Phil Hardberger never gave much thought to the issue of term limits before he became mayor of San Antonio in 2005. To the degree that he considered them at all, he shared the feeling of many voters that efforts to extend term limits were driven by self-preservationist politicians eager to stay in office. But, he says, it didn’t take much time at City Hall before he saw the impact of SA’s term limits — the strictest in the country— on our local government.
“When I really got on the inside and began to understand it, I realized on street maintenance how many years behind we had gotten because nobody was willing to put any money in it,” says Hardberger, who notes that he’s worked with 18 councilmembers in only three-and-a-half years. “That’s because there’s no long-range plan that a person in office gets any credit for. I saw how low our police had gotten as people would retire or quit. The police force actually got smaller, the city got bigger, and the gangs got meaner. And that was a bad way for things to be going.”
With San Antonio looking ahead to ambitious, long-term projects such as the development of Voelcker Park and a river-improvement effort, Hardberger became convinced that the city needed greater continuity and institutional memory from its elected officials. So, in his final months as mayor, he’s expending some of his considerable political capital to fight an uphill battle against terms limits, which voters approved by 2-to-1 margins in 1991 and 2004.
Regardless of your take on term limits, it’s hard to find an angle from which this battle benefits Hardberger on a personal level. The initiative, which would extend term limits from two two-year terms apiece for councilmembers and mayors, to four two-year terms, would not be applicable to Hardberger, the current council, or any previous councilmembers. If voters reject the extension plan, it’ll be a conspicuous defeat for Hardberger. If it passes, he’s unlikely to receive much credit for it. As he likes to point out, when locals recall his tenure, they’ll talk about Main Plaza, Haven for Hope, or Voelcker Park. More generous term limits won’t be high on that list, and for many activists wary of career politicians, they’ll actually be a black mark. “This isn’t going to help my legacy,” Hardberger says.
In fact, Hardberger’s term-limit effort looks suspiciously like a campaign of principle, something that John Kennedy (or possible ghostwriter Ted Sorensen) would have, in a less cynical age, dubbed a profile in courage — although Hardberger can afford the political risk because he won’t have to face the SA electorate again.
The nature of the campaign could be seen as proof that term-limits activists have already won the war, if not the battle. Their movement, which sprouted 20 years ago in California, has proven so successful that term limits tend to be taken for granted at the municipal level. Eight of the nation’s 10 biggest cities set term limits on their councils, and Philadelphia imposes term limits on its mayor. The only city in the top 10 with no form of municipal term limits is Chicago, but that’s hardly surprising given the Windy City’s history of machine politics.
Nonetheless, these are worrisome days for term-limits crusaders. In 2006, Los Angeles voters extended term limits for its councilmembers to three four-year terms, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is attempting to pass a similar extension there. While a new Pulse Opinion Research Poll indicates that 83 percent of voters across the country support term limits, the movement has lost much of the momentum it built in the 1990s and frequently finds itself trying to hold its ground, rather than make significant new gains.
Consider this: Of the 15 states that currently impose term limits on their legislatures, 14 of them passed term limits from 1990-95. This was an era when the usual frustrations with government boiled over into a deep disgust. We saw it in the third-party rise of Ross Perot, who received 20 million votes in the 1992 presidential election by promising to break the legislative gridlock in Washington. We saw it again in 1994, when Republicans took over the U.S. House of Representatives, armed with a conservative pledge to voters they called the Contract With America. That document, by the way, called for term limits at the federal level.
On November 3, 1992, the same day that Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States, the citizens of Arkansas, his home state, passed an amendment to their state constitution restricting the number of terms which Arkansas members of Congress could serve. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that amendment in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton. The court found that state amendments could not override the U.S. Constitution (which set no term limits for Congress) on the issue. The term-limits movement has never fully regained its momentum.
San Antonio voters passed term limits in 1991, partly swept along by the national tide and partly responding to frustration with the fact that the city’s move to single-member districts in 1977 had resulted in many local officials (Henry Cisneros among them) becoming entrenched in their offices.
The movement tends to be driven by small-government, tax-cut conservatives, and that description certainly applies to San Antonio’s leading term-limits advocate, Bob Martin, president of the Homeowner Taxpayer Association.
“Terms limits ensure more competitive elections by reducing the influence of special interests, and it certainly offers more citizens greater access to office,” Martin says. “We now have a majority of women on the Council for the first time. Also, it brings real-world experience to city government. In other words, we have a CPA, we have a lawyer, we have housewives, we have all these different folks that are serving.”
Martin tends to loosely tag anyone with deep pockets a “special interest,” and he delights in pointing out that while former Mayor Ed Garza raised $325,000 in a failed attempt to extend term limits in 2004, Hardberger has already brought in more than $600,000.
“To these big contributors, it’s an investment,” Martin says. “I think you have to ask yourself, ‘What kind of return do they expect for their investment?’ I don’t think lower taxes and less spending is what they’re counting on.”
Without question, the contribution list for Hardberger’s On Your Terms campaign reads like a who’s-who of SA business and political influence: $25,000 each from Clear Channel, Red McCombs, Valero, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Zachry Group; $15,000 from USAA and H-E-B; $7,500 from Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson; and $500 from Henry Cisneros.
One of the biggest local contributors, Mike Beldon of Beldon Roofing Company, says, “It’s really hard to do business in a city where you’ve got revolving doors for our elected officials.” Beldon adds that he’s grown frustrated watching “really, really good people” such as Hardberger and former councilmen Richard Perez and Julian Castro leave office simply because term limits forced them out.
From its inception, the term-limits movement has run on emotion, the fervor of those who believe in a founding-fathers concept of citizen servants who represent the voters for a short time and go back to private life. They remain unswayed even when compelling data and simple logic work against them. For example, term limits are meant to create more competitive electoral contests, but voter participation in SA has dropped nearly 50 percent since term limits went into effect. A 2002 UTSA Metropolitan Research & Policy Initiative study noted that while participation reached an impressive 32 percent in the pre-term-limits election of 1991, by 1999 it had fallen to an astonishingly low 7 percent.
“It really kind of has a contra effect from what it intended to,” Hardberger says of the city’s tight term limits. “Most people considering a race now will simply wait until the four years where there’s no incumbent. And that’s why I think you don’t have the interest in the city-council race, you don’t have the competitiveness in the city-council race, and your quality of competitors has probably fallen because of term limits.”
Martin argues that, with or without term limits, voter turnout has been declining throughout the nation. He also emphasizes that in the city’s term-limits era, the Council has refrained from raising property taxes. He’s convinced the two facts are related. On a purely logical level, however, it’s hard to explain why a councilmember who becomes a lame duck after two years would be more reluctant to raise taxes than a councilmember with the possibility of serving four terms.
“I don’t really think tax increases have anything to do with the term of office,” Hardberger argues. “Any council, by majority vote, on any day, properly noticed, can set raising taxes — or decreasing them — into motion. But I would say with long-term planning, where you don’t get so far behind, you’re less likely to have to raise taxes to catch up. We put 100 new policemen on this year. That’s $10 million. You might not have had to do that if you were keeping up. So I’d say the chances of your having to have a dramatic tax raise is more likely, at some point, with short-termers than with long-termers.”
Barack Obama has said that the term limits he supports are called elections, that voters should be trusted with deciding how long to keep their representatives. But one of the central contradictions of American democracy is that most people love their own representatives (even in a throw-the-scoundrels-out year like 2006, 94 percent of U.S. representatives won reelection), but hate their electoral bodies. Without term limits enforcing change, voters will tend to keep incumbents in power.
When asked if he has mixed feelings about having to spend the home stretch of his mayoral tenure raising money for this campaign, Hardberger says: “I’m sorry to have to expend the effort that it would take to do something that is absolutely logical and intelligent to do. Here’s the real truth: Most people in office would rather leave behind concrete things — things that are tangible, that people can see, touch, and feel, and that they associate themselves with.
“I doubt 15 years from now anybody will know who it was that put in the longer term limits. And if you had that conversation 15 years from today, rather than give you credit, they’d say, ‘Well, no wonder. An idiot could have seen that! That’s no great accomplishment.’ In the future, that’s what they’re going to think.” •