Now that Marion Barry has won a second term as mayor, reporters are hearing one question again and again: How many times can he run for reelection?
The answer is that Barry can run as many times as he likes. In some cities the mayor must step down after one or two terms, as in Atlanta where Maynard Jackson was compelled by law to leave office after a second term. But in Washington, the mayor can be removed from office only by the voters or by stepping down voluntarily.
"There is no limit in any city statute or in the city charter that limits how many terms a mayor can serve," said Cecily E. Collier, a staff member of the Board of Elections and Ethics.
Barry is well aware of the limitless opportunity for reelection, and -- no surprise -- he thinks it's great.
When asked at a news conference last week if he would favor legislation limiting the number of terms he could seek as mayor, Barry responded: "Of course not."
After the laughter from his staff and reporters died down, Barry added: "Seriously, though, what happens in those cities where you have a limitation on two terms or one term -- Louisville is the worst case I've ever seen -- you can't manage. People know you're leaving, they say the heck with you. . . . Citizens ought to be able to reelect you as long as they think you're doing what they want you to do, whether three times, four times or 10 times."
A survey of 4,000 cities last year by the International City Managers Association showed that only 183 limited mayoral terms. In Louisville, the mayor is prohibited from serving consecutive terms, although he can run after missing a term.
"The argument for a limit is that incumbents always have a tremendous advantage in elections and some would run for office and win until they got tired or until they got indicted," said Lawrence I. Mirel, general counsel to the City Council and a supporter of unlimited mayoral terms. "On the other hand, if you have a good mayor and the people want him, why should he be forced to retire?"
"My personal view has always been that there should be a limit on how long any politician can serve," said City Council member John Ray (D-At Large). "In terms of Marion Barry, I've always said he could be mayor for 12 to 16 years if he does a good job. He is a young man. . . . Of course, any time a politician stays around a long time he has a tendency to gain more power, build a machine, and the chance of corruption increases."
Ben Gilbert, director of planning and development in the Walter Washington administration, said the question of a limit on the mayor's term was not discussed when the city's home rule charter was being written.
"Look at who wrote the charter," said Gilbert. "Congress. And the congressmen have no limitations on how often they could run. They wouldn't want to endorse the idea of rotating officeholders."
Robert B. Washington Jr., former chairman of the D.C. Democratic Party and former staff director and chief counsel to the Senate committee that helped write the charter, said there was a feeling among committee members that Walter Washington, then the city's appointed mayor-commissioner and the most likely candidate for election to the office, should be mayor as long as he liked.
One factor for Barry to consider is that he is at the top of the heap politically in the District.
"One reason most cities do not have a limitation on a mayor's terms is that being mayor is usually a steppingstone to some other position," said former city auditor Matthew Watson. "Tom Bradley ran for governor in California . . . Ed Koch ran for governor in New York."
Without a new public office to seek, Barry may revive his interest in international politics, which took him on a trip to Africa early in his first term before the budget crisis hit.