NEW YORK — Billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg won the chance Thursday to prolong his rule after the City Council voted to extend term limits.
The city government narrowly passed a measure changing the two-term limit to three, opening the way for Bloomberg to seek re-election in 2009 and a further four years in office.
The tight result of 29 to 22 -- just over the minimum hurdle of 26 votes -- reflected a bitter debate on what has been the most contentious political issue in the city for years.
Bloomberg praised the council for making "the right choice."
Referendums in the 1990s twice confirmed the two-term limit and opponents to Bloomberg said that only a fresh referendum -- not a City Council vote -- could change the rule.
"We are stealing like a thief in the night their right to shape the democracy. We are forgetting who we work for," said council member Bill de Blasio.
Supporters argued that Bloomberg, a popular mayor and successful businessman, is uniquely placed to lead the city through economic turmoil and should not be forced to step down next year.
They said there was neither time nor money to stage a referendum ahead of the elections in November next year.
"Given the current economic crisis, which many say is only going to get worse, I say this is the best decision for the city's future," said council member Domenic Recchia.
After his victory in the City Council, Bloomberg also urged leaders to help him "get New York through these tough times."
Opponents accused the mayor of steamrolling the City Council and ignoring the result of two popular votes.
But Council speaker Christine Quinn, a key ally of the mayor, said claims that democracy was under attack were "ridiculous."
The term limits battle was the biggest challenge yet to the career of Bloomberg, who this year toyed with the idea of running for the White House.
The founder of a hugely profitable financial data and news company, Bloomberg has dominated city politics since being elected to the first of two terms in 2001.
He won plaudits in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks for overseeing New York's development as one of the safest cities in the United States, as well as a global tourist destination.
Among his few defeats was the failure to push through a London-style traffic congestion fee scheme in Manhattan.
Bloomberg appeared to face few hurdles when he first announced a plan to overturn term limits and open his path to retaining power.
In a key victory earlier this month he secured the backing of Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune and bankroller of the successful pro-term-limit campaigns in the 1990s.
But grassroots opposition snowballed and on Monday activists won the support of another billionaire, Tom Golisano, owner of the Buffalo Sabres ice hockey team.
"Who has the power here? Is it the people, or the 51 council members?" Golisano asked.
Golisano promised to spend a substantial sum on television advertising, although the quick scheduling of Thursday's vote pre-empted that threat.
Public dissatisfaction spilled over last week at two rowdy public hearings devoted to the issue.
Part of the distaste stems from the fact that many City Council members would themselves have been barred from re-election next year, creating what some saw as a conflict of interest in the vote.
Those councillors now have the chance to run again as incumbents.
Opponents also pointed out that Bloomberg's predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, was forced to step down soon after 9/11, despite similar arguments at the time that he was an indispensable leader in a crisis.
Adding to the controversy, Bloomberg himself once called the idea of the council overturning term limits "disgusting."
A Quinnipiac University poll this week found that 89 percent of New York voters believe term limits should only be changed through another referendum.
Copyright 2008 AFP