New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a trip south for a pair of candidates Tuesday, bringing his well-known national name but also the controversy surrounding the mosque near ground zero with him as he hit the trail to endorse Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Bloomberg, who has become known as the face of support for the Muslim cultural center and mosque two blocks north of the perimeter of ground zero, promoted Sestak as the kind of independent thinker Washington needs at a boiling hot parking lot event at a shopping plaza in North Philadelphia.
But one of the first few questions was from a Philadelphia reporter about the mosque controversy and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's strong statement urging the project's developers to look elsewhere.
"Let me point out as somebody from New York, there is a mosque that close already and it's been there for a long time," Bloomberg said, referring to a different project.
Sestak, a former military man who worked in the Pentagon, chimed in, "As you know, I haven't taken very good direction yet from party leadership. All that said, I strongly believe in the constitutional right of religious freedom and in the separation of church and state applying equally to everyone. Those are rights that I defended for 31 years in that fine U.S. Navy. This is an issue for New York to resolve as long as it respects those constitutional rights. ... Let's also step back and say, 'Let's stop playing politics with religion.' "
When someone asked about the sensitivities of the Sept. 11 families, Sestak said, "Do I respect those sensitivities? Oh yeah. When I walked out of that Pentagon, 30 people who I knew never walked out of that building. My 9/11 is that Pentagon. Am I sensitive to their desires? Sure I am. But I also upheld the Constitution for 31 years. I lived with men and women of all religons and you know what? They're all equal, and I believe that is what's most important in this."
Bloomberg then volunteered, "I happen to be a supporter of Harry Reid. I don't agree with him on everything, and I'm never going to agree with anybody on everything."
Sestak also joked that he'd proven he wasn't the best at following the party line - a clear reference to the White House's attempt to get him to step away from a primary against Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).
At the end, a Republican committeeman from Montgomery County, Pa., called out Sestak for attending a Council on American-Islamic Relations fundraiser and also tried to call out the mayor over his own support for Israel.
Bloomberg shot back, "I would suggest you go from here directly to the library, get a copy of the Bill of Rights and you'll realize that everybody has a right to say what they want to say.... if you want the terrorists to win without firing a shot, then you take away the very freedoms that our young men and women are around the world fighting for. You take away the very freedoms that those who tried to save others at the World Trade Center site and in Pennsylvania and in Washington."
The Sestak endorsement stems from his stand on illegal guns. Bloomberg is one of the nation's most prominent crusaders against illegal handguns, and his team says Sestak has been helpful on the issue as a congressman.
Still, the timing of the endorsement - coming amid a national storm prompted by President Barack Obama's decision to speak out in defense of the mosque's rights to be there under religious freedom - guaranteed that the lower Manhattan development would be a major discussion at the event.
Later in the day, Bloomberg joined Fenty to support his re-election bid, at an event at Carmine's restaurant in Washington's Penn Quarter neighborhood.
“Adrian Fenty has taken on some of the biggest entrenched challenges facing this wonderful city and I think he’s delivered in a major way,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg cited Fenty’s work to improve the District's public school system and reduce crime.
“He keeps bringing crime down. He understands that public safety is the key to this city’s quality of life, which is why he has added more police officers to patrol the streets,” Bloomberg said. “Last year, D.C. experienced the fewest number of homicides since 1966 and the city is on track to best that number this year.”
Fenty, a longtime ally of Bloomberg’s, had similarly kind words for the New York mayor.
“Mayor Bloomberg, along with Mayor Daley in Chicago, represents, I think, the standard of a well-run highly responsive, efficient manager running a city government like a private sector business focused on results, focusing on getting things done, especially for our most needy residents,” Fenty said.
But again, the mosque came up.
“It is not the government’s business to get involved in religion and religious organizations – where they are, or what they say, or how they’re funded,” Bloomberg said. “This is the fundamental right that Americans have to say and pray they want to. In terms of this particular mosque, I think it will add to the diversity of New York and we’re happy to have it.”
Without addressing the mosque proposal directly, Fenty praised D.C. residents for their tolerance and support of religious freedoms.
“Here in D.C., I can’t say enough about what I believe is great support of religious freedom and freedoms in general by the 600,000 residents who I am proud to represent, and I think that they will absolutely stand in favor of organizations continuing to be able to enjoy the religious freedom that has always been a part of this country,” Fenty said.
Fenty refused, however, to say whether that meant he supports the mosque project.
“I’m going to defer to the mayor on anything specific to New York, but we certainly do support organizations being able to participate in the religious freedom that every other organization has always been able to do so here in this country,” Fenty said.
As he defended his support of the mosque, Bloomberg repeatedly cited the constitutional right of freedom to practice religion.
“Everybody, under the First Amendment, has the right to express themselves,” Bloomberg said. “I don’t think the government should get involved. If you really believe you don’t want the government involved in religion, it might not be your religion someday.’”
Bloomberg said he has received a fair amount of support from New Yorkers about his stance on the project. Bloomberg said New Yorkers regularly come up to him and say “’This is what America is about, you’re on the right side of it and I’m with you,’ is just dramatically greater than anything else.”