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Delay at Ground Zero, Bad Timing for Pataki
B Michael Cooper, New York Times, May 6, 2005
[Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting for this article]

Political Memo

More than any other official, Gov. George E. Pataki has sought to make the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site his legacy. But just as the governor is trying to chart his political future, the rebuilding effort has been bedeviled by a series of setbacks that could hardly have come at a worse time.

Ten months after he laid the cornerstone for what is envisioned as the centerpiece of the site and declared, ''Today we build the Freedom Tower,'' the governor announced this week that the tower was being sent back to the drawing board to address safety concerns raised by the New York Police Department. Goldman Sachs & Company recently stepped back from plans to build a new headquarters at the site. And other components, from a cultural complex to a rail link to Kennedy International Airport, are in some doubt.

A number of consultants, political scientists and politicians in both parties said the problems at the site could seriously damage Mr. Pataki's political prospects.

''I think it's damaging because the reconstruction of ground zero is such an emotional hot button for people,'' said Darrell M. West, a professor of political science at Brown University. ''It's the most searing memory most people have, and if there has to be a major redesign, it raises doubts about the thought that went into the project.''

The onslaught of bad news comes as most officials in Albany predict that Mr. Pataki, whose approval ratings have been near record lows in recent statewide polls, will decide not to seek a fourth term as governor. Still, Mr. Pataki has appeared to flirt with the idea of running for president in recent weeks, raising money for his national political-action committee, sending political aides to Iowa, and traveling last week to California to address Republicans at a 2008 Contender Series.

The setbacks at the trade center site could further cloud Mr. Pataki's political future, said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College. ''It's certainly going to be very hard for him to project the image of someone who brought us back from the abyss when the project that was done by people he appointed can't pass the scrutiny of the New York City Police Department,'' he said.

''Does it increase his possibility of becoming ambassador to Hungary?'' the professor asked. ''Probably.''

Governor Pataki said this week that the reconstruction was moving ahead on any number of fronts -- from the memorial to the victims of the attack to a new transportation hub -- and pledged that the Freedom Tower would be redesigned to meet the Police Department's concerns ''as expeditiously as possible.'' Aides say they are working to persuade Goldman Sachs to remain at the site, and to resolve the other issues.

David Catalfamo, a spokesman for the governor, said: ''People who talk about rebuilding in terms of politics just don't get it. Rebuilding is about more than one person; it's about reclaiming New York's skyline and building a lasting memorial to those we lost on Sept. 11.''

Some of Mr. Pataki's allies have sought to blame the Police Department -- and, by extension, the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg -- for the latest delay. John C. Whitehead, the man the governor tapped as chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is in charge of the trade center project, said of the police, ''I wish they had called attention to the seriousness of the problems earlier, rather than at this late stage.''

State officials said their complaint was mainly about the lack of proposed solutions.

But police officials began raising concerns about the tower's safety last year, according to several letters from police officials that were read to a reporter from The New York Times this week by an official who had them in his possession.

The official read one letter he said was dated Aug. 31 from Michael Sheehan, the deputy police commissioner for counterterrorism, to Joseph Seymour, who was then the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Noting that the cornerstone had already been laid, the letter said, ''I believe it is important therefore that we expedite our discussions of these security and design issues before the construction proceeds any further.''

After receiving no response, Mr. Sheehan sent a letter on Oct. 1 that said: ''I believe this is a crucially important matter that we are duty bound to address in a timely manner. I urge you to enter into a dialogue with the N.Y.P.D. as soon as possible.'' Port Authority officials say they never received the first letter.

The follow-up letter noted that copies were being sent to several others in the project, including Charles A. Gargano, whom Mr. Pataki appointed chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation; Kevin M. Rampe, whom Mr. Pataki appointed president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and Larry A. Silverstein, the developer who holds the lease to the site.

Asked about the letters, a Pataki administration official said, ''It's time to stop pointing fingers.''

Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who has worked in the past for Rudolph W. Giuliani, a potential rival of Mr. Pataki's, said the governor could still point to himself as a leader in a time of crisis. But, he added, ''Part of rebuilding is for a leader to say that 'I led you from the darkness to the dawn.' It becomes more difficult for the governor to say that when there's still a hole that hasn't begun to be filled.''

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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