Bloomberg's 3rd-term bid far from impossible

October 1, 2008 5:37:56 PM PDT
To serve a third consecutive term, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has only to circumvent a term-limits law, convince a previously wary public that such limits are negotiable and then win what could be a three-way race. But with billions of dollars in the bank, the support of former foes and the anxiety of New Yorkers rising as the economy wavers, the about-face may not prove as difficult as it sounds for him.

"It's going to happen," Baruch College public affairs professor Doug Muzzio said Wednesday about a possible Bloomberg third term. "He's going to spend whatever it takes to make it happen. ... It's pocket change to him."

Bloomberg was expected to announce his plans Thursday, two days after associates told the media that he had decided to abandon his long-standing support for the term-limits law and seek a third term so he could help the city deal with the crisis on Wall Street.

With high voter approval ratings, the apparent support of a majority of the 51-member City Council and no clear opposition from Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Muzzio predicted that Bloomberg will easily get a law passed to allow city officials a third consecutive term.

A measure already proposed by Councilman G. Oliver Koppell would permanently extend the limit on city officials to three four-year terms instead of two - a change defeated by city voters in a 1996 referendum.

One possible hitch to the council's adopting that measure is billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, the chief backer of the city's term-limits law. He told the New York Post this week that he was open only to a one-time exception for city officials currently in office.

Such a one-time deal could make the mayor's campaign vulnerable to possible legal challenge, as well as criticism that he is using his position unfairly to benefit himself, observers say.

While public interest groups and some potential candidates have already begun speaking with lawyers about possibly suing to block any change in the law, Councilman John Liu said Wednesday that he was doubtful that opponents could make a true stand against Bloomberg, who spent $155 million on his first two campaigns.

"I'm not optimistic that the opposition will be that organized," said Liu, who opposes the law change. "This is a game of billionaires."

And a court challenge could prove difficult, legal experts said. New York courts have previously held that legislative bodies have a right to alter voter-approved laws without holding a new referendum, even when they apply to term limits.

Bloomberg would still need to win over voters who told pollsters in July, in response to two questions, that they opposed extending term limits but wanted him to remain in office.

"He'll come under criticism, and probably his vote won't be quite as high as it would otherwise," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "But I don't see any way that he doesn't win."

With Bloomberg's recent approval ratings remaining above 70 percent for more than two years and his huge financial resources, Carroll said the incumbent mayor is "close to a shoo-in."

City Comptroller William Thompson Jr., considered one of the leading Democratic contenders along with Quinn and Rep. Anthony Weiner, said Wednesday that such speculation is premature.

"I don't think that the people of New York City are going to be very happy that their votes in the past on term limits are being disregarded," he said.

Bloomberg could face a three-way race now that the former Democrat-turned-Republican has declared himself an independent - a move he made earlier this year amid speculation that he would join the presidential race as a third-party candidate.

On the GOP side, supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, a billionaire in his own right who has been considering a mayoral run, said through a spokesman that his plans haven't changed. Lawyer Bruce Blakeman said he would drop out if Bloomberg ran.

But with neither Republican approaching the popularity of the other candidates, a crowded race is unlikely to hurt Bloomberg, Muzzio said. Also, no other candidate comes close to having Bloomberg's estimated $20 billion fortune.

As of July 15, Weiner reported raising just over $5 million, Thompson had $4.8 million and Quinn had $3.1 million. Catsimatidis has not yet been required to report on his fundraising.

With his vast resources, Bloomberg could even jump in immediately - even though the election isn't until next year - and begin the process of persuading voters to support a change in the law.

Thompson, at least, says he's not convinced the race is over yet.

"I think it's still very early," he said.