By MICHAEL BARBARO
Published: October 3, 2009
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s re-election campaign can generate reams of statistics on how quickly the city repaired potholes in each neighborhood. It can produce memos on climate change and public health, and even translate its campaign fliers into Creole.
Just don’t ask about term limits.
Rosemary DeStefano found that out on her doorstep in the Bronx the other day when a Bloomberg volunteer showed up, asking for her vote.
When she complained about how the mayor had the law changed to stay in office, the volunteer recited details of his economic plan. When she persisted, he extolled Mr. Bloomberg’s promise to create 400,000 jobs.
“They missed the whole point,” she said.
With five weeks remaining until Election Day, little seems uncertain in the contest between the colossally advantaged incumbent, Mr. Bloomberg, and his lesser-known rival, William C. Thompson Jr. But interviews with both campaigns and dozens of voters reveal that anger over a single issue still simmers, seemingly immune to a flood of television commercials and glossy brochures.
That bedevils Bloomberg advisers and gives hope to his underfunded challenger.
Disenchantment over the change in the law helped topple four veteran City Council members this fall, the greatest repudiation of incumbents in a generation, and has catapulted two local lawmakers who opposed the measure into citywide office.
“The Bloomberg campaign can’t convince voters to not be upset about this. It won’t work,” said John H. Mollenkopf, a professor of political science at City University who has informally advised the Bloomberg campaign.
“If you ask New Yorkers what they did not like over the last eight years,” he added, “term limits is the major negative.”
Mr. Thompson is building his entire campaign around the topic, adopting the slogan “Eight Is Enough,” accusing the mayor of breaking his word and preparing commercials that portray him as a power-hungry mogul who plays by his own rules.
He will make it a major line of attack during two candidate debates and turn it into a rallying cry in the days leading up to Election Day, the anniversary of the term limits change, which Mr. Bloomberg signed into law on Nov. 3, 2008. “It will be a big theme,” said Eduardo Castell, Mr. Thompson’s campaign manager.
The mayor’s political advisers privately acknowledge the public anger, but since they cannot reverse Mr. Bloomberg’s actions, they are looking for ways to deflect attention from it.
They have created a new round of commercials that play up Mr. Bloomberg’s middle-class roots, to soften his image as an imperious billionaire who defied the will of the voters.
They are leveling frequent attacks at Mr. Thompson’s record, as president of the Board of Education and comptroller, to send the message that, even if voters are still resentful about term limits, they would be foolhardy to entrust a complex city to an untested leader.
If voters insist on talking about term limits, volunteers are instructed to tell them the mayor “is not guaranteed” a third term and has given them “more choice” by changing the rules.
“Bill Thompson wants to make this election about one issue,” said the mayor’s campaign manager, Bradley Tusk. “And given his track record that’s understandable. But the performance of the mayor has an enormous impact on people’s lives, and because of that, voters choose their mayor based on very real tangible issues.”
No one is predicting that resentment over term limits will, by itself, be enough to cost the mayor the election. But in interviews, political analysts and pollsters said that unease over the issue helps account for a stubborn anomaly in New Yorkers’ feelings about the mayor. Polls consistently show that a large majority (roughly 70 percent) approve of his performance, but that a significantly smaller number (50 percent) plan to vote for him in November.
The 50 percent figure has not budged in months, even though the Bloomberg campaign has spent about $65 million to promote the mayor’s record. “Term limits has a lot to do with that,” said Geoff Garin, Mr. Thompson’s pollster. “It has put a ceiling on good will toward the mayor.”
Marilyn Arthold, 64, who lives in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, said she “personally likes the mayor,” but is outraged by how he changed the term limits law, which she voted for in the 1990s, and she will consider voting against him because of it.
Those involved in the mayor’s campaign said the issue has unexpected staying power, a year after City Hall introduced the legislation allowing officials to serve three consecutive terms, not two.
“It comes up a lot with voters,” said one campaign staff member. Back in the fall of 2008, when Mr. Bloomberg and his aides fought to change the rule, they made two predictions: that voters would be distracted by a closely watched presidential election, and that any anger over the move would recede by Election Day 2009.
They may have been overoptimistic, pollsters and analysts said.
“The anger in the electorate remains an inconvenient truth for the Bloomberg campaign,” said Bruce N. Gyory, a political consultant.
New York voters approved a referendum limiting council members and officials elected citywide to two four-year terms in 1993, and then ratified that vote in a second referendum in 1996. Mr. Bloomberg, in overturning the law, rewrote it through legislation that was approved by the City Council; critics and good-government groups said any change should have gone before the voters.
Mr. Bloomberg had been outspoken in his opposition to changing term limits, saying any effort to do so would be a “disgrace.”
Just how much it will hurt him on Election Day remains an open question, however. Many voters who intensely opposed the change said they planned to vote for him, citing his skills as a manager and a weak opponent.
“If it were anyone else, I would probably be against him,” said Carlo Dioguardi, who lives in Battery Park City and voted in favor of term limits. “I don’t think anyone else can do the job he’s done.”
As for those who are less forgiving?
The campaign’s strategy of changing the topic occasionally backfires. A few days after Ms. DeStefano’s confrontation with a Bloomberg campaign volunteer in the Bronx, a handwritten letter arrived in her mailbox, ticking off the mayor’s plans to improve the economy in the borough. Ms. DeStefano, a 75-year-old Republican, tore it up.
“I didn’t ask about jobs,” she said. “I asked about term limits.”