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Coming to terms with term limits
Signs urging the repeal of term limits for Chatham County Commission Chairman Pete Liakakis.

Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on office, a rottenness begins in his conduct.

-- Thomas Jefferson

COUPLE OF funny things about term limits:

1) The only people who strongly oppose term limits are politicians who stand to lose their jobs because of them.

2) We already have term limits for governors and mayors, and since 1951, the president — basically for every executive office. No one seems to have a problem with this.

So who stands to gain the most if there are usually term limits for the executive branch, but rarely any for the legislative branch? See No. 1 above...

It’s one of the flaws, maybe the fatal flaw, of modern democracy that the branch of government that makes the laws is also able to make laws governing its own behavior.

For example, members of the U.S. Congress — which is now at a historic low approval rating of nine percent — are able to stay in office for life, while they effectively prohibit others from doing the same.

I keep hearing from the usual suspects, i.e., representatives who don’t want to give up the enormous power of incumbency, that they’re already term-limited in the sense that voters can decide every few years to vote them out.

This is of course quite disingenuous given the huge advantage of incumbency, in addition to being easily rebutted by point No. 2 above: Why then shouldn’t the same logic apply to presidents, governors, and mayors?

Savannah is a little unusual in the sense that our local executives aren’t particularly powerful. Our mayor is really one vote out of nine on City Council — not a standard-issue mayor at all, basically a sort of alderman–at–large on steroids.(Savannah mayors are paid more than aldermen, however.)

The Chatham County Commission chairman is in a similar position, for a smaller governmental entity.

Speaking of Chatham County Commission chairman: That brings us to the curious case of the local ballot issue proposing the repeal of term limits for that particular office, currently occupied by Pete Liakakis, who’s now approaching the end of his second, and by current law, final term.

Regardless of what you think about Pete — I’ve known him for years and consider him a very valuable local civil servant — anytime a law is proposed that seems designed specifically to benefit one individual, I get a little nervous.

(I do give supporters of the measure credit for truth in advertising: The signs feature a photo of a smiling Liakakis himself with the line, “Let’s Keep Pete!” No hidden agenda here!)

Let’s keep in mind that a similar measure to repeal term limits for Savannah mayor would likely be met with howls of outrage. I suspect the fact that Chatham County isn’t nearly as powerful as the City of Savannah is why this particular ballot measure hasn’t inspired much controversy.

And also it must be said: Pete Liakakis is quite simply very popular personally.

Popularity does have its limits, however. You’ll recall how in the months after 9/11 Rudy Giuliani sought to exploit his huge approval rating by pushing to repeal term limits for the office of New York City mayor — himself!

His crude attempt to make “America’s Mayor” a lifetime job failed, as it should have. (New York City council has since voted to allow a third term for mayor.)

There’s a lot of wacky revisionist history about our Founding Fathers making the rounds, such as the idea that they wanted a fundamentalist theocracy modeled on the 700 Club, or favored everyone’s inalienable right to carry a fully loaded AK–47 with attached grenade launcher onto a school playground.

But there’s no question that the Founding Fathers generally supported the idea of term limits at all levels. (John Adams, God love him, wanted one–year term limits!)

I used to be against term limits because I felt that term limits remove an element of choice from the voters. It’s true; they do. But now that I see the destructive power unfettered incumbency has wrought upon our nation, I’ve changed my mind.

Term limits are no panacea, but they’re clearly the lesser of two evils.

If we begin with the premise that the core defect of the United States right now is the disproportionate influence of money on our electoral system, then we quickly conclude that a big reason money has so much influence is that politicians have too much incentive to run repeatedly for reelection.

This leads to a huge sucking downward spiral of money chasing money until, well, we all go down the drain.

That said, Liakakis has “only” been in office seven years, a mere pittance by some standards.

Another popular local politician, Jack Kingston, was first elected to Congress the same year Bill Clinton was elected president.

Clinton was limited to two terms. But Kingston remains in office 20 years later.

He’s been in the majority in Congress. He’s been in the minority in Congress.

He’s been on powerful committees. He’s been kicked off powerful committees.

He’s blamed Democrats for screwing everything up. He’s blamed Republicans for screwing everything up.

He was for wars and expansion of government healthcare when Bush was president. He’s against wars and expansion of government healthcare when Obama is president.

He’s run unopposed twice.

Through it all, and through various challenges which never garnered more than 34 percent of the vote, Jack Kingston has continued to raise money.

At last count he showed more than a million dollars in campaign cash, for an office he will barely have to lift a finger to defend for the rest of his life.

In short, if anyone wants to make signs supporting term limits, it’s Jack Kingston’s smiling face that should be on them.
(To be fair, he shares this dubious distinction with plenty of other members of Congress.)

It boggles my mind that in this autumn of our discontent anyone would aggressively lobby to repeal term limits. But it’s also true that the disconnect between government and the governed has perhaps never been as wide as it is today.

This Tuesday you’ll have the chance to make your own decision whether one office will remain term–limited.

Regardless of your opinion on Liakakis — one of our community’s most highly regarded leaders — remember that your vote isn’t just for one person. It will be the law regardless of who occupies the position in the future.

Which way you vote depends on how comfortable you are with that proposition.