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.