The fight over Park51 has, for the most part, divided along partisan lines. Republicans have almost unanimously lined up against the plan, while most of the plan’s supporters are Democrats. But the endless media scrum doesn’t capture the ideological split at the heart of the mess: ward politics versus technocratic planning, expedience versus idealism, defensive pride versus elite aspiration. In other words, the best way to look at fight over the “Ground Zero Mosque” is to see it as another clash in the worldviews of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Silver is a career politician, the personification of Albany. He has served in the Assembly since 1976, and his openly parochial concerns have stymied Mayor Bloomberg’s grander designs. The congestion tax, a wonky and high-minded attempt by Bloomberg to use the cutting-edge logic of urban systems to reduce emissions and traffic, was killed by Silver. He drew a line in the sand, framing Bloomberg as an opponent of commuters and a lackey for snobby cosmopolitan hipsters before letting the bill die in the legislature. Mayoral control? He looked askance at that, too, until he realized that Bloomberg, while still an anti-politician, had harnessed economic concerns and anti-teachers’ union sentiment into a viable coalition.
Now there’s the mosque. Silver, who lives downtown and represents a district that covers a wide swath of lower Manhattan, is on the side of the grumbling populists. “In the spirit of living with others, they should be cognizant of the feelings of others and try to find a location that doesn’t engender the deep feelings the currently exist about this site,” he said last week, at a press conference with Governor Paterson. “I think the sponsors should take into very serious consideration the kind of turmoil that’s been created and look to compromise.”
The anodyne, incremental suggestions do not resemble Bloomberg’s stirring rhetoric — on Tuesday he called the fight over the cultural center a “test of our commitment to American values” — but that’s besides the point. Unlike Paterson, unlike Sarah Palin, Silver controls both purse strings and votes in Albany, and he still has the strength of a political boss; he can easily make sure that the construction of the center is bogged down by red tape. All politics is local, and it’s now clear that Bloomberg is operating on Silver’s turf.