A contributor to the Huffington Post in 2016 compared the Democratic leadership in Congress to the old Politburo before the fall of the Soviet Union. The average age and length of tenure in office of the three House Democratic leaders exceeded the average age of Politburo members before the fall of communism.
One of the conundrums of a democracy is reconciling periodic elections to hold officeholders accountable with the extraordinary resources incumbents employ to stay in power. From the steady stream of press releases and social media commentary to the war chests incumbents build to spend on the next election, the decided advantage incumbents have in our democracy is overwhelming for any challenger.
Although Congress has never applied term limitation to itself, it had no difficulty in 1947 mustering two-thirds of its members in both Houses to join with three-fourths of the states in 1951 to pass the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, limiting the president to two terms. Given the framers’ intent on creating an American presidency with enough checks and balances to prevent a replay of the tyranny they were leaving behind, it’s no wonder that Congress and the states years later would take action when President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with the two-term tradition set by President George Washington, running for and winning a third and then a fourth term.
The chief executive seems a particularly appropriate target for term limitation given the power of appointment and command of government agencies that govern our daily lives, whether it be at the federal, state or local level. It’s the chief executive who usually lays out the vision, prepares the plan and then implements a series of policies with which to govern. It’s the chief executive who has the perquisites of office to influence legislators or city council members, or to employ in their re-election efforts, all at the expense of taxpayers. It’s the chief executive who, as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, can “speak softly and carry a big stick” – code for the chief executive having the power of retribution for anyone who stands in his way.
With an election in November for Boise mayor and City Council, this is a propitious moment for Boiseans. Boise seems to be at a critical moment in its proud history. It is buffeted about by forces, some beyond its control, but some crying out for leadership that can deliver new strategies of land use and new ideas for its neighborhoods, its downtown development, homeless Boise, its business community and its airport. The city is besieged with traffic congestion, road construction and development in every direction, too often infringing on long-established neighborhoods. The recent surge of residents from out of state changes the complexion of the city as the demand for housing stock increases, which has an impact on property values, making affordable housing one of the main challenges of the new Boise.
In presiding over the City Council, the mayor works closely with council members to develop and implement public policy that works for all residents. The mayor might have one approach to working with the City Council and residents, but it is certainly not a style of leadership that is open to opposing views. Only when residents speak loudly enough and sign petitions for a say in major city decisions does the city respond as it did last week on the subject of referenda for the library and stadium projects. In typical fashion, the City Council voted against the ordinances.
An official term-limit law is not what Boise needs at the moment. Instead, it just needs the mayor to announce that after four terms in office – 16 years – it is time to hand the reins of city government over to a new leader. It’s time to set aside hubris and ego. It’s time for new leadership for Boise. It’s time for a new staff in the mayor’s office who can bring new and different insights and strategies to the office. It’s time for a relationship between the mayor and the council that respects and encourages citizen input. It’s time for council members to be free of intimidation and repercussions for speaking out honestly and forthrightly on mayoral proposals. It’s time for opposing points of view to be welcome, and for alternative courses of action to be seriously considered, with no vindictive action taken against those who disagree.
It can also be a time to celebrate how far Boise has come in these recent years, a time to celebrate the tenure of a mayor who has given a decade-and-a-half of his life and career to this city. But we must never lose sight of why democracies turn over offices to new leadership. A growing number of Boiseans see this year as a year of change, and as we approach the fall election season, Boiseans should have the opportunity to discuss and debate its future without the familiar refrain of the incumbent’s focus on how good things have been. Instead, there should be an eye forward on a clean slate of ideas for new direction and a bright Boise future.
Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.