Mayor Michael Bloomberg won his quest Thursday to change term-limits law through a fast-tracked City Council vote, a move that clears the way for the billionaire independent to seek a third term and dramatically alters the city's political landscape.
By a 29-22 vote, the council agreed to give officeholders the option of three consecutive four-year terms. Existing law limits them to two terms, and Bloomberg's second concludes at the end of 2009.
The former CEO said he wanted another four years in large part because he believed his financial expertise would be crucial in steering the city through the long-term effects of the economic crisis.
The term-limit change also gives dozens of other elected officials the chance to run for re-election, and it throws into question the political futures of those who were lining up to run for mayor next year. Many would-be mayoral candidates are expected to drop out of the race because of the difficult task of running against a popular incumbent with unlimited cash to spend on a third campaign.
The term-limits proposal sparked a short but contentious debate ever since Bloomberg announced his plans to seek re-election just three weeks ago. Scores of New Yorkers came to testify during 20 hours of council hearings, and a public opinion poll found that registered voters overwhelmingly disapproved of the plan.
The discussion during the vote Thursday was just as heated.
Councilman Charles Barron, who voted against the bill, urged his colleagues to say "no to bullying, no to billions of dollars and yes to the people." Councilman Tony Avella was harsher in making his point: "You should all be voted out of office for voting for this."
Opponents argued that the mayor was going over the heads of voters, who approved term limits twice in the 1990s. Many critics said they did not disagree with Bloomberg's goal of adding a third-term option but faulted the way he went about it.
"Everything has been wrong with this process, and we should not be party to it," said Councilman Bill de Blasio, who helped lead the opposition.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn supported the measure but acknowledged the "difficult" decision each council member had to make. Ultimately, she agreed with Bloomberg's rationale that the city needs continuity in government to get through the financial turmoil.
"Our city, already in recession, is headed for a long and deep downturn," she said. "In challenging times like these, the voters should have the choice, the choice to continue their current leadership."
As the measure passed, there came a shout from the balcony, where the public is allowed to sit during meetings: "Shame on you, shame on all of you!"
Several council members who opposed the Bloomberg plan made a last-minute push Thursday for a voter referendum on term limits, but their measure was defeated.
Bloomberg has promised to appoint a commission to reconsider the issue and put it before the voters in 2010. He did not do it now, he says, so that voters would not have to consider both a mayor's race and a referendum at the same time next year.
Bloomberg's success at passing the term-limit proposal comes after several high-profile failures for the 66-year-old mayor. During his first term, he lost a campaign to put a new football stadium on Manhattan's West Side. The facility would have served as the crown jewel for the city's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Earlier this year, he failed to get the state Legislature to approve a controversial plan to toll cars entering the most crowded parts of Manhattan, with the goal of cutting traffic and pollution.
Bloomberg's best-known legislative successes came early in his City Hall career. He persuaded the City Council to back his campaign to outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants, and he also wrestled away control of the city school system and put it under mayoral authority.