Once Term-Limited Council Members Are Vying Comeback. Some Good Government Groups Don’t Seem To Mind

The New York City Council is poised to see the greatest turnover in nearly 20 years, with about two-thirds of the seats term-limited and open to a new cadre of lawmakers. And while incumbents of the 51-member Council will welcome a class of first-timers, they may also see a group somewhere in between: once term-limited lawmakers reclaiming a spot on the Council.

Five former Council members are trying to do just that, taking advantage of a provision in the law that allows them to run after taking a one four-year term hiatus, a move rivals say exploits a loophole in the law. They also argue it violates the spirit of term limits. The policy was indeed crafted to restrict the power of incumbency and promote greater competition in elections. These veteran lawmakers, in turn, argue experience is sorely needed to aid the city during the post-pandemic recovery phase.

Surprisingly, these lawmakers have some supporters: leaders of some good government watchdog groups who push for reforms in election law and transparency while calling out political corruption.

The five former Council lawmakers—Gale Brewer, Tony Avella, Charles Barron, Sal Albanese, and Darlene Mealy—are hoping to win office in the same vein as Queens Council Member James Gennaro who reclaimed his old seat, 16 years after leaving office.

“I believe the institutional knowledge is important because things like negotiating the budget and being up on what happens when you negotiate the budget in the council is a very important issue,” said Betsy Gotbaum, executive director of Citizens Union, a good government group. “You need people who know what they’re doing, and don’t have to rely entirely on the staff.”

Gotbaum specifically cited Brewer, currently Manhattan’s borough president, as a prime example of a veteran lawmaker whose experience would benefit the Council, despite having already served three terms from 2001 to 2013. Citizens Union even endorsed her.

Brewer, a Democrat who represented constituents in the 6th Council District, stunned political observers when she announced her comeback bid. But, in an interview with Gothamist/WNYC, she took issue with the two-term limit, given the complexity of the city.

“You need 12 years; I don’t believe in eight,” she said. “I don’t mind term limits, but eight years is too little.”

Citizens Union has taken the same position, supporting the Council’s decision in 2009 to temporarily expand term limits from two to three terms, allowing then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for a third term. The decision to keep those limits permanent failed in 2010 through a referendum vote. Citizen Union’s stance is slightly more firm than Common Cause which advocated for a more “nuanced discussion” on term limits. The group declined to comment for this article.

While Citizens Union hasn’t officially said whether it supports past lawmakers returning to the Council, Gotbaum said support should be given on an individual basis.

For Brewer, witnessing the entire city government flip—with primaries for all borough presidents, the comptroller, public advocate, and the mayor—drove her to run again, particularly as the city enters a post-pandemic period. She argued her time as borough president, where she helped pass 20 bills, would translate well to the Council.

One of her challengers is Sara Lind, former executive director of “21 in ’21”, a nonprofit devoted to helping 21 women get elected to the Council this year. Lind told Gothamist/WNYC the city has “term limits for a reason,” parlaying her newness as a strength and foil to Brewer, who’s been in office for nearly 20 years.

At a recent canvassing event, Lind recalled meeting a voter who was struck by the same old faces representing the Upper West Side.

“She said, ‘the faces haven’t changed, and neither has anything else,’” Lind recalled. “I thought that was a pretty good kind of summary. I think it’s important to have new perspectives and new ideas.”

The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club seems to think so, endorsing Lind over Brewer in January. In a statement announcing its endorsement, the group called Lind an “unrelenting progressive” who “represents bold new leadership.” Brewer did not accept the outcome of the endorsement vote, demanding a recount.

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, another good government group said experience should be taken into consideration. In an interview with Gothamist, Kaehny suggested a former member could make the Council “structurally stronger” and help the new members navigate the complexities of city government.

“You need some inexperienced people who […] have higher expectations, and they want to push harder, and you need more experienced people to help actually move the process and get stuff done,” Kaehny said.

Kaehny added he would worry more if a fourth of the seats were being chased by former Council Members.

“But it’s not. It’s just a handful.”

Charles Barron is another longtime fixture in city politics who is now running for his old seat in Brooklyn’s 42nd Council District. The seat is currently held by his wife Inez, who is term-limited. Eight years ago, the two lawmakers effectively swapped seats, as Inez ran for the Council seat after her husband was term-limited in 2013.

The arrangement, which critics call a cynical ploy, has dogged Barron throughout the campaign. His decision to run was lambasted by Nikki Lucas, a challenger in the race, who told City & State magazine that the Barrons “have been manipulating the system.”

“No one has been seeing any real deliverables that folks are tired of it now,” Lucas told the publication. “So they, I believe, have run their course.”

Barron nevertheless remains the leading contender in the race, having secured union endorsements from DC37 and 32BJ SEIU. He also has the most funds, with $307,789 raised and $247,755 in cash remaining. In an interview with Gothamist/WNYC, Barron defended his choice to run, arguing the district’s constituents compelled him to do so.

“They wanted me to continue with a strong voice, speaking out against the system, against racism, against exploitative capitalism; [I’ve] taken on mayors and speakers and governors,” Barron said. “And they’d like that kind of bold, unbought voice.”

Given his reputation as an “irritant to the governor in a good way,” Kaehny said it’s possible Barron could hold the next mayor to account.

Barron said ultimately the law clears him to run.

“We have a right to run just like everybody else,” Barron said.

He emphasized that his wife, who had served as the Assemblymember for the very same seat he’s currently occupying, will not run for his seat.

Elsewhere in Brooklyn, Darlene Mealy is looking to reclaim her old seat from her successor, Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. The two have had a rivalry dating back to 2005, when Ampry-Samuel lost her first race to Mealy. On the cusp of a second term, Mealy voted to temporarily extend term limits in 2008, allowing those on the Council at the time to run a third time. This came after Bloomberg struck a deal with the Council to extend term limits so he could run for a third term. After that arrangement expired in 2017, Mealy was term-limited out of office, clearing the way for Ampry-Samuel to win the seat.

Neither Mealy nor Ampry-Samuel returned a request for comment. In April, Ampry-Samuel told NYC Politics, an online publication, that she believed in the democratic process and not “dynasties or monarchies.”

“Term limits are important. I’ve done more in my three years than my predecessor did in an entire twelve,” Ampry-Samuel said. “Her record on bringing resources is just as dismal compared to mine.”

Similar to Barron, unresolved business such as updates to zoning laws are also a driving force for Avella’s run for his old 19th Council District seat in Queens. Avella had served on the Council from 2001 until 2009 before getting elected to the state senate and joining the controversial Independent Democratic Conference.

“I think that given that there’s a huge turnover in the City Council, it’s important to have institutional knowledge and experience does matter,” Avella said. “Just because we’re experienced doesn’t mean we’re not open to new ideas. And we’re incapable of coming up with new ideas.”

Despite Avella’s insistence his win would benefit the Council, Richard Lee, a leading challenger in the race with endorsements from unions and current Council members, sees a double standard. He pointed to Avella voting against temporarily extending term limits in 2008, and criticizing another effort in 2017 to extend term limits.

“Now, he’s done a 180-degree turn and is exploiting a loophole to run for his old seat after failing to deliver for our residents,” Lee said. “New York City voters enacted term limits to eliminate career politicians and to ensure we have fresh ideas and perspectives coming into government, and it’s disappointing yet unsurprising to see a career politician going against the spirit of the people to benefit himself.”

Though he was once a Councilmember representing parts of southwest Brooklyn, Sal Albanese is running for a completely different seat, this time in Staten Island’s 50th Council District. Unlike the other former Councilmembers vying for a return, Albanese’s tenure away from the body spans 23 years.

“I understand people’s concerns, but it doesn’t apply to me because of my situation,” Albanese said. “I’m running now because I think the city could use people like me on the City Council.”

Albanese, a registered Democrat, does not have a primary opponent; He’ll face a Republican challenger in the November general election.

Gotbaum defended Albanese’s tenure in the Council, believing he’ll do well in serving the needs of the city once again. She said with so much turnover, a foundation of qualified lawmakers will be needed to see the new ones through.

“There are going to be a lot of very new people in the Council, and a lot of them are going to have to spend time learning what does it mean to legislate,” Gotbaum said.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that Reinvent Albany has not endorsed any candidates in the election.