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On Ground Zero Issue, a Delicate Political
By Patrick D. Healy, New York Times, May 7, 2005
When the news broke on Sunday morning that construction of the Freedom Tower
would be delayed because of security concerns at ground zero, Representative
Anthony D. Weiner was the one mayoral candidate who pounced immediately.
Mr. Weiner, a Democrat whose district straddles Brooklyn and Queens, quickly
held a 1 p.m. news conference for the sole purpose of attacking the Republican
incumbent, Michael R. Bloomberg, over the slow pace of redevelopment in Lower
Manhattan. Mr. Weiner argued that the mayor was overly distracted by his plan to
build a football stadium on the West Side.
In contrast to Mr. Weiner, two of his Democratic competitors in the mayoral
race, Fernando Ferrer and C. Virginia Fields, waited until Thursday to make
major remarks about the furor over the World Trade Center site, speaking out
only after Mr. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki announced that the Freedom
Tower would be redesigned to incorporate security concerns. Before that, the two
candidates had spent the week championing their own proposals on schools, health
care and other issues.
A fourth Democratic candidate, the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, spoke
about the site on Sunday, but he did not make as big a deal out of it as Mr.
Weiner - commenting on the issue during a news conference about crowd control on
the Great Lawn in Central Park.
If the security and the redevelopment of downtown proved fixating this week for
the city's political, financial and chattering classes, the reactions of the
four Democratic candidates varied widely, providing an early glimpse into the
strategic thinking of each campaign on a visceral matter for many New Yorkers.
Yet the candidates' responses also showed the wariness and even reluctance among
politicians to mine Sept. 11 for gain. Even Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a
Democrat who is running for governor next year, waited until yesterday to issue
a statement, saying, "The project clearly could have been handled better."
The delicate political calculus was especially apparent in the campaign of Mr.
Weiner, who has styled himself as the most scrappy and fleet-footed Democrat in
Like Mr. Miller, he is also far behind in most polls, and he has been seeking
attention almost anywhere he can find it. But his news conference on Sunday
required more careful planning than most, he said.
He initially considered speaking at ground zero, a natural choice to lure
television cameras on a slow Sunday, yet he opted for City Hall to avoid the
appearance of exploiting Sept. 11. And rather than scare voters into thinking
that the Freedom Tower was unsafe, he used the security issue to argue that
Mayor Bloomberg was dangerously distracted by his stadium proposal for the Far
"No political issue is more sensitive than ground zero," Mr. Weiner said, "and
you have to be extremely careful how you talk about it."
Or not talk about it. As the leading Democrats in the polls, Mr. Ferrer and Ms.
Fields were only too happy to let Mayor Bloomberg remain on the ropes over the
state of downtown redevelopment, aides said. And both candidates said in
separate interviews that they speak about ground zero regularly, but also, they
Some Democrats have privately criticized Mr. Weiner for overdoing the issue when
he inserted security-related remarks into a speech on Tuesday about health care.
Mr. Ferrer, a former Bronx borough president, said, "I'm speaking every day
about the issues facing New York, from safety to economic stability to
And Ms. Fields said: "Perhaps it would have been better to speak earlier on
security, perhaps not - who knows? I would say my focus on Lower Manhattan
Development has been ongoing for years."
The fact is that many New York voters may be unaware of the Ferrer and Fields
positions on ground zero, political analysts say. By not using their bully
pulpits on the issue this week, the two were not widely seen as showing
leadership on the issue, or influencing the Pataki-Bloomberg decision on
Wednesday to redesign the tower, analysts and some rival Democrats say.
"A lot of politicians figure that if the mayor is in the soup, let him stay in
the soup," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling
Institute and a close observer of the mayoral race. "But if Freddy and Virginia
wanted to exert leadership on the ground zero issue, they didn't succeed."
Republican leaders take a slightly different view of the leading Democratic
candidates. They say that Ms. Fields, as the Manhattan borough president, could
not speak out forcefully because she has done little on the security situation
at ground zero; she disagrees, saying that she has pressed for federal financing
for emergency preparedness.
As for Mr. Ferrer, Republicans have taken to belittling him, saying he is now
scared of controversial issues after a few early fumbles, like his statement in
March that the police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant in 1999 was not a
"Virginia Fields has little credibility on ground zero," said James A. Ortenzio,
the Manhattan Republican Party chairman. "And Freddy has moved so far back into
the cave that he can't see anything."
As for Mr. Miller, one of his aides dug up a 2002 report in which the Council
speaker raised safety concerns about the trade center site - proof that he was
not to be outdone on the issue, by Mr. Weiner or anyone else. In an interview,
Mr. Miller also went further than other Democrats in saying that not only the
Freedom Tower but also the entire ground zero master plan should be
"Who comes up with the quippiest quip is not what leadership is about on this
issue," he said, in a reference to Mr. Weiner. "I don't want this to be a
campaign issue; I want this to be fixed."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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