Political term limits is a concept woven into a rather incoherent public-policy patchwork. The San Diego City Council has them. The county Board of Supervisors does not. The state Legislature has them. The U.S. Congress does not. The office of the president of the United States, thankfully, does.
You might say that patchwork is consistent with the public's attitude. Term limits are a mixed bag of pros and cons. They don't allow politicians to get fat, happy and complacent in their jobs, but, particularly at the state level, they've resulted in an absurd game of musical chairs, with elected officials jumping around between the Senate, the Assembly and other statewide offices. They're intended to foster an environment in which regular citizens, as opposed to career politicians, would be plucked from society and bring a real-world approach to law-making. But, in the unintended-consequences department, term limits have shifted power to lobbyists and career political staffers.
“In these days of term limits,” says Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus of public administration and urban studies at San Diego State University, politicians “have got to look further ahead and find the right spot and get the timing down and all that sort of thing.”
Take San Diego City Councilmember Toni Atkins for instance. Two weeks ago, she met for lunch at the downtown Westgate Hotel with labor lobbyist and former City Council candidate Lorena Gonzalez to discuss the election for the 76th state Assembly District-not the 2008 election, the 2010 election. Both women have already decided to run for it on the Democratic side, and the meeting, Atkins says, was a chance to see how “serious” each woman is.
Atkins will be termed off the City Council in 2008, but where term limits taketh away, they also giveth. Assemblymember Lori Saldaña will be termed out of office in 2010, allowing Atkins to devote a year and a half exclusively to campaigning for the seat Saldaña will be vacating. Meanwhile, Gonzalez says she is committed to her job as political director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council through 2008, at which time she'll evaluate the 76th District “landscape” in earnest.
It's true that local politics often weaves tangled webs, and this kind of thing probably happens all the time, but it was somewhat ironic that at the same time Atkins and Gonzalez were taking each other's temperature, Gonzalez was involved in an intense campaign to convince Atkins and her City Council colleagues to reappoint former car dealer Steve Cushman to the Port of San Diego's Board of Commissioners. And, wouldn't you know it (Part I), when it came time for the City Council to make its selection between Cushman and marketing consultant Laurie Black on March 6, Atkins turned out to be the swing vote. And, wouldn't you know it (Part II), the thing that stood in Cushman's path was-you guessed it-a term-limits policy.
Atkins has, on several occasions, said the decision was among the most difficult she's had to make, mindful that labor wanted Cushman on the commission in the worst way, and that Black, who Atkins considers a friend, wanted it just as badly. Both nominees were backed by folks who could conceivably help Atkins get elected.
Atkins had assured Gonzalez and her boss, Labor Council CEO Jerry Butkiewicz, that she would vote for Cushman, but that was before Black, once a chief-of-staff to former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk and possessor of strong Democratic Party ties, surfaced as a nominee.
Before voting, Atkins apologized to Cushman for reneging on her vow to support him and voted to uphold the term-limits policy that was standing in his way. She thought that might be the only way Black had a chance to get the necessary number of votes, she told CityBeat the next day. “I think both candidates were excellent,” she said. “I could live with either candidate. I wanted to give Laurie the opportunity to see if she had the support, and she didn't.”
When Black received only four of the five needed votes, Atkins switched her vote and Cushman was in.
Because council members are limited to two four-year terms, if Atkins wants to continue to serve the public in elected office, she's forced to look ahead-way ahead-and that means thoughts of her next campaign are more likely to enter her head when making policy decisions. Atkins acknowledged as much while talking about the Port Commission vote. Although she insists she did what she thought was right, she also considered which influential people were lined up on the two sides-organized labor on one, and, though she didn't name these names in an interview, well-connected Democrats such as former legislators Steve Peace and Schenk on the other.
Labor support means union campaign money and many shoes on the ground for precinct walking. Who sits on the Port Commission is terribly important to a number of the unions that make up the Labor Council. A union-friendly Port Commission means a higher likelihood of decent-paying waterfront jobs with adequate healthcare coverage and a lower likelihood of non-union-hotel and other low-paying service-sector jobs.
Atkins has been good for labor on the City Council; a vote in favor of a living wage for workers under city contracts is huge in labor's collective mind. But what must she have been thinking as she looked at the person across the table at that lunch meeting? Gonzalez has longstanding ties to labor, and at this very moment, she is labor.
So, giving Black a chance to win the port seat could be a step toward gaining the support of folks like Peace and Schenk and collecting state Democratic Party campaign money, which could soften the blow should the Labor Council side with Gonzalez.
“I'd like to think that I have proven myself to [labor], but I'm not naïve enough not to realize that relationships matter as well,” Atkins said. “You think that doesn't concern me? Absolutely it concerns me.”
Gonzalez, who has experience in statewide politics, ran for City Council in a 2006 special election but lost narrowly to Kevin Faulconer. She said she realized during that campaign that she approaches problems from a “state perspective” and decided after she lost to run in the 76th Assembly District, a safe Democratic seat.
Both Gonzalez and Atkins say they're in the Assembly race unless conditions change sometime in the next year or so. There's a good chance California will move its presidential election from June 2008 to February, and if it does, that February ballot would likely also ask voters to change term limits-from the current six-year limit in the Assembly and the eight-year limit in the Senate to 12 years in each. If that happens, Saldaña can retain her seat through 2016, as long as she keeps winning elections, and both Gonzalez and Atkins will be out of luck.
Then there's the Donna Frye factor. Frye told CityBeat recently that running for her friend Saldaña's seat is something she's considered. Frye will be termed off the City Council in 2010.
SDSU Professor Sparrow says he knows Atkins well enough to say he believes she'd choose to stay put on the City Council forever if not for term limits. But now she's forced to get in Gonzalez' way. “I don't think that she got into that job in order to get into the state Legislature,” he said. “But the term-limitation thing makes it impossible to get good at something. You've got to move on.
“Everybody's got to figure out how in the hell they work their way through this labyrinth of keeping a job.”