Why these term limits?

David Mincberg has an op-ed about the city’s term limits law that makes some interesting points but doesn’t quite get at the issue of whether the system we actually have now is the best way to meet the goals of better and more diverse representation in Houston’s government.

Back in 1991, Republican Clymer Wright led the successful movement to limit Houston’s mayor and council members to three terms that total six years. Over the past 19 years, besides the turnover in mayors, Houston’s had five controllers examining the city’s budget.

At the same time, the wide-ranging turnover in council members has led to a City Council that mirrors a very diverse city. The days when council members held onto their positions for decades — collecting ever-greater campaign contributions from more and more city contractors — are mostly a distant memory.

Term limits have created a more open, transparent city government with fewer conflicts of interest. Coupled with financial reform, they are working as hoped. Restrictions on the amount of campaign contributions and blackout periods for contributions are working.

Mincberg spends a fair amount of time in his piece noting that while Houston’s government has undergone a lot of turnover since 1991, County Commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole, who is uncontested for re-election and is expected to resign shortly afterward so a successor can be appointed, are still in office. I’ve made the same observation and agree that the lack of interest by the Clymer Wright crowd about this is curious, to say the least, but we’ll leave that for another day. One must acknowledge that all it took to change the city’s law was a single referendum, whereas imposing term limits on Harris County Commissioners Court would require legislative intervention and a constitutional amendment, which is a much steeper hill to climb. It’s still telling to me that no one seems to care much about it, certainly not anywhere near as much as the city’s term limits law.

That’s not what I want to talk about. The question, given that we’re stuck with term limits whether I like them or not, is whether the term limits law we have is fine as it is or if it should be changed in some fashion. I would agree with Mincberg that Houston’s government today is more diverse and representative of Houston’s changing population than it was in 1991, though how much of that is directly attributable to term limits is not clear to me. The fact that Houston is a lot more diverse now than it was even 20 years ago suggests to me that some of that change would have happened on its own. But surely having a steady supply of open Council seats has helped make that happen more rapidly, and term limits gets the credit for that.

Still, just having open Council seats hasn’t meant that people of color will win them, or even run for them. We’ve had exactly two Latino At Large Council members since 1991, none since Orlando Sanchez in 2001. When I interviewed Vidal Martinez and former Council Member John Castillo last year about their lawsuit to force City Council to be redistricted and expanded, I asked them why we didn’t see more Latinos running citywide. Their answer was that it costs a lot of money to do that, and that’s a barrier to entry for many Latino hopefuls. Term limits don’t do anything about that, and neither have the financial reforms of which Mincberg speaks. The solution that I would suggest is a form of public financing for city campaigns, in which matching funds are made available for small-dollar contributions.

Even when Latino candidates do run for At Large seats, they often don’t get a lot of financial support. Rick Rodriguez early on announced a slew of high profile endorsements for the At Large #1 race last year, but ultimately raised little money. Joe Trevino made it to the runoff for At Large #5 in 2007, but also attracted little monetary help. No term limits law will change this dynamic.

And let’s be honest. Even with the reforms that have been implemented, it’s still the case that candidates who can raise the most money tend to win, and much of the money these candidates do raise comes from the many special interest PACs that operate in the city. In this past election, in the five open seat Council races, at least four were won by the candidate that got the most PAC money. The one possible exception is Al Hoang, who still took in a decent chunk of PAC money but who also had an impressive amount of mostly small-dollar donations from individuals. Maybe we’re okay with this as it is. Maybe we like the alternatives, like the one I’ve suggested, even less. All I know is we’re only focusing on one part of the equation, and I think that’s inadequate.

The other question I’d raise about term limits is whether setting them at three two-year terms, for a total of six years in office, is optimal. We can debate the experience-versus-new-perspectives ideas all we want, but I look at it this way: It’s exceedingly rare for an incumbent Council member to face a serious electoral challenge. Once you’re in, you’re in for three terms. We did happen to have two incumbents get forced into runoffs this past year, though only one faced an opponent with real resources, and that was a genuine novelty. If you want to run for a Council seat, why would you bother going against an incumbent? You know the PAC money will be against you, and besides, it’s only six years to wait your turn for the open seat. Better to court the power brokers in the interim and make the pitch that you should be next in line than tilt at windmills. To me, this strongly suggests that allowing for longer terms in office, whether eight, ten, or twelve years, would lead to there being more truly contested races each election. The longer people have to wait for a seat to come open, the higher the likelihood that impatience will kick in, and the greater the pressure to take on an incumbent who is performing poorly. Couple that with some kind of reform that makes it easier for a challenger to raise money, and you might see serious challenges as the norm and not the exception. That’s the point at which I might agree we’ve got a system that truly promotes democracy. Maybe we can even apply it to county government some day.

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16 Responses to Why these term limits?

  1. John says:

    Sounds like sour grapes here. The 3 members of the Commissioner’s Court mentioned all are Republican, yet somehow he fails to mention the member who has been there the longest (Dem El Franco Lee). And there are numerous State Senators (Whitmire, Gallegos, Ellis) that he seems to have no problem with elected jobs for life

    Now if you want to judge which entity is more fiscally responsible the term limited (City Council) or no limits (HC Commissioners) maybe let’s look at the budget deficits as a % of overall number. I am willing to wager the City has been poorly managed in those terms

  2. br allen says:

    I think you raise some good points, I tend to favor term limits but I can see the arguments you made. I came from a smaller town where it was run by a “good ol boy” network, since the town was small it didn’t take but a few hundred votes to get someone elected, and usually people wouldn’t run against the good ol boys because they couldn’t get more people to vote for them than the guys already in there that had all of the connections. Some council members would take a break for a term or two and then come right back in and start the process all over again. With this they handed out overpriced contracts to their budies with no review or competitive bid, passed ordinances that helped their businesses and others that limited those they didn’t like. Really it was more of a social club than anything, but that club effected all of us. With term limits I think the waters could be stirred up more and most likely contribute to less corruption.

  3. John,

    Yes, El Franco Lee has been a Commissioner for a long time as well. But he wasn’t in office in 1991 when the city’s term limits law was enacted. Eversole and Radack were, which was Mincberg’s point.

    Yes, there are plenty of long-term incumbents who go unchallenged. I would argue that’s a function of campaign finances, which is my point. Make it easier for challengers to raise money, and the rest takes care of itself. Do you support some form of public financing for campaigns? If not, what is your solution to making elections, not just open seat races, more competitive? If all you’ve got is term limits, then I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Finally, if you’re saying that after all these years City Council is fiscally irresponsible in a way that the Commissioners Court with its unlimited terms and unchallenged incumbents is not, then you’re essentially saying that term limits and regular turnover in government really doesn’t do all that much to achieve the ends you advocate. Perhaps you should give some more thought to the matter.

  4. Debbie says:

    Actually, Commissioner Lee was elected in 1985 so he was in office when the city’s term limits was enacted. In fact, he has been in office longer than any of the other commissioners.

  5. Debbie – I stand corrected. Be that as it may, it doesn’t change the point of my post.

  6. Debbie says:

    Mr. Kuffner,

    I would wonder if Mr. Mincberg would be as concerned about county term limits had he been elected as county judge. Also it is a bit disconcerting that Mincberg seemingly focused on the two Republican commissioners and completely (and I believe intentionally) failed to mention that his Democratic counterparts held commissioner positions for longer terms than the two commissioners he singled out. While Commissioner Lee is currently serving his 7th term, Commissioner Squatty Lyons served 12 terms-48 years and Commissioner Jim Fonteno served 7 terms-28 years.

    Also, commissioners do have term limits-4 years. There is no guarantee beyond that. Incumbants do tend to have an advantage but that is still not a guarantee. Each time they run for re-election there is a chance they will lose.

    I always find it amusing that when the left doesn’t get their way they try to change the rules to try to “even the playing field.”

    This is just some food for thought.

  7. “Also, commissioners do have term limits-4 years.”

    Uh, by this logic, so have City Council members had term limits, long before the 1991 charter amendment was approved. The question is whether or not Council members should be limited to running for re-election two times. We do agree that County Commissioners have no such restriction, correct?

    Again, the point of all this is about Houston City Council, not Commissioners Court. But since you brought it up, Mincberg made ethics and campaign finance issues a key aspect of his 2008 campaign. And again, if we had better campaign finance laws, we might see more contested elections for County Commissioners, among others. We might see more of them for city offices that don’t involve open seats. That’s my point. What exactly are you disagreeing with here?

  8. John says:


    my main problem was Mincberg’s piece seems to mainly deal with his problem of Republicans (not Dem) are being term limited. I believe his failure to mention one Democrat (as I said El Franco has been there the longest) really basically reduces his complaints to just whining. I have no problems with people saying we need term limits but just make it a balanced case, by his points it just does not carry much weight but totally ignoring any democrat that has been in office for similar period of time.

    In regards to City Council, I was just pointing out that the City of Houston’s budget is in a far worse position than the County. I think part of the reason is most people on City Council can’t add 2+2 nor have they ever used excel before in their lives. While the County Commissioners seem to get it more (and that goes for both Repub and Dems on there) and appear to run things in a bit more fiscally responsible manner.

    I am definitely with you that it is hard to beat any incumbents due to the money issue. I think that would have been a more interesting area for Mincberg to study. I believe (and everyone please correct me if I am wrong) that the City of Austin has something like a $250 per person max on campaign contributions to city races (not sure of Travis County rules). Maybe we voters should demand that.

  9. John,

    Thanks for the feedback. Yes, Mincberg should have mentioned El Franco, but 1) it’s a side issue, and 2) term limits are generally a Republican hobby horse. Let’s agree he should have included his name and move on.

    While I agree that some contribution limits are in order, the problem with restricting them too greatly are twofold. One is that doing so gives a huge advantage to self-funding candidates, and also allows for third parties to have greater influence. And two, running a campaign is expensive. The problem isn’t that there’s too much money, it’s that the money is too concentrated in too few hands. That’s why I support some form of public financing that creates matching funds for small dollar donations. Such a system would encourage candidates to get donations from non-wealthy people, and would give candidates like that the resources they need to compete. Candidates need to be able to get their message out; the alternative to that is more people voting in ignorance, or just fewer people voting. Neither is attractive to me. I believe the goal should be to give more candidates a fair chance at being able to communicate with voters. If we’re going to discuss term limits, I wish we’d talk about that as well.

  10. John says:


    I am definitely not well versed in funding alternatives but do agree we need to change. But I think voters are getter better versed and candidates are using the internet (facebook, twitter, plain old campaign websites) as the true way to contact a larger segment that the TV ads will no longer need. I am probably being idealistic but even if you look at Annise (yes she was well funded) but she did better with getting the $50 donations and using facebook etc to get her backers organized and did beat the better funded candidate.

    Regardless, the next few months will be interesting as the City has to release their budget. Unless we make some cuts to police/fire it is going to be hard to balance.

  11. Scott says:

    The best form of term limits is no retirement account.

  12. Debbie says:


    I just now had the opportunity to read through your blog again. I was simply disagreeing with the one sided portrayal of the politicians mentioned in Mincberg’s piece.

    As far as City Council and term limits……its a toss up. If you have good representation then you want to keep them for as long as possible, if you have poor representation then of course you want them out as soon as possible. So there are reasons to be for it and against it.

    Funding wise, I think politicians have it easier than ever to get their name out there with Facebook and Twitter and so on…..free press. Also with bloggers such as yourself aiding them, you are more likely to get pretty good media exposure with very little investment.
    Money talks but at least in this day and age the internet can be an extremely valuable tool in the race.

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