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Debate Over Term Limits Goes Local

How much time should local politicians serve? Image via Pixabay.
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Since this spring, the Ulster County Legislature has been mulling a proposed law that would limit the terms of the county executive, comptroller and county legislators to 12 years.

The proposition was the brainchild of Ulster County legislator Joe Maloney, a recently elected legislator from Saugerties who ran as an Independence Party member before switching to the Democrats. Maloney’s thirst for combat has already earned him a reputation in his short tenure in county government: In his first few months, the freshman legislator frequently butted heads with colleagues, and proposed a slew of measures aimed at curtailing the powers and privileges of county elected officials.

If adopted, the proposed term limits measure would have appeared on the ballot in the upcoming November election for Ulster County voters to decide. But after narrowly passing the Ulster County legislature by a 14-8 vote, the measure was vetoed by county executive Mike Hein last week, leaving it effectively dead in the water. In a memo on the decision, Hein called the proposed ballot referendum “legally flawed and unenforceable,” and slammed its advocates for opening the door for “dark money” to influence local politics.

Print of George Mason of Virginia, 1888, based on a painting in the possession of the family. Courtesy of the University of Chicago Library and the Library of Congress American Memory digital collection. Via Wikimedia Commons

Throw The Bums Out?

Term limits have historically been popular with voters. A 2013 Gallup pollfound that 75 percent of Americans supported limiting the number of terms lawmakers could serve in Congress and the Senate, with large majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents all in support.

The idea of putting an expiration date on officials’ tenure in government had support from some of the Founding Fathers, notably George Mason, who thought that the presidency should be a one-term office.

The conservative Heritage Foundation has been a longtime advocate for term limits. Analyst Dan Greenberg wrote in a lengthy 1994 report, “Term Limits: The Only Way To Clean Up Congress,” that shortening lawmakers’ terms would help combat “careerist” politics:

Term limits are a vital political reform that would bring new perspectives to Congress, mandate frequent legislative turnover, and diminish incentives for wasteful election-related federal spending that currently flourish in a careerist congressional culture.

Good-government types tend to take a dim view of them, though. In a recent essay, “Five reasons to oppose congressional term limits,” Casey Burgat of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution concedes that they are hugely popular among voters, but cautions that term limits would cause a “brain drain” in Congress while doing little to fight corruption:

Kicking out popular and competent lawmakers simply because their time runs out ultimately results in a bad return on the investment of time spent learning and mastering the ins and outs of policymaking in Congress. 

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters isn’t a fan, either. Local League member Dare Thompson spoke out against the Ulster County measure at a public hearing earlier this month:

“The League of Women Voters’ position on term limits has been very long-held — we’re against them,” Thompson said. “We have our own method of getting rid of people: We go and vote them out.”

Term limits sometimes get support from unlikely corners. Take Bill Daley, for instance: The 70-year-old Chicago mayoral candidate, a Democrat who has served in the Obama and Clinton administrations, is proposing to keep Chicago mayors to two four-year terms, tops.

It’s a proposal that would have put a serious dent in Daley’s family dynasty. His father was elected to six four-year terms as Chicago’s mayor, and died in office. His brother served five and a half, after earning the post in a special election. Decades in office is not for him, Daley told the Chicago Tribune:

“I think eight years is enough for a chief executive to make accomplishments and set a tone and real change, and at the same time, I think it says to the public, ‘This isn’t a lifetime job.’”

Image via Pixabay.

“Dark Money” Enters the Fray

With national groups keeping a close eye on even the smallest local dustups, it didn’t take long for the debate over the Ulster County proposal to get intensely political.

Reclaim New York, a right-wing lobbying group funded by Breitbart patrons Robert and Rebekah Mercer, threw its support behind Maloney’s proposal — a move that might have doomed the measure by firing up the opposition. Just five years old, the fledgling Reclaim group has stirred up intense ire from local Democrats over the past few years, both for its links with alt-right publishing and its hardball tactics with local governments and school districts.

In June, Reclaim and Maloney held a dinner for invited guests to promote the measure. The event drew fire from Hein, who blasted Maloney for working with Reclaim: 

“It is deeply disturbing to learn that the Mercer family – funders of far-right fringe outlets including Breitbart News and the likes of Steve Bannon – is being welcomed into Ulster County by Legislator Joe Maloney to host a dinner event,” Hein said in a statement. “These are the very same people who fund and promote hate and divisiveness by supporting anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and homophobia.”

If you ask Hugh Reynolds, a longtime observer of Ulster County politics who delights in inside baseball, Reclaim’s involvement might have been a ploy to boost Republican turnout

The focus this year will be on the down-ballot races for Congress and for the state Senate, where Republicans are desperately clinging to a one-vote majority (provided by Democrat Simcha Felder, of Brooklyn, who caucuses with the Republicans.) Two open seats in the Hudson Valley could be key to which party controls the state Senate next year. For the Republicans to hold those seats, they may have to prowl a few cemeteries. All Republicans will have to come to the aid of their party. Enter the Mercers.

The effort to get term limits passed in Ulster County is a local issue, but one that resonates on the national level. We’re looking to make connections and dig deeper on issues like these, where all the small-scale trials and tribulations of Hudson Valley local politics offer a window into the larger American discourse. 

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