In a city in which about 90 percent of voters are not Republicans, a secretive donation by a GOP-affiliated PAC in the early push for term limits for the West Hollywood City Council is troubling. But the real reason to vote against Measure C is that it is the wrong way to shake up City Hall.
The rationale for term limits is that they wrest entrenched power from elected officials, which is certainly true. But where does that power -- that institutional memory and know-how -- go? Well-intentioned advocates want to believe it is inherited by the new, inexperienced politicians who are cycled in.
In practice, however, this institutional power devolves over time into the hands of what is essentially an unelected and unaccountable shadow government comprised of staffers, bureaucrats and lobbyists. Even when these shadow governments are benign, the fact that they are unelected makes them generally less responsive to voters than they are to corporate and special interests.
Term limits produce successive waves of newly elected neophytes and amateurs who, with each new freshman class, became increasingly reliant on the permanent staff -- then, by the time the elected officials are starting to become experienced and professional, they are cycled out. This is precisely what happened in the California legislature. In 1990, voters imposed term limits of three terms in the Assembly and two terms in the Senate. By the end of the first decade, the entrenched power was gone but it had been replaced by self-perpetuating disruption and dysfunction. As a partial fix to this, last June voters passed Proposition 28, which reconfigured the limits to a maximum of 12 years' service in the Legislature, whether in the Assembly or the Senate.
The good news for West Hollywood is that even if Measure C passes, it likely would not have any noticeable effect until several cycles after the current incumbents have been term-limited out, meaning no sooner than 30 years from now. Why? The push for term limits is driven by a desire to end the decades-long tenures of four of the five current councilmembers. But even if Measure C passes, all five incumbents will be allowed to serve three more terms. Given the advantage of incumbency, they could all continue to be reelected until they are term-limited out in 2025 and 2027. (If Jon Heilman, the longest-serving councilmember, continues to win reelection, by the time he is term-limited out in 2027, he will have served 43 years on the city council.) The revolving door effect would not kick in until after their successors have served out their terms.
The reason this might be dragged out so long is that Measure C does nothing to address the underlying reason that councilmembers are nearly always reelected.
What gives the incumbents their advantage? When I first moved here a Russian acquaintance jokingly described West Hollywood demographics as "one-third gay, one-third Russian and one-third 'other.'" This is silly and inherently imprecise but, for the sake of illustration, the councilmembers are routinely reelected because they win among all three of these groups. Conversely, challengers tend to focus on building support among the first two "thirds" -- gays and "others" -- but even when they do well in the precincts where those two groups vote, it's not enough to put them over the top.
The fact that incumbents do well in precincts east of Fairfax, where many Russian immigrants and their American-born descendants live, means that those voters are generally satisfied with the job the councilmembers are doing. Challengers do not have the same sort of access to these voters, of course, and this puts them at a disadvantage, including at the most basic level: name recognition.
The solution to unseating the incumbents then is not term limits. A faster, more effective and healthier way to end the cycles of incumbency would be to deploy the sort of grass-roots energy that developed behind Measure C into identifying and supporting candidates who can build strong coalitions in the east city as well as the west and center. The result of this would be representation on the West Hollywood City Council that more accurately reflects the diversity of the city.
Term Limits are bad policy, and Measure C is bad politics. In September, West Hollywood Patch published a news release submitted by California Term Limits PAC, in which the PAC announced that "at the request of the leadership" of the local West Hollywood grass-roots term-limits group, it was making "a significant investment" to fund signature gathering in the petition drive for the ballot initiative that became Measure C.
The president of California Term Limits PAC is Jon Fleischman, a Republican power broker who writes about state politics at the Flash Report. In 2012, the online arm of Americans for Prosperity, a tea party organization funded by the Koch brothers, gave Fleischman its Andrew Brietbart "blogger of the year" award -- Breitbart, who died last year, was a tea party leader who was best known for releasing videos to Fox News that were selectively edited to deceptively depict liberals in a bad light. In 2008, Fleischman came out against marriage equality, an issue that is near and dear to us around here, when he lent his support to Proposition 8. According to the California Term Limits PAC website, the PAC is based in Orange County.
Orange County Republican-affliated PACs have as much right as anyone to make significant investments in West Hollywood politics, as long as the donations are transparent -- but that is not the case here. Fleischman's PAC makes an unequivocal promise to its donors that their identities will be kept secret. According to the PAC's website, "It is our practice, because of the number of politicians who dislike the mission of our organization, to keep the identity of our donors, large and small, confidential."
Because the identity of the PAC's donors is secret, no one can say whether the money came from individuals, corporations or organizations who might have conflicts of interest with the city government. Were they, for example, billboard companies or real-estate developers with local interests? Except for the Orange County Republicans behind the PAC, no one knows who funded this investment in West Hollywood politics.
The fact that West Hollywood voters will never know the source of funding for that significant investment in Measure C is sufficient reason to vote against it. But the fundamental reason to oppose this specific ballot initiative is that it does not do what people who support it want it to do, which is to wrest power from entrenched incumbents. Even if Measure C passes, it's possible that no currently serving councilmember would be term-limited out -- to put it in perspective -- until Pres. Obama has been out of office for eight years.
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About me: I am a lifelong Democrat but I am not affiliated with No on C, members of the city council or any political organization. I write about politics at Pensito Review and I was the editor of the late Gore Vidal's official website. I am also writing a book about the history of crime and scandal on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood's golden era titled "Playground to the Stars."