Term limits have proven the naysayers to be wrong

By Alan S. Chartock | December 26, 2021


In comparison to New York State, New York City is leading the way in how to govern itself. Is it that the people of the city are better educated or are they just more enlightened when it comes to self-government? Is it that there are more Democrats in the big city than there are upstate? Maybe the civics teachers in New York City’s high schools are doing a better job than their upstate counterparts.

For starters, the body politic in the city has voted to impose term limits on politicians. We all know that a political class has major drawbacks. In a self-protected group such as this, there will be people like Richard Gottfried, who has just announced his intention to retire after 51 years of service, performed brilliantly in his role as chair of the Assembly health committee. But for every Gottfried, there are dozens of people who get elected and, like Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner, never leave. They make rules that benefit themselves and, with some notable exceptions, they really don’t work that hard. They don’t have to. Indeed, it might actually be counterproductive for them to exert themselves a bit more.

As long as these folks respect the authority of their leaders, they get to stay. For the most part, they show up on Tuesday and are more likely than not, out the door one or two days later. They argue that they are hard at work serving their constituents from their too well-staffed offices. The fact is, their efforts are mostly spent raising money from the well-heeled.

Contrast that with what goes on in New York City. There they can serve two terms (unless their name is Bloomberg) and then they have to find another office to run for. It turns out that all those who argued against term limits were just plain wrong. They predicated chaos which hasn’t occurred. They predicted that the staff would take over. That has not happened. Indeed, that staff has been doing a good deal of the hard work, enabling elected legislators to take it easy.

Term limits have opened the door for others to get a chance. That means the same old, same old people don’t cling to office. This is all good and all those who predicted that these changes wouldn’t work have been proven dead wrong. That leads me to believe that if you gave the people in New York State the opportunity to vote for term limits for state legislators, the proposition would pass overwhelmingly. Oh, they might not want to see their own elected representative go but they will love the general idea because we all know what the game is.

On the other hand, consider a magnificent public servant like State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. He has used the years he has been given to mature into an extraordinary finance maven. You might want to change the rules to exclude his office from the same term limits as legislators.

That brings us to the idea of term limits for executives like New York’s governor and lieutenant governor. We just saw what happened when Andrew Cuomo overreached for a fourth term, perhaps in competition with his own father who tried but who couldn’t achieve that distinction. Cuomo might have made it, but he was so brutal with the political class that they rebelled and apparently shut him out.

Some might argue that if you have term limits for legislators and governor that you ought to do the same for others, like non-profit executives. Maybe that is the case, but elected officials, it seems to me, are in a different category and we have to put more stringent controls on them. They did that in New York City, but the state government has a long way to go.

Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected]