Providence Representative John Lombardi (D-Dist. 8) is starting his legislative career with a bang, revitalizing the controversial move to institute term limits for legislators.
“It’s not a popular view, but isn’t that part of the steps we must take going forward if we’re going to make some strides in this state?” he asks.
The legislation Lombardi drafted would put the issue before the voters as early as the 2014 election. The ballot question proposes to amend the state constitution, changing the length of legislators’ terms from two to four years, with a three-term limit, for a total of 12 years served.
The bill has 12 co-sponsors, with support on both sides of the aisle, including Democrat Reps. Robert Craven (North Kingstown) and Joseph Almeida (Providence) and Republican Rep. Doreen Costa (North Kingstown, Exeter).
For Johnston Rep. Stephen Ucci (D-Dist. 42), the proposal isn’t all that controversial. He put in nearly identical legislation in the past.
“In the past I’ve put in legislation for term limits. I’d have to look at a particular bill, but I’m generally not opposed to them,” he said. “
Lombardi is a first-term legislator. He defeated incumbent Michael Tarro in a three-way primary that included Libby Kimzey and determined the Dist. 8 race. He says term limits were a big part of his campaign for election, and he wants to hold true to that promise.
“I didn’t beat an incumbent because they expected me to go up there and not do anything. I did not get elected to make friends and I’m not afraid to make decisions,” he said. “In order to be an effective leader, you want to challenge conventional wisdom.”
Prior to his election to the General Assembly, Lombardi served for 18 years on the Providence City Council. He then served as interim mayor for the capital city after the resignation of Mayor Buddy Cianci.
This legislation would limit his public service at the state level more than his local service.
“If you can’t make your mark after 16 years, then you’re either not doing your job or you don’t particularly care about your job,” he said. “To be a career politician is not the way to go.”
Whether or not the question ever makes it to the ballot, Lombardi maintains he won’t be on Smith Hill for that long.
“I don’t plan on being there 12 years, I can tell you that much,” he said, adding that if legislators feel their work is not done, they can run for office in the other Chamber. Under the proposal, for example, Lombardi could serve his 12 years in the House and then run for Senate and serve for another 12 years.
Senator Frank Lombardi (D-Dist. 26, Cranston) supports his brother’s decision to introduce the proposal.
“I’m not surprised my brother would want to do something like that because my brother always was transparent. I think that’s indicative of his age, his experience and his wisdom,” he said.
Frank believes the motivation behind the bill is “purely altruistic” and “not for show.”
Frank’s support of his brother hinges on the extended term length, however. He worries that with two-year terms, legislators are, in essence, always running for re-election. He believes limiting service is positive, as long as term length is extended to four years.
“What I find problematic is the two-year terms. I probably would support term limits so long as there is that caveat,” he said.
Ucci agrees that four-year terms would help the General Assembly to attract strong candidates for office and make legislators more effective.
“When you get there, there’s absolutely a learning curve. You spend your first two years learning and then you’re running again,” he said. “If you look at continuity of government, of budgeting, a year goes by so fast and then you’re campaigning again. With four years, you could actually do some long-range planning.”
Either way, he’s anxious to see how the debate will play out.
“I’ll be interested to see what happens,” he said.
But Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Dist. 18, Cranston, Warwick) believes the benefits of term limits are overstated. First elected in 1994, he has served his constituents for 19 years and was unopposed in 2012. During his tenure in the House, he has found that experience is an asset to sound policymaking.
McNamara cited his work on genetic discrimination as an example. He was working on a national legislative task force that was working alongside the National Human Genome Research Institute – complicated work that required extensive research on the part of task force members. Halfway through this work, several California legislators termed out, and the elected officials that replaced them opted not to join the task force.
“It was such a learning curve on the legislation, they didn’t want to get involved,” McNamara recalled.
It is constituents, then, that lose out on the expertise of legislators, he said. He worries that lobbyists also gain too much power when they bring expert testimony that could overwhelm a newcomer to politics.
“Talking to legislators throughout the United States that have term limits, they all said that it really makes lobbyists much more powerful. Lobbyists become a lot more powerful because they understand complex subjects, whereas someone who has a year or two under their belt doesn’t develop the kind of expertise,” he said.
John Lombardi knew he would be met with resistance, but he is hopeful that term limits might stick this time around, particularly with a class of 16 freshmen in the House and another eight new Senators.
“Is it going to be a fight? Of course it’s going to be a fight. I’ve never walked away from a fight before,” he said. “This is about being a leader.”
McNamara isn’t so sure. He called the bill “bad policy,” and said he doubts it would gain traction this year. In his opinion, term limits are already there, just in the hands of voters.
“Ultimately, the citizens are the deciding force in terms of legislators,” he said. “People will say we have term limits every two years – they’re called elections.”