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On Ground Zero Issue, a Delicate Political Calculus
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 the race.

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 West Side.

"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 emphasized, responsibly.

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 education."

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 crime.

"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 reconsidered.

"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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