On Friday, Mike Bloomberg was asked whether he would respect the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, and serve a maximum of two terms should he win the presidency. It’s a fair question, given that the billionaire who bulldozed the two-term limit in NYC to get his own third term in 2009 is now spending unprecedented sums of money—half a billion and counting—to try and buy the Democratic nomination for president.
"I will not try and change the Constitution that's correct, yes,” Bloomberg replied. “But keep in mind it was my City Council that did it, I just signed the bill."
Bloomberg, who frequently criticizes President Donald Trump for lying, then laughed—what he just said wasn’t quite true.
“Without his vigorous push, it would not have passed the City Council,” said Queens State Senator John Liu, who was then a councilmember and voted against the 2008 bill to extend term limits.
“It’s not accurate for him to say that this was just something that the council was proposing and he just went along with it,” added Melissa Mark-Viverito, another councilmember who voted against the measure and would later go on to become Council Speaker during de Blasio’s first term.
Mark-Viverito said that Bloomberg’s 2020 campaign echoes his bid to give himself a third term.
“‘I have the money, I have the resources, I want this, I’m gonna put my influence behind it, and nothing can stop me,'” Mark-Viverito said, describing what she sees as Bloomberg's mentality.
Term limits for New York City politicians were spurred by the money and advocacy of billionaire cosmetics heir and failed Republican mayoral candidate Ronald Lauder in 1993, when voters approved a referendum that limited elected officials to two terms. In 1996, voters rejected a proposal to allow lawmakers to serve for 12 years instead of 8. Rudy Giuliani wanted to stay on as mayor for an extra three months in 2002 ("Under the best of circumstances, it takes about three to four months to really get government started," Giuliani explained) but the proposal was shot down.
In 2007, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn went on record opposing overturning term limits. “I will not support the repeal or change of term limits through any mechanism,” Quinn said.
But that was before Bloomberg realized that after two terms, he’d no longer wield the power of elected office.
“He wanted to run for president in 2008, no question about it. It clearly wasn’t going to happen, and at that point he decided he’d try and stay on as mayor for another term,” Liu said.
"I’ve loved every day I have served as mayor," Bloomberg told reporters when he announced his bid to run a third time in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. "Given the events of recent weeks and given the enormous challenges we face, I don’t want to walk away from a city I feel I can help lead though these tough times."
Bloomberg insisted that his previous support of term limits hasn't changed, except when they applied to him getting a third term instead of serving two. “Make no mistake about it, I still think term limits are a good thing," Bloomberg said. "In this case after listening to everybody I’ve been convinced that three terms is right.”
Speaker Quinn agreed to support Bloomberg’s proposal of a one-time suspension of term limits to give himself and everyone else running in 2009 a third term. A few years later, when Quinn was running for mayor, the Times described her decision as “an act more of self-preservation than of favor-trading.”
The campaign to pass the bill emanated from the Bloomberg administration, the councilmembers said.
“I was very clear from the beginning where I was gonna lie on the issue, I made it very clear to the Speaker and to the Mayor, and I was pretty much left alone once I made that clear,” Mark-Viverito said of her disapproval of the bill. “Other colleagues were not so clear. They started to play footsie with the Mayor, and they started to get a lot of pressure. I’m sure probably, some sort of promise of assistance on projects.”
Liu said he was “offered a lot of things to vote for the bill that would extend term limits, which I was adamantly against.”
“They were pulling out all the stops. Offering sweeteners to individual councilmembers. Clearly he made a deal with Chris Quinn,” Liu said.
Quinn, who at the time called that suggestion “ludicrous,” did not respond to our request for comment for this story, nor did the Bloomberg campaign.
While the Bloomberg administration lobbied lawmakers to pass the bill, charities that took donations from Bloomberg filled the council chamber, asking that Mike be given another four years.
“I remember it being a two-day hearing, where organizations were coming to testify for the need for Mike Bloomberg to have a third term given the economic uncertainty, that he was the only one to guide us through these turbulent waters,” Liu recalled. “And later on, it being exposed that these organizations were getting significant contributions of his private money.”
(Mother Jones recently quoted a nonprofit worker who described “van loads” of Doe Fund workers being sent to City Hall: “They essentially gave them a prepared script and told them to go in and just line up and testify one after one...They were essentially just told, ‘As part of your job today, we’re taking you down to City Hall and you’ve gotta testify in favor of giving Bloomberg a third term.'”)
After hours of debate in a packed chamber, the council voted down a referendum on term limits, and voted to pass the bill to extend them, 29-22. “The people of the city will long remember what we have done here today, and the people will be unforgiving,” then-councilmember Bill de Blasio told the Times.
Bloomberg ran for reelection as a Republican and an Independent, spending a record $102 million to defeat Comptroller Bill Thompson by a little more than 50,000 votes. Then came Occupy Wall Street, the CityTime boondoggle, Superstorm Sandy, and the stop-and-frisk ruling. Quinn’s support for extending term limits tarnished her run to succeed him in 2013.
“He followed the democratic procedure to get what he wanted, and it was unpopular,” said John Mollenkopf, a political science professor and the director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research. “It’s one of the things that accounted for why that third race of his was surprisingly narrow, because lots of the electorate weren’t particularly happy with it.”
Mark-Viverito said it was aggravating to see Bloomberg’s presidential campaign try and rewrite history, given that his three terms laid the foundation for de Blasio’s victorious 2013 campaign message of ending “the tale of two cities” that Bloomberg created.
“When you talk about Muslim surveillance, when you talk about stop-and-frisk, when you talk about going against immigrant communities and criminalizing black and brown people, that’s what his policies were doing,” said the former Speaker, who is now running for José Serrano’s Congressional seat in the South Bronx.
“It’s an insult to see him paint this rosy picture that New York City was this place where everybody got along and everybody benefited.”