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The Bloomberg manipulation behind the term limits override effort

The big news from yesterday's second (and final) day of hearings on the Bloomberg administration's attempt to extend voter-imposed term limits was not the dueling arguments--most were not new--but the clear evidence of manipulation. (If only the New York Times had done such an assiduous job covering that August 2006 Atlantic Yards hearing.)

(Photo of State Senator Eric Adams, with Rep. Anthony Weiner, a mayoral candidate, at right, from the New York Times.)

As the Times reported today, in an article headlined Bloomberg Enlists His Charities in Bid to Stay:
Michael R. Bloomberg, who says he strictly separates his philanthropy from his job as mayor of New York, is pressing many of the community, arts and neighborhood groups that rely on his private donations to make the case for his third term, according to interviews with those involved in the effort.

As opposition mounts to his plan to ease term limits, those people said, the mayor and his top aides have asked leaders of organizations that receive his largess to express their support for his third-term bid by testifying during public hearings and by personally appealing to undecided members of the City Council. Legislation that would allow him to run for another term is expected to come up for a Council vote as early as next week.

The requests have put the groups in an unusual and uncomfortable position, several employees of the groups said. City Hall has not made any explicit threats, they said, but city officials have extraordinary leverage over the groups’ finances. Many have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mr. Bloomberg’s philanthropic giving and millions of dollars from city contracts overseen by his staff.

(That connection has been raised by Noticing New York commentator Michael D.D. White, who, unlike the Times, was unable to get a figure from the Public Art Fund regarding Bloomberg's contributions. )

Moreover, the representatives from five Bloomberg-supported groups that testified failed to disclose that connection during their testimony. The Daily News detailed how the Doe Fund was unlisted. The Post described lunch money being given out. The Times got an obligatory and obvious criticism:
Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College, said it was inappropriate for the mayor to be asking the groups that are so dependent on his good graces to take a position on his legislation.

During the hearing

Similarly, the Times's live-blogging of the hearing yesterday turned up examples of mayoral coordination with beneficiaries of his largess, such as Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera:
“Mayor Bloomberg has always been a great champion of opera and of all the cultural activities of New York,” he said. He joked that while “it’s no secret that Mayor Bloomberg finds opera slow at times,” all “kidding aside, the mayor understands the vital role that arts institutions play in the lives of our citizens.”

Mr. Gelb spoke of the Met’s efforts to “bring opera to the people,” and said, “Mayor Bloomberg’s unwavering support of the city’s cultural institutions has enhanced the image of New York across the nation and around the world, resulting in more visitors to our city than ever before.”

(Couldn't private citizen and philanthropist Bloomberg accomplish that goal just as well?)

The Times reported:
Outside the hearing, after Mr. Gelb testified, he told City Room that Mayor Bloomberg had been a supporter of the arts and of the Met, in particular. Asked whether there had been any coordination with the mayor’s office, he said, “I have an ongoing dialogue with the people in the mayor’s office. I made it known that I would be happy to testify on the mayor’s behalf.” He had been waiting about 45 minutes, he said. “Of course, there has to be some kind of communication in terms of schedules regarding the hearing.”

On the way out of the hearing room, he was greeted by a member of the mayor’s staff, who said to him: “Good job. Thanks so much for your help.”

The Borough Presidents

All five borough presidents testified in support of a bill that would give them four more years, and Brooklyn's leader cited projects under way, presumably including Atlantic Yards. The first paragraph is a direct quote from BP Marty Markowitz:
I’ve always been opposed to laws that enforce term limits. They are profoundly undemocratic. We have methods to apply term limits, they’re called elections. Look at the most recent elections: Two veteran state senators were defeated in elections in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

But Mr. Markowitz added, “Our city will confront many challenges in the months and years ahead.” And he concluded that extending the limits to three terms from two — but not rescinding them entirely — was sensible.

“We must remember that extending term limits is not about Michael Bloomberg, Marty Markowitz or any other city officials,” he said. “When term limits first went into effect, New York had gone through so many corruption scandals that people lost confidence in their government. I think the attitude of the public was very different then.”

He added, “With another term, I’d have the chance to see the projects come to completion.”

And another builder gave his endorsement:
Richard T. Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, a trade group for the design, construction and real estate industries, spoke in favor of extending term limits. “Term limits have a negative impact on New York City, including the building industry,” he said, contributing to “municipal inefficiency and short-sightedness.”

Many would argue that the Bloomberg's stewardship of the Department of Buildings has been an administration low point.

It's about the projects

Such rhetoric got a response from the leading political opponent of Atlantic Yards:
Councilwoman Letitia James, a Brooklyn Democrat who has been a forceful opponent of the plan to alter term limits without a public vote, expressed skepticism:

I believe the mayor of the city of New York wants to stay in office to complete his projects, his mega projects. To think that mayor Bloomberg is the only one who can lead the city is intellectually dishonest. Given the fact that the mayor has unmatched resources, do you think this would be a fair fight?

More Brooklynites angered

The Times quoted Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, who's sponsored a bill in Albany to require a referendum:
Mr. Jeffries, of Brooklyn, denounced the effort to change term limits as utterly self-serving; he has called for the State Legislature to intervene and block the city from altering term limits without a referendum.

Mr. Jeffries used some dramatic analogies:
Lady Liberty is crying. Boss Tweed is smiling. The Big Apple is rotting, because democracy is being snatched away from us, not in Venezuela, not in North Korea, not in Bosnia, but here in the City of New York.

State Senator Eric Adams pointed to Rudy Giuliani's failed attempt, post-9/11, to extend his term, and continued:
Mr. Adams referred again and again to New York’s resolve after 9/11.

“This is an important time for us to show the entire country our strength and fortitude,” he said. “How do we find ourselves seven years later, cowardly shaking under the skirt of liberty? What happened to us?”

The Times quoted (and misidentified) Room 8 blogger Rock Hackshaw:
Rick Hermon Hackshaw was the witness who compared Mayor Bloomberg to President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe. He scoffed at the idea that term limits would merely be extended to 12 years from 8.

Larger issues

As I wrote yesterday, the move to overturn term limits came before the financial crisis. And a historian offered a longer perspective:
Matthew Vaz, who teaches United States history at the City College of New York. The notion of crisis is being “abused” by supporters of extending term limits, he said. “It’s constantly being compared to the Great Depression, and we can’t be certain of that,” he said, noting economic panics or recessions in 1819, 1837, 1873, 1893, 1921, 1929, 1987 and 1991 (among other years). “We managed to get through these things without Michael Bloomberg being anywhere in our sights.”

(The Wall Street Journal also made this point, in an op-ed Thursday headlined New York Will Survive Without Bloomberg.)

And shouldn't this take a little longer, rather than lead up to a vote next week?
In fact, citing the jam-packed hearings, the New York Public Interest Research Group issued a statement at the beginning of Friday’s session, asking the Council to schedule more public hearings on the term limit laws, in all four boroughs.

“It is crystal clear that there in intense public interest in the term limits issue,” the organization said. “Scores of groups and individuals came to speak at yesterday’s hearing, which went until late at night. Many New Yorkers were kept waiting outside in overflow lines, while other appear to have been given preference in attending the City Hall hearing.”