Saturday, February 27, 2010

West Palm Beach: The city's not about one person

When former West Palm Beach mayor Nancy Graham reached the end of her second term, she she initially ran to the courts to circumvent the 8-year term limit. The she thought better of it: "The city's not about one person," she said.

Fast forward to 2010. Another big ideas (and big budgets!) mayor, Lois Frankel, is coming to the end of her second term and seeking a way to keep her job. Her chosen vehicle is the city's charter review commission, which is a 5-member board created to review and suggest changes to the city's system of government. In January she stacked the commission with four of her devotees who are said to be impartially weighing the benefits of a Frankel third term.

"I have no ulterior motive," Frankel told the Palm Beach Post. "The committee was not put together to look at (term limits)."

Yeah, right.

She didn't fool the Post, nor anyone else. As the Post points out in an excellent editorial on the subject, "If her push to end term limits proves to be unpopular, the mayor has a backup plan that would give her an additional 20 months in office. That plan calls for timing mayoral elections with presidential elections. Instead of leaving office in March 2011, Mayor Frankel would stay until November 2012."
The idea of a charter review commission is a legitimate one, and indeed it behooves the city to review its new (well, since 1991) strong mayor system. Term limits, among their other benefits, help limit the power of the strong executive, by ensuring that the significant power of this position cannot be used to secure a job for life. The strong mayor system was intended to centralize authority in order to move city projects forward, not to create a monarchy.

Frankel is out of touch enough to be shocked at the pushback she is getting. The press, fellow city commissioners (including, of course, potential mayoral candidates) and citizen activists lept into action as soon as the first charter review commission meeting was announced. As a result, the first meeting was cancelled about an hour before it was scheduled to start.

It is not late for Mayor Frankel to tuck the burst trial balloon in her pocket and, with dignity, serve out her last year as mayor. She can always run again in the future after sitting out a term if she wishes, albeit without the powers of incumbency that make a low-turnout reelection a formality.

Nonetheless, West Palm Beach citizens are laying defensive groundwork just in case their popular term limits law is assaulted.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Only 8% of Americans want Congress reelected

According to a new poll by CBS News and the New York Times:

  • 8 percent of Americans want the members of Congress reelected.
  • 80 percent of Americans said members of Congress are more interested in serving special interests than the people they represent.
  • 75 percent disapprove of the job Congress is doing.

These numbers complement perfectly the latest (October 2008) national polling that shows that 83 percent of Americans support term limits on their elected officials. All show a bi-, tri- and non-partisan yearning of the American people for the lost tradition of rotation in office that our Founders intended.

So this means that incumbents will get clobbered in the 2010 elections? Well, maybe, but history shows that nearly all the change will occur in competitive open seat elections. Even in the dramatic years of change, such as 1992-94 and 1996-98 (see chart above), Congressional incumbents won overwhelmingly in spite of the mood of the country that showed up clearly in competitive races.

Please note the Massachusetts message was only made possible by the opening up of Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat. In other anticipated upsets -- Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida, for example -- it is the open seats that are giving voters their voice.

Only an institutional reform like term limits can fix the institutional problem of entrenched incumbency. In the meantime, voters can take advantage of open seats as they occur to meaningfully express their will. But with term limits, it will not require crisis, retirements and luck to effectuate change. Instead, there will be rolling open seats in every district in the nation, drastically improving the people's representation on a regular basis.

(Thanks to the Center for Responsive Politics for the image above.)

Ed Roski Jr.: A California case study in soft corruption

According to the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 30, “Ed Roski Jr., the L.A. County billionaire who got state legislators to exempt his proposed NFL stadium from environmental laws, has showered the lawmakers with tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash… The money is part of $505,000 that Roski put into California political campaigns during the second half of 2009, including $300,000 toward a proposed ballot measure that would change term limits.”

That's called payback.

This legal bribe is being offered as California politicians are once again raising cash for a referendum effort to overturn or weaken term limits in California. In their last financial disclosure report, the petition effort reports raising about $485,000, a full $300,000 of it from Roski. The rest is from other special interests with pending business before the legislature including the LA County Federation of Labor, LA Jobs PAC, O'Melveny & Myers trial lawyers PAC, a police union and the BNSF Railway Co.

This will be the third time Californians will be asked to vote on term limits since the voters originally passed them back in 1990. In both 2002 and 2008, the voters rebuffed the politicians.

Money isn't enough by itself. In both of those previous efforts, the anti-term limits forces raised and spend some 10 times as much much as the term limits supporters.

So, they've dusted off and tweaked a gimmick in order to trick the people into voting for it. In California, the lower house is limited to six years and the upper house, eight. That is, you could serve in one and then the other for a total of 14 years total. The new proposal to weaken term limits will increase the number of years to 12 in each house, but limit politicians to a total of 12 overall. They are going to claim that their proposal actually strengthens the term limits law, as it reduces total service to 12 years from 14. You have to admit: it may be arrogant and deceptive, but it is clever.

Greased with enough cash and enough obfuscation, the politicians and lobbies think the third time might be the charm. They've already squandered tens of millions of dollars in their quest to retain power but their purse keeps growing because they have the favors to grant. In a state with a 12%-plus unemployment rate, the jobs they're fighting the hardest to keep are their own.