[from June 2001 issue]


Until the other day, when a clear majority of the city council voted to repeal the term limits Initiative that had been adopted in the wake of bad memories of Marion Barry's declining mayoral years, we had planned to write about other things. After all, there are myriad matters crying out for our commentaries. But what the council just did is too important to let pass by without our take on the controversy.

First off, we have the sense that our view is very much a minority view among this city's voters. From what we can fathom, there is great unhappiness, even anger, that the council undid what the voters had wrought through the Initiative process. After all, why shouldn't they be frustrated when a body of 13 politicians who presumably are interested in job security would overturn an Act of the People brought about through the purest form of democratic expression?

Of course, it would appear on the surface that the city council members who voted for repeal were doing so out of complete self-interest; can anyone really believe that they might have voted on principle? While we cannot rule out ulterior motives by some--consciously or subconsciously--we truly believe that they did do the right thing.

And it took great courage for the members to do the right thing. For, by so doing, some of them may have in fact sealed their ultimate doom come their next campaign; it might have been easier to vote "no" and at least not go into that next campaign tarred with the brush of suspicious motives. (The mayor has it easy in this regard. He can say he is opposed to overturning the Initiative and can veto the council's bill; but, given the actual vote, it is veto-proof and so the mayor will also come out of this able to challenge Marion Barry for the title of "Mayor for Life" yet appear politically pure!)

Why don't we like term limits? Not only don't we like the concept, we think it's an abomination! Here we sit, in the greatest democracy since 5th century B.C. Athens, and people all around this country exclaim about the how wonderful it is or can be to force out of office democratically elected officers of government without even casting votes. All over the world people are dying for the right to be allowed to vote for their leaders, believing in the American principle of government "by the people" and "for the people." But here we have become so complacent, 225 years after our Revolution, that vast numbers of our citizens don't even make the effort to go to the polls--and now applaud the institution of an unthinking political mechanism that in effect absolves them of the responsibility to vote.

After all, the bad people, the incompetent people, the hateful people will be gone after two terms so, "What the heck. . . ." A few generations of that attitude and there will no longer be a people's government. By then, talk of a Mayor for Life will suggest the halcyon years indeed! Democracy is fragile and eternal vigilance is necessary to maintain its strength. This is true whether we are talking national, state, local--it matters not.

Furthermore, just to inject a selfish note to leaven all this Big Thought stuff, as a voter, we want to make our own decision whether a person should be our city council member or mayor or even ANC commissioner. We don't want the collective electorate in effect making that decision for us. We want our very own desires to be registered and counted. If we think a politician is bad and should be kicked out we want to be able to really do it, not have the departure from office brought on by some bureaucratic rule called term limits.

Conversely, if we think the council member or the mayor is really terrific and the body politic will be well-served to have that person remain, we want the opportunity to make that possible.

We can look back at many members of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, and maybe even of our own city council, who we and a majority of constituents would have wished could have remained in office longer than two terms because they were people of high principle and accomplishment who truly served the voters well. Why would we want to see that kind of true public servant summarily dismissed for no good reason other than it's nice and neat and clean to say, "Time's up." That's not only bad public policy, but totally self-defeating to the encouragement of good government and dedicated service.

No, for the voters to even consider abrogating their right and responsibility to exercise the most sacred duty of citizenship is a travesty, and to have condoned it is a gross insult not only to the sacrifice of millions of soldiers from 1776 to the present day who fought and died to protect our rights, but is an embarrassment to us as individuals and as a nation which strives to be a role model for world democracy.

So, for all the reasons we have stated above, the city council is to be commended for having courageously rectified a serious collective error in judgement by the voters.