Onetime mayoral candidate James Butler says name recognition and deep campaign coffers, not quality of service to the general populace, often keep elected officials in power well beyond the eight years he deems necessary to affect change.
His ballot initiative, if approved by voters, the D.C. Council and ultimately D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), would impose term limits on the D.C. mayor, attorney general and council members. People fulfilling those roles, under the provision of the law, could only enjoy re-election once.
“People aren’t supposed to be government officials for life,” Butler said as he indicted the status quo for encouraging elected officials to stay in office out of a desire to enjoy the trappings of public service, rather than realize a progressive vision.
“These are regular people who would advocate for laws to make others’ lives better before going back into private life,” he continued. “Nearly 40 states have term limits. [D.C. is] making the case for statehood and it would be nice for the congressional support to show that we’re moving in that direction.”
If Butler succeeds in pushing the ballot measure, D.C. will join more than 30 states in limiting elected officials’ years of service. On March 6, he’ll stand before the D.C. Board of Elections as part of a process during which he will attempt to collect 25,000 signatures, or 5 percent of the D.C. population. Reaching that milestone will place the terms limit initiative on the 2020 ballot.
Butler expressed plans to rally support among the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and local and national groups, while making the case to D.C. voters, a significant number of whom he said don’t realize their elected officials can hold their seats in perpetuity.
A hurdle in Butler’s efforts lies in possible council opposition as exhibited in 1994 when the D.C. Council, on which Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans (D) served at the time, turned down a similar ballot initiative that more than 60 percent of the electorate approved. Today, he and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) have the longest tenures on the council of at least 20 years.
The trend of unchallenged incumbency continued during the most recent election cycle when those up for re-election retained their seats. D.C. Mayor Bowser, to whom Butler lost by a wide margin in last year’s Democratic primary before he launched his write-in campaign, acquired a significant portion of the vote in November.
D.C. Council members Evans and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine didn’t answer The Washington Informer’s inquiry about Butler’s initiative or on the overall issue of term limits.
As he walked out of the fourth-floor council chambers at the end of Tuesday’s Committee on Education hearing Tuesday, Mendelson expressed his unwavering opposition to term limits, saying that, since Home Rule, District officials have served a median length of eight years.
Later, he went on to argue that term limits in neighboring Prince George’s County brought on those whom he described as “political novices.”
Some D.C. residents, like Vanessa Robinson, had a different take saying that the absence of term limits has prevented innovation that would be of benefit to both her and her neighbors.
“Some things need to be changed and term limits are a good step so that everyone grows,” said Robinson, a Ward 8 resident.
Robinson said she laments the opening of Good Foods Market on South Capitol in Southwest, saying that a supermarket with more competitive prices would better suit Ward 8 residents. She cited it as an example of local leadership’s lack of judgment.
“Officials get comfortable in their assignments and they forget about certain people,” she said. “The people getting elected don’t even bother to come across the Anacostia River. If you want to serve the people, you have to connect with them.”
On Wednesday, during an appearance on The Rev. Graylan Hagler’s “What’s at Stake” program on WPFW 89.3FM, Butler spoke in depth about his campaign and how he plans to boost the appeal of term limits among D.C. voters.
Hagler, currently in the midst of a battle to reverse the D.C. Council’s repeal of Initiative 77, a voter-approved ballot measure to raise the tipped worker’s minimum wage to that of salaried employees, said D.C. residents should embrace ideas, like that of Butler, that improve society.
“The council is too entrenched and too comfortable in themselves,” Hagler said.
“There has to be an instrument of accountability,” he continued. “A lot of people may have been under the impression that [term limits have] been passed, but you have Council members Evans and Mendelson who have been there forever and made a lifetime career or being in office and making attempts to stay in office rather than represent the people.”