Rules of the Game

Term limits is a bad idea. It was a bad idea in 1991, and it's still a bad idea in 1997. It's a really bad idea to limit elected officials to three two-year terms, as we do in Houston. Six years is just too short a time, especially when you're forced to raise money for an election every other year.

That's proven to be a minority opinion, however. Many people thought that term limits was a good idea when Clymer Wright proposed his amendment to the city charter and worked for its passage in 1991. Among those who supported the idea of limiting city officials to three two-year terms was Bob Lanier, who gave $2,000 to Wright's successful attempt to get his initiative on the ballot. Fifty-seven percent of the voters approved the amendment on November 5, 1991 -- the same day that many of them practiced a time-honored form of term limitation by ousting Mayor Kathy Whitmire from the office she had held for almost a decade. Voters also rejected four other amendments that City Council placed on the ballot, including one that would have allowed elected officials to serve two four-year terms, but approved a fifth that permitted incumbents to override the term stricture by petitioning their way onto the ballot. A couple of years and a comedy of signature-gathering errors later, Wright went back to work and got almost 80 percent of the voters to close the petition "loophole."

Otherwise, not much has really changed since 1991. The philosophical arguments over term limits, pro and con, are the same. What has changed is this: Kathy Whitmire is no longer mayor. Bob Lanier is. And term limits is the law. So now, as Lanier finishes the final year of his third term, he and diminutive alter ego Billy Burge and others in the Cult of Bob have concluded that term limits is a bad idea, at least when applied to Bob Lanier. And they've found a willing accomplice in state Representative Ron Wilson, a master of small and meaningless mischief who's sponsoring legislation to unilaterally undo what voters did and allow Lanier to seek a fourth term (while also asking them to decide on something -- two four-year terms -- they've previously rejected).

It figures that Burge would be Lanier's front man in the effort. He's already demonstrated his disdain for the rules by overstaying his legally allowed tenure on the Metro board by more than a year and a half, even after County Judge Robert Eckels had put forward a candidate to replace him.

But it doesn't really matter who's doing what, because the "move" to do away with term limits, such as it is, is like Rob Mosbacher's mayoral campaign --it's all wheel and no traction, pure AstroTurf with no grassroots. Other than a few city-paid lobbyists, a city department head or two, some wayward legislators and Burge and a few other insiders, nobody is clamoring for the Legislature to let Bob Lanier have another term. There's been no great public outcry to cut Lanier an exemption in the law, as Burge and his cronies have proposed. In fact, the reaction has been quite the opposite.

Until recently, Lanier, with a sort of a wink and a nudge, kept up the pretense of public neutrality on the issue. Now he's taken a small step toward commitment, saying he favors Wilson's bill. As to whether he would run again, Lanier says he'll do what the law allows. That's a typical Lanier evasion -- to equate what's right with what's legal.

Of course, he's afraid to come out and say what he wants, which is another term, and afraid to have his minions go about changing the law the honest way, the way Clymer Wright did it, by petitioning to force a referendum on yet another charter change. Such a move would raise the very real possibility of rejection by voters, and you can be sure that's not the way Lanier wants to go out. So he figures his buddies can horse-trade the Legislature into allowing him to run again, and no one of any stature will have the testicular resolve to challenge him for reelection in November. He could be right.

But it's not like there aren't capable people lining up to succeed Lanier. George Greanias and Helen Huey have records of accomplishment that you can take or leave, both have more than a semblance of spine and neither woke up one morning last year and decided to move into the city to run for mayor. It's always possible, although highly unlikely, that even Mosbacher or Lee Brown or Gracie Saenz may come up with a solid rationale for their candidacies. That is, if Mosbacher's enemies in the Legislature aren't successful in changing the residency requirement for mayor back to five years.

Lots of people are offended by the whole idea of Mosbacher running for mayor, and it's not hard to understand why. In my limited contact with him, Mosbacher has always struck me as a decent, fairly smart guy, if not someone who's possessed of a probing intelligence or an overabundance of self-awareness. Yet everything he's done politically -- which is to run, so far unsuccessfully, for a series of progressively lower offices -- has left him the caricature of the wealthy dilettante who believes it's his God-given right to hold office. Even his fruitless effort to secure passage of a state term-limits law had the overweening air of the rich kid stamping his little foot 'cause he didn't get picked. (And since he's Mr. Term Limits, why hasn't he gutted up and joined Huey and Greanias in publicly opposing the move to jack with the city's term-limits law? Is he afraid to offend some of his would-be contributors? Is that a rhetorical question?)

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