If you read my commentary in the U-T a while back, you know that I believe term limits are evil and a scourge on modern American democracy. What could be more undemocratic than telling voters they can’t vote for someone … especially someone they re-elected four years earlier?
But San Diego has a special, extra-philosophic reason to axe term limits: We desperately need more long-term vision at City Hall. Locally, ridding ourselves of term limits would foster a longer-term view among the mayor and City Council. We’ve now got four legally-mandated short-timers on the council and you can’t really blame them if they come down with a little senioritis. If any of us were being forced out of our jobs we’d get distracted and maybe a little lazy too. It’s human nature. “But,” you say, “term limits are the only way to get rid of incumbents.” No. Term limits are the only way to get rid of good incumbents. Voters can get rid of bad incumbents if they really want to.
“But,” you say, “incumbents have big advantages which keep them in office.”
So I say …
Of all the reasons why San Diegans have an inferiority complex, one of them ought to be the insanely low cap on what you and I can contribute to our favorite candidate. The 7th largest city in the United States with 575,000 registered voters makes it illegal for mayoral candidates to raise more than $320 from one person and the limit is an absurd $270 for City Council candidates.
To build a $100,000 “battlechest” (don’t call it a “warchest” because there are about 70,000 voters in a district to communicate with) a candidate must convince at least 370 different people to give the max. Low contribution limits amount to (unintendedly, I hope) incumbent protection rackets because, while John Q. Challenger isn’t going to have easy access to even 37 max donors, I guarantee you John Q. Incumbent will easily make “friends” with 370 (3,700 if the incumbent does it right) contributors during his four years in office.
“But,” you say, “special interests will be able to buy elections through big donations.” First, let’s all remember political consultant John Kern’s sage law of campaign funding: It’s not whether you have the most cash, it’s whether you have sufficient cash to be heard. Buying a win with mega-$$ is more myth than reality. Besides, with nearly instant reporting of contributions now facilitated by the Internet, voters can choose whether they want to vote for the builder’s candidate, the union’s candidate, or the butcher, baker or candlestick maker’s candidate.
Increasing contribution limits will allow a challenger to raise the funds necessary to compete. If you can’t stomach raising the limit to $1,000 across the board, at least raise the limit to $1,000 for the first $100,000 raised. That will give the challenger the ability to start the basics of a campaign and be seen as credible.
This is a no-brainer: it should be tougher to override a veto than pass the legislation in the first place. San Diegans seem to agree with me on this one and it looks like, if enhancing the mayor’s veto power is on the ballot in June, it should pass.
What makes me chuckle, however, is the fact that many people are basing how they’ll vote on expanded veto power on how they feel about Mayor Sanders. Those who approve of the job he is doing tend to support the idea. But, especially with term limits in effect, allowing the current mayor’s job performance to drive the decision to support enhanced veto power is shortsighted. That’s like getting your girlfriend’s name tattooed on your bicep: no matter how much you like her and that ink now, you’re setting yourself up for buyer’s remorse down the road.
We need our City Council members to think beyond their districts. The experiment with district-only elections has created a myopic approach. There’s no outlook, only inlook. But, again, who can blame the officeholder? The current rules of the game are such that, if they can keep their patch of the city happy, they keep their jobs. I believe that if a candidate can make it to 50 percent-plus-1 in the district-only primary, they’re doing a good enough job to avoid the citywide runoff. If not, they ought to stand for election against their top rival before the entire city.
So overall, my argument is to go retro. As often happens, many of the reforms which sounded so good at the outset have produced now pain-inducing unintended consequences. But we can get back on track by re-structuring the electoral system so that competition is fostered, the mayor’s veto has teeth and power flows back to the city’s voters.
— JOHN NIENSTEDT