Term limits? Convince me.

And the vacation from real blogging continues. I’m not sure until when – I’m still feeling kind of brain dead post-election, and I’m pretty busy catching up on my real work.

Anyway, it seems like I can’t walk down the street lately without someone trying to tell me that we need to do something to get term limits for the City Council. I’m not so sure. Although I’ve repeatedly said that I wouldn’t mind seeing every member of the current Council replaced, I don’t have a theoretical problem with a Councilmember serving 16, 20, or even 32 years, if they were doing a good job. The institutional memory provided by long-term legislators is valuable. I don’t see any benefit to adding even more offices to the politician musical chairs we already have going in California. And who’s to say that term limits would change anything about the current power structure? Councilmembers, knowing they had only 8 years or so, could just spend their time grooming a successor of their choosing.

I’m as disappointed in the recent election results as anyone, but as more people mention it to me, I’ve been trying hard to think seriously about term limits, and I just can’t see what good reason there is for them. “It’s too hard to win” is not a good reason to term out legislators who the people choose to re-elect, whether I agree with the people’s choice or not. The solution to that is to find better challengers and for those challengers to run better campaigns.

So if anyone has an argument for term limits that doesn’t involve not being able to beat one in an election, can you please share it with me? I’m open to persuasion.

26 thoughts on “Term limits? Convince me.

  1. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    I like/love change, so how about a compromise? Allow two term limits at a time. From there, either move up or out and then if, when the next election rolls around, you want to run again and the people want to elect you, then you can get back in for up to two more terms in a row. Sabaticals are a good thing – they allow you to see things from a different perspective.

    I don’t think people realize that it could be better or different by having someone else in power. It’s easy to be complacent about local elections because people are either 1) too bothered by things at a higher level to worry about things at the local level [an excuse I heard several times last week]; 2) not really sure what would be better than the current status quo – again, often because they’re too busy to get involved; 3) fear of the unknown. More people might get involved if the same old people weren’t a fixture at City Hall.

    When people stick around for too long in the same position they become stale. They are bound to see certain things as futile because they tried to do something and failed at some point. Maybe someone else just by being someone else could get that very same thing done. When a person is in office that long they also take things for granted that things will continue on a certain way. Shake things up. We don’t allow the president to stay in office for more than two terms, so why a council member? Are you letting your feelings about one or more current council members color that thinking?

    What if there was a change and it ended up being for the better? Or if it was for the worse, you’d see more clearly the differences that made one candidate better than another.

    When one candidate stays on so long, they have a different power and position than the other council members – is that fair to the other districts?

    Those are my arguments in favor of term limits…


  2. V Smoothe Post author

    I really don’t think that “liking change” is much of an argument for term limits either. We’re talking about the people who run our City, not switching up the furniture in the living room. If the public thinks that those currently in office are doing a good enough job, or will do it better than their challengers, who are we to say they shouldn’t have that option?

    I don’t see why we need term limits for Presidents either, honestly. The “everybody else does it” argument is not one I’ve ever found particularly persuasive.

    Maybe you can explain the argument about older members having different power a little more – I don’t really understand what you mean by that.

  3. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    Well, you may not like “liking change” as a reason, but I do! If change were forced, we might have better people wanting to be in govt vs those who think, “oh, I don’t have a chance against XYZ…”

    But in terms of members having been in office having more power than more recently voted in members… You don’t see that Ig has way more power than say, Pat Kernighan? She has considerably less power both within City Hall and on Council than the other members that have been around longer. Those that have been around have already built relationships with people – made connections – and unless she has the support of the power, she’s not going to get much passed. NN is a great example. I can’t prove it, but I think there are many things that NN brings forward in various committees that doesn’t get out of committee because other council members do not respect her. That’s where a different face might be able to bring up a similar issue and get it through where she hasn’t been able to.

    The President is limited to two terms because they didn’t want one person to have on-going power (ie Monarchy) although the downside claim to that is the “lame duck” arguement. Although only FDR was elected three times as President, he was the only one before the Constitution was amended in 1947 – and not ratified until 1951. (!) Clinton was in favor of taking a “time out” and then being allowed to run again after not being in power for a term.

    If Ig weren’t such a fixture in District 5, perhaps better candidates might come out of the woodwork. I know you like him, but there are those of us that believe he is not so great… and I’ll leave it at that. Even with that comment, I fear retribution. (not really joking)

  4. V Smoothe Post author

    Of course Ignacio is more powerful than Pat Kernighan – he’s President of the City Council. Pat, on the other hand, has a good deal of power of her own, being the swing vote on some important issues. And she manages to deliver for her District. She’s never struck me as someone particularly interested in creating new policy – I don’t think that if she wanted to, her junior status would hold her back. Her joint request with Desley Brooks for a consent to search pilot program got to the Council easily. Pat’s taken excellent initiative in getting more information for the Public Safety Committee from the police department, while more senior Councilmembers have kind of sat out on that one.

    In general, I don’t see any evidence of junior members of the Council not being able to get things done simply because they haven’t been around as long. The most important piece of legislation passed by the Council last year was the prompt payment ordinance, introduced by Desley Brooks, and it passed even though she seemed to go out of her way to introduce it in the most hostile and uncooperative way imaginable.

    I can’t think of a single initiative that Nadel has brought before any Committee in the last few years that didn’t make it to the full Council – if one was interested in proving such an assertion, agendas and minutes of every meeting since late 2003 are available online through Legistar.

    Nor do I see evidence that length of tenure determines power in terms of Committee assignments. Henry Chang, 14 years in, chairs a lame committee (Life Enrichment), while Jean Quan, first elected in 2002, chairs a super important one (Finance & Management).

  5. avis

    I think term limits may be a good idea, it encourages politicians to keep themselves productive and moving forward. Although I agree institutional memory can be a big plus, I don’t think those benefits offset the problems that envelop a city when most of the long term politicians are mired in process and have lost sight of the big picture, which is how to make the city a safer, cleaner and better educated place to live.

    Thomas Jefferson suggested we have a system where the best and brightest would come from farms and businesss to serve in government for a few years and then return to their former professions. This idea seems to have a great deal of merit in my opinion.

  6. Max Allstadt

    The fundamental reason to limit politicians’ terms is that incumbency becomes a huge electoral advantage over the long haul. When a politician holds such an advantage, they become more accountable to special interests and less accountable to ordinary people.

    There some alternatives to term limits:
    easy no-confidence votes – keeps them on their toes

    excluding incumbents from primaries – gives the voters a solid introduction to the best contender.

    making local elections happen on the same day as federal elections – turnout diffuses special interest power.

    I still think that consecutive term limits are best. A mandatory sabbatical after the 8th year would keep politicians in touch with reality.

    We also need anti-gerrymandering legislation. Better yet, reverse gerrymandering. Districts should be redrawn so that they stay competitive.

    Jefferson wasn’t the only old school democracy advocate for term limits. The Athenian council of 500 only allowed citizens to serve twice per lifetime.

    Democracy was created as a safeguard against the tyranny that inevitably arises from entrenched power. The people who invented democracy 2500 years ago knew that term limits were a way to prevent power from entrenching itself. Pretty obvious call if you ask me.

  7. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    One other excuse I’ve been hearing (not that I agree with it) about why people didn’t vote is that our polling location was not in our neighborhood. When our polling location was in Jack London Square (vs Chinatown), we probably had higher turnout. Admittedly, I had no problem finding the spot, but it was confusing to some that the same school had another location (ours was the gym, the other spot was in the school itself) for another area. But because you either had to get out and walk (omigoodness) and even go beneath the freeway (not a favorite thing for many), many people are saying that this is why they didn’t vote. Walking to JLS was considerably easier. Again, I don’t see this as a great excuse.

    Does anyone know if we were to get a location and find people to man it, could we get a neighborhood spot? Who would I talk to about this? There’s a group that would like for this to happen in November and going forward.

  8. Max Allstadt

    ““It’s too hard to win” is not a good reason to term out legislators who the people choose to re-elect, whether I agree with the people’s choice or not.”

    - I just don’t buy this argument. Gerrymandering by long-term incumbents subvert’s the power of an individual citizen’s voice. An incumbent who sits in office for 10 years doing favors for special interests enhances the power of cliques and reduces the power of the individual citizen. If the power of the average man’s vote is diluted, the nature of the people’s choice is compromised. That’s not acceptable.

  9. masb

    It’s such a complicated thing – term limits. Without them we are saddled with corruption and laziness but with them we lose our most able politicians. There is nothing wrong with staying in your job for as many years as you can be productive. The problem is that most politicians are not made to be accountable. The fault must be with us – the electorate. What’s going on – do people just believe the blurbs they get in the mail, carry their handy little endorsement tear-outs with them to the polls and never really do any thinking or investigating for themselves? I don’t get it – do people just vote for recognizable names or what? I don’t have a clue what the answer is but I don’t think it is as simple as “term limits”.

  10. tagami


    What a treat to come home to your question….
    Term limits? Power concentrated for too long disenfranchises the public, both voting and potential successors, and limits mentoring… Could the percentage of support required to win each subsequent term be increased after each term? Should we cap it at three terms? Should there be a minimum attendance and hours served be required?
    Here is a fun one… to run (pull papers) one must pass a litmus test on the charter, budget, and general history of government. This may have constitutional problems but wouldn’t it be cool if folks had some degree of understanding before choosing to run and serve on our municipal corporation’s board of directors?

    Oh to dream is sublime!

    Thanks for raising a very good and timely issue. But…
    Who has the unchecked power that follows with tenure, the elected official?, or the carreer bureaucrat? Do we suffer from Institutional bossism more than political bossism? Are they equally problematic and troubling requiring full reform?

    Tough call!

    I have a hard time being cynical enough to cast all of the candidates and staff in to the same lot…but to even raise the question is naughty good fun…Qui?

    Happy Hunting

    ps cool photos and story of chalk art, my kids loved it!

  11. Max Allstadt


    Wow, here I was thinking my ideas were impossible dreams, and you come along and up the ante.
    Nice. Can’t say I’d get behind any of those, but to dream is indeed sublime.

    I can’t support the litmus test idea on constitutional grounds, but you might be able to implement your own unofficial version. Next time you do candidate interviews on Tagami vision, how about a quiz section. If you reinterview Hamill and Kaplan, that could be a pretty fun thing to do.

    “Kerry, can you explain Measure O in 50 words or less?”
    “Rebecca, can you explain, to a bored 12 year old, what a bond measure is?”

    Remember when W didn’t know what the capital of India was?

  12. Max Allstadt

    Once again, V Smoothe and friends are one step ahead of the mainstream.
    Check out Chip Johnson’s column for today, y’all.

  13. V Smoothe Post author

    Tagami –

    I’m practically drooling thinking of the charter and budget quiz. Although Constitutional issues prevent use from using that as a litmus test for who is allowed to run, perhaps some sort of compromise could be arranged where their score on the test is printed really large next to their ballot statement in the voter guide.

    Your point about institutional barriers to change and problems with entrenched staff is well taken. That’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now, so thanks for reminding me.

  14. Chris Kidd

    To me the whole term limits issue is a rock and a hard place.

    In our current state system, the beneficiary of term limits is the lobbying community. They’re the only ones who stay long enough in Sacramento to really get a handle on how things are done. Newer representatives lean heavily on them for information and they’re in a much better position to dictate policy than with a more senior lawmaker.

    Then again, the science of electioneering has become so precise that I sometimes feel like Oakland elections are held on off dates purposefully in order to supress voter turnout. After all, the smaller the voter turnout, the better you’ll be able to perdict the voting trends and the larger a dent your solid base will make in the polls(*cough* Perata!*cough*). In my view, that’s a wholesale subversion of democracy.

    In a perfect world I suppose I’d want no term limits and a radically reconfigured election process. Maybe a minimum perecentage turnout for a election to be valid (wait, that’s a terrible idea). Maybe Phil T’s idea of an increasing yes percentage after each term to qualify for another one. I don’t know. I know I’d prefer fat cats in office as opposed to noobs with a bunch of lobbyists in their ears. I just want to also cut down on the fat-cat-ness.

  15. Max Allstadt

    There is alway the argument for a single, longer term, with an easy option for a no-confidence vote.

    Essentially, this is the way most jobs work outside the government sector: You’re hired indefinitely, but if you’re an ass, they fire you on the spot. Seems to work pretty well in the business world, no?

  16. Ralph

    i think i might go with a shorter term. with the longer term they can always say i am working on it. and you and i both know politicians in general and especially nancy can spin some stuff.

    and since we always refer to our candidate as a being a horse in the race, i propose we just take the bad horse to the shed and well you know.

  17. Chris Kidd


    I gotta say I’m not a fan of shorter terms in office. The demands of modern campaigning, both in time and money, are such that shortening terms would leave politicians little time to actually govern. As is there are too many politicians in campaign mode who are unwilling to make tough or dificult decisions because of how it would affect their polling numbers.

    I could be in favor of shorter terms, but only with much tougher campaign finance rules and more comprehensive rules for publicly funded races. At least cut down on the time they need to pander for money if we’re going to make them run for office more often.

  18. len raphael

    Term limits aren’t the answer. As Pat McCullough’s treasurer (ret.), it’s very tempting to support term limits but nope, don’t think it solves the problem of incompetent elected city council members beholden to labor unions, developers, and various non profit orgs.

    The crux of the problem are the financial barriers to grass roots challengers, and the abysmal level of media coverage of Oakland municipal government.

    Start by treating union in kind contributions of free labor, office space, phones to staff phone banks, stuff envelopes, and go door to door to report the same as monetary contributions, by imputing the average hourly pay of those members to the work performed. If it bothers you that union members time should have an imputed monetary value, but not non union member residents of the district, maybe restrict union in kind 0 valued labor donations to those of members who live in oakland, and only impute monetary value to members who live outside oakland.

    At a bare minimum, require unions to report the imputed value of their in kind contributions just like any monetary contributions would be reported.

    Next, lower the threshold of Oakland matching funding for district races from $3,000 to $1,000. Raise the maximum matchable contributions to $300 per couple; per business, and $150 per person from the current $100 per person. 3,000 seems like small change, but for a grassroots challenger, raising 3,000 only from oakland sources at a max of 100/donor when many donors only give 25 to 50 bucks, can take several weeks, so that by the time you’ve raised the money for matching, the absentee ballots have been received and probably mostly mailed in.

    Yes, I’d say raise the 600$ max limits to 1,200 per individual but that’s a federal or state limit. That limit wasn’t a problem for Obamba, but for grassroots challengers those limits have the opposite effect of their stated purpose: they make it near impossible for a challenger who is not well to do to raise enough money to get her or his message out to enough supporters to raise enough money to challenge an incumbent who every union and developer is scared of pissing off because the incumbent approves their contracts and zoning challenges, subsidies etc.

    Other item: delay the release of absentee ballots to two weeks before the general election. In a perfect world, internet voting would be secure enough so that one could vote two months ahead of time, but change one’s vote right up to election day. Because ill funded challengers can’t afford the same multiple mailers, don’t have incumbents name recognition, office perks etc., they need as much time as possible to get their message to the voters.

    (A kludge would be to require all voters to give a validated email address combined with the right to opt of getting printed election material. that would significantly lower the cost of educating voters. might even give people the right to opt out of robo calls)

    That leaves the basic underlying problem in Oakland that there is no way that a typical underfunded challenger can bring a voter up to date on the last 4 or 8 years of Oakland municipal affairs in a few months and say $20,000 worth of emails and mailers and door to doors. It frustrated the heck out of me, when we’d go door to door and tell voters almost word for word the same thing Russo said in his chronicle op ed piece about the insanity of having more cops investigating cops than there are cops investigating murderers and rapists, but if I were an Oakland voter, I’d think to myself that couldn’t be possible, if it were true I’m sure I’d have read about it in the chronicle or the trib or it would have made the tv coverage, so it must be election bs.

    you’d explain to potential supporters when standing on their door step that their city council incumbents had actually voted to freeze police hiring. You’d see the skeptical look on their faces, how of course you could’nt expect me to believe that.

    god forbid, you’d even attempt to explain how their council had ok’d contracts granting medical retirement benefits that weren’t counted in public financial reports but could lead to massive cutbacks in city services if not dealt with soon.

    I have not the slightest idea how to solve that problem. If ANG or the Chron thought Oakland govt coverage would sell papers, I’m sure they would do it.


    The unintended consequences of term limits, in addition to the one about getting council members who know less about policy than the bureaucrats, unions, developers and non profit special interest groups (which i think is more of an issue at the state and federal level where the issues and legislative options are much more complex, and campaigns much more expensive/time consuming) is that you force candidates to become partisan professional pols who always have to be planning for thelr run at higher office after they term out, or try to line up a revolving door lobbyist or lawyer thing. That in turn drives the candidates into kissing the butts of the chieftans of each of the oakland political fiefdoms right from the get go, because you can’t expect to win higher office without the backing of one of the kingpins.

    Alternatively we won’t get younger people who want to serve the public as council members but don’t want to run for higher office. You can’t expect a younger person to devote say 8 years to city council during their prime career building life period.

    -len raphael

  19. Nancy Rieser

    Len Raphael: your comments re term limits, free use of unions, local press (or lack thereof) might have been missed due to being buried under a flurry of other postings….I missed it myself. So I am posting this so it pops up in the “Comments” column to the far right of the screen so others have a chance to read your post.

    Len — I hope you will consider cross-posting your piece on other blogs — shoot, send it as an op ed piece to the Chron and the Trib.

    Yes, yes, yes….it is so hard to communicate the complexities of an issue in one phone call or a doorway Meet’n'Greet. It would be easier if issues parsed out by an interested and articulate press many months before so one can get a toe hold and have an interesting discussion with a voter. The use of big candidate Robo calling deadens people’s enthusiasm for taking any political calls, even though the caller may wield an advantage by actually have a pulse.

    By in large, newspapers seem to be taking a pass — not just around election time, but pretty much 365 days a year…with a very few exceptions.

    So it is easy pickins for an incumbant, especially in an election predicited to be a low turn out, as those elections historically favor incumbants.

    To really get a jump start, all an incubant needs to do a month before the absentee ballots are mailed is to put out one big campaign lie…a lie that will be shined on by the press, and bingo! You have 2/3 of those who choose to vote in your district….in your pocket.

    Well, at least in District 3.

    Thousands of seniors live fairly insulated in high rises near Lake Merritt. They don’t go to candidate forums because that means leaving the security of their building. And where else are they going to get both sides of the issue before mailing in their ballots?

    Apparently not the newspapers.

  20. Greg McConnell

    I was a lobbyist in Sacramento before and after term limits were adopted. Term limits did not make the legislature more repsonsive to anyone, not business, labor, democrats, republicans, independents, and most important, not to California voters. What it did was make lobbyists and staffers the instituional memory bank and therefore king and queen makers and killers.

    As a lobbyist, I was astonished at how often a new member would introduce legislation on a topic that was already law, or try to make an issue out of something that had so regularly been defeated that it had no chance of passage. I remember how trade associations and interest groups on both sides of an issue would repeatedly rehash a topic so they could make their members think they were doing something about an issue when clearly they were not. I remember how committee staffers, most notoriously, the Senate Judiciary staff, were truy the law makers as they could make or break a piece of legislation by a tricky analysis that favored one side or the other. Since the law makers had no information about the history of an issue, they woiuld blindly follow what was sometimes truly disingenuos recommendations from staff and lobbyists. And sadly, I remember that after the adoption of term limits, the Assembly became no more than a campaign fundraising camp for members who wanted eventually to be eleceted to the Senate. I was often amused that I would go meet with a member and have an fundraising email within the next 24 hours if not sooner. And, yes, groups that I lobbied for sent the checks like compliant little boys and girls.

    But what was even more “shocking” (a term that is used too frequently and seems to mean little these days) is that people who had zero experience were put in leadership positions, chairing committees on important policy issues in their freshman or sophmore years. Hell, in the first four years in the legislature,,a new member doesn’t even know where all the bathrooms are located, much less have any knowledge on the institutional history of how and why laws are what they are and what may need to be changed. As a cosequence, we were “treated” to the infamous sunshine legistlation process where they would pass something that would last for four or five yeas that would die unless extended, translation- I won’t be around so let the next group deal with it.

    What did we get for all of this? We removed Willie Brown from the leadership of the Assembly. San Francisco benefitted because he became Mayor and the city was much better off for that. But the California Assembly has not been worth a damn since. You can take that to the bank whether you liked Willie Brown’s policies or not.

    Oakland has term limits. It is called elections and they take place every two years. If voters don’t like what is going on, elect new people. If they re-elect the same people then they must want to maintain the status quo. Or, at the very least, they are not so upset that they want to make a change. In the most recent elections people had choices in every race. They picked who they wanted. While I may not agree with all of the decisions that the voters made, I repsect each and every one because the voters had the right to make the decisions they made.

    Term limits will not cure what ails Oakland. Action by the voters at the ballot is what will make a difference.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment,

    Greg McConnell

    (Please excuse any typos.)

  21. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    So okay, let’s drop the idea of term limits… (although secretly I still long for them)

    But what about only having elections in November in hopes that more people will show up?

    I’m already tackling the other issue for my particular neighborhood by trying to get a polling location IN our neighborhood.

    In some countries it’s illegal NOT to vote. I would so love to see that, but I can’t see how it would/could ever be enforced.

  22. Max Allstadt

    Would anyone who’s advocating against term limits go so far as to eliminate them for the Mayor?

    The Governor? The President?

    Greg McConnell – doesn’t a lack of term limits allow lobbyists to form longer standing, deeper rooted relationships with politicians? And if you’re a lobbyist, why should we trust you to advocate for what you really believe in, rather that what makes your job easier, and your influence more powerful?

    And again, I’ve put forth a pile of alternatives to term limits: reverse gerrymandering to force competitive elections, excluding incumbents from primaries, mandating that all local elections coincide with federal election (excepting special elections), creating an easier recall process, and lastly: CONSECUTIVE term limits – after two terms, a four year mandatory sabbatical to get back in touch with reality.

    Measure O mandates the simultaneous local/national elections part. It’s interesting to me that it hasn’t been implemented. Who’s in charge of that, and who’s pocket are they in?

  23. V Smoothe Post author

    I would have no problem whatsoever eliminating term limits for all offices at every level of government.

    Debra Bowen, the Secretary of State, is responsible for us not having IRV. She isn’t in anyone’s pocket. She just hates voting machines. I will get to that post by next week at the latest, Max. I’d try for this week, but I think I’m going to be pretty busy with budget.

  24. Robert

    The electorate gets what it deserves, and if they are too lazy to turn out and vote, you get Nadel and Brunner. Moving the elections to November would certainly help by increasing turnout, and with instant runoff it would actually be feasible without an extra runoff election in December. And while IR systems are not perfect, would anyone argue that the present electoral system is perfect?

    Another issue impacting elections is the extensive gerrymandering of districts to create safe districts for the incumbent parties. I don’t know that this really has any impact in the Oakland local races, but certainly has major impacts on both State and Federal offices. And when the elections become non-competitive, the control goes to party activists and no longer is held by the voters. We need to remove redistricting decisions from the legislature, and ban gerrymandering.

  25. Chris Kidd

    I’m not of the mind to condemn the electorate and write them off because of low voter turnout. There are factors that actively work against the interests of the electorate and we should try to solve these issues before fully laying blame at the feet of the voting public (though I was also apalled by voter turnout).

    Gerrymandering, voter supression, off-cycle elections, delayed runoffs, wedge-issues that distort voter turnout; these all get the big thumbs-down in my book. Since the voter education is one of the only ways to help increase voter turnout (and I’m not sure how effective that is, really), I’d rather attack these other issues. Maybe if elections are viewed as more fair and equitable, people would be more willing to spend their time getting involved and voting. Then again, they’re hard issues to tackle since they keep so many incumbents in office and it’s the office holders we would charge with solving these problems. Oh, irony….