Several times in the Council's public hearings on term limits, I heard the argument made that a legislative change of the law was fair, because if voters didn't like their elected officials they could still vote them out of office next year.
While this may be true in theory, it doesn't hold water in practice. Incumbents have an arsenal of advantages that unbalance the playing field. Among them are:
1) The ability to send out taxpayer-funded campaign literature under the guise that it is consituent outreach (notice how you never hear from them except in an election year?).
2) Having had years of disbursing "discretionary" funds to buy the praise and allegiance of area nonprofits, community organizations, etc.
3) The unspoken code of elected officials and party leaders not to endorse against one another, so that everyone can keep their jobs and enjoy the status quo.
4) The ignorance of the electorate and the power of name recognition. Since most people pay no attention to local elections, they go into the voting booth and pull the lever for whatever name is most familiar to them. Why do you think our Council Members put their names on our trash cans? (Incidentally, this type of self-serving public advertising should be banned.)
Still don't think incumbents have an unfair advantage? In 2005, 28 of the 34 Council Members up for reelection didn't face a primary opponent, which in a whoppingly Democratic city means they were effectively unchallenged. Of the six who did, four of the incumbents received more than 80% of the vote!
The only incumbent who was defeated was Southeast Queens Councilman Allan Jennings. I had the interesting experience of getting to know Jennings well when I was managing editor of The Queens Courier. I'd have enough material to fill a book if I chronicled all of the insanely bizarre (if not criminal) incidents that characterized Jennings' time in office. And that would be before I even started to interview the legions of Council Members, reporters, and constituents who quickly came to loathe, fear, or ridicule Jennings over his four years in the Council.
Even in Jennings' case, it was no mere challenger who succeeded in getting rid of him. It took Thomas White Jr., the former Councilman who was term-limited out of office in 2001 (clearing the way for Jennings), to come back to reclaim his seat.
By the way, Jennings was not just a local embarrassment. His craziness earned him the spotlight of the national media. Below is Jennings on The Daily Show. Jon Stewart calls this hilarious clip "maybe my favorite thing...ever."