the home stretch, the Bloomberg campaign has adopted a new slogan to sum things up and help focus voters on the big picture. The new motto was rolled out at the big Bloomberg rally held primary night on a West Side pier, a gala celebration aimed at snatching attention away from Democrats and on to Mayor Mike. The slogan was emblazoned on Bloomberg’s podium, and tattooed over and over on a TV backdrop. Which made it hard to miss. It read: “Progress. Not Politics.” The first word is a debate worth having. The next two are simply lies.

Not politics? Whatever you think of Bill Thompson’s erratic campaign, at least he was being nominated that very night by his own party in an open primary. Mike Bloomberg? His GOP endorsement came courtesy of a classic, old-school political deal in which five Republican county leaders sat down in a room and agreed to give the mayor their ballot line.

He cut the same insiders’ pact with the cultish local chapter of the Independence Party. The party’s nominating convention this spring featured all the democracy of a Chinese Politburo meeting, including a ruling clique that fawned over the visiting mayor. A few weeks later, Bloomberg sealed the deal with a $250,000 down-payment to the party’s coffers, with presumably a great deal more to come.

Not politics? Bloomberg continues to scorn the city’s campaign finance system, the hard-won reform designed to curb the influence of big money in elections. He spends as much as he wants—the same way the hacks used to do before limits were adopted.

Then there’s the bare-bones political scheming that won the mayor the very right to even appear on the ballot this year. That’s the one topic Mike Bloomberg still refuses to talk about. He gets an electric-like jolt whenever the topic is raised. Just when and why Mike Bloomberg decided to overturn the city’s term limits laws is shrouded in mystery. He’s done his best to keep it that way.

But there’s new light shed on the subject by Joyce Purnick, the veteran New York Times editor and reporter whose insightful political biography, Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics, is out this month.

Bloomberg gave Purnick unprecedented access, granting her multiple one-on-one, hour-long interviews. He also green-lighted his top aides—deputies Patti Harris, Kevin Sheekey, and Ed Skyler—to talk as well.

The book makes clear that many months before economic disaster struck in September 2008—the crisis that Bloomberg said prompted his reversal on term limits—the mayor was already pondering the move.

Purnick says that a few weeks after Bloomberg’s February 28, 2008, announcement that he would not seek the presidency, she asked the mayor about then-vague rumors that he was looking for a way to run for mayor again.

“It was clear he had given a third term some thought,” she writes. The mayor told her that “the mechanics” of such a bid were “difficult” because he would need the backing of the city’s daily papers. Bloomberg told her that he knew he could count on Post publisher Rupert Murdoch and the Daily News‘ Mort Zuckerman. But he was in the midst of saying he was “uncertain about Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.” when a press aide cut him off, insisting that the rest of the conversation had to be off the record.

That spring, Bloomberg commissioned a poll on public attitudes about changing term limits. Purnick confirms that it showed that voters were likely to vote thumbs down on any move to change term limits in a new referendum.

Other hints of the mayor’s pre-crisis calculations came from her interviews with mega-millionaires who were urging Bloomberg to run again. In July, Bloomberg attended the annual tycoons’ retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho. There, Purnick writes, Bloomberg mingled with Murdoch and other pro–third term chums, including investment mogul Henry Kravis and Time Warner’s Richard Parsons. The mayor was apparently treated to a full-court press from those moguls, who were in turn consulting with real estate big Jerry Speyer and investment strategist Steven Rattner, both of whom were aggressively pushing a third term.

Purnick quotes one “business associate” saying that “they all came back from Sun Valley loaded for bear, sure he was going for it.”

Zuckerman, a key player in Bloomberg’s strategy, told Purnick that the September market crash wasn’t the reason. “No, it was not the economic crisis,” the publisher and real estate magnate said. “He wanted to run for a third term. What else was he going to do? He loves being mayor.”

Bloomberg hesitated, Purnick writes, concerned in part about the response of fellow billionaire Ronald Lauder (“Complication No. 1,” she dubs him), who spent millions to win the original term limits referendum and who successfully beat back a later challenge to the law.

That hesitation, she says, helped the mayor avoid pressure to put term limits on the ballot that fall, when it was even more likely to be defeated by the pro-Obama voters expected to swamp the polls. She said that one close friend of the mayor who was also urging him to run for a third term told her that the mayor “deliberately ran out the clock because of the poll in June.” The friend told her that Bloomberg’s “political advisers were telling him he wouldn’t win a referendum” overturning the term limits law.

It was while that clock was running down that the financial collapse struck, giving the mayor what Purnick dubs “a plausible reason” to push for a fast Council vote rather than a public referendum.

The mayor then turned to “Complication No. 1.” Lauder had already fired an opening shot, running a TV ad depicting politicians as baby diapers that need regular changing. But after what Purnick says was heavy lobbying by the pro-Bloomberg business crowd, Lauder bowed to a one-time change in the law in exchange for a small concession: that the mayor agree to name him to a new Charter Review commission panel in 2010—one that would recommend reinstituting term limits.

Bloomberg and Lauder were so excited about their agreement that they put out a press release describing it. The release was issued by Lauder’s eminent public relations adviser, Howard Rubenstein. But Bloomberg’s City Hall helped write it and approved it. “I will reluctantly support the mayor’s legislation to extend term limits to three terms,” Lauder stated in the release, “with the understanding that I will serve on a Charter-revision commission which will place the question of the number of terms before the voters in 2010.”

Lauder clearly wasn’t getting much in return: The commission doesn’t even exist, and if it is convened, he’ll be just one member. But it was also a glaring example of the city’s top executive using the perks of office to win political advantage. That is something officials are explicitly barred from doing by the City Charter. As good-government advocates Gene Russianoff of NYPIRG and Susan Lerner of Common Cause put it in a letter a few days later to the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, “We believe that Mayor Bloomberg has used his position in a prohibited manner to obtain personal advantage in a quid pro quo deal with Ronald Lauder.”

Whatever became of that complaint? “Nothing,” said Russianoff last week. “We never heard a word from the board.”

That’s the policy, a board official said when asked about the matter. When the board doesn’t find any violation, “the public never finds out,” he said. Which is just how the mayor wants to keep it until after November.