NEW YORK — As vulnerable congressional Democrats weigh how to respond to President Barack Obama's statements on Muslims' right to build a mosque near ground zero, those in New York and closest to the controversy are staying silent or scrambling away.
Democrats control both Senate seats and 27 of the state's 29 Congressional districts, but analysts believe as many as eight House Democrats in the state may be headed to defeat this year. Republicans, hoping to ease Democrats' grip on the state, insist the economy remains the major campaign issue but say the mosque flap could also help move voters their way.
From eastern Long Island to more rural upstate areas, House Democrats have been opposing the construction of a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from the World Trade Center site. More than 2,700 people died there on Sept. 11, 2001, at the hands of Islamic terrorists, and the wound remains fresh for many New Yorkers who are still traumatized by the attacks or who lost loved ones that day.
Developers of the planned Islamic center known as Park51 have plans for a 13-story structure featuring a pool, gym and 500-seat auditorium, as well as a mosque and Sept. 11 memorial. It's a project of the Cordoba Initiative, a New York-based nonprofit group that promotes greater understanding between Islam and the West.
Obama told a largely Islamic crowd over Ramadan dinner last week that he believed Muslims have a right to build the mosque and practice their religion there. A day later, he said he wasn't passing judgment on the wisdom of building an Islamic center at that location.
The latest Democrat to break with Obama is Rep. John Hall, a two-term incumbent expected to face a strong challenge from Republican Nan Hayworth in the 19th district north of New York City.
In a statement released Wednesday, Hall said freedom of religion was essential to democracy but that he hoped the project would be constructed elsewhere.
"I think honoring those killed on Sept. 11 and showing sensitivity to their families, it would be best if the center were built at a different location," Hall said.
Hall joins three other House Democrats believed to be vulnerable in November who have announced their opposition to the project.
In eastern Long Island, four-term Rep. Tim Bishop said ground zero should be a symbol of interfaith understanding. If developers of the Islamic center are seeking such unity, they should move the project, he said.
In Staten Island, the most conservative of New York City's five boroughs, Democratic Rep. Mike McMahon said the project was a local matter and shouldn't come under federal jurisdiction. Nonetheless, he said he hoped it would be moved.
"I believe a new location is the right compromise so that Muslim Americans can worship without eliciting feelings that push us away from our country's basic tenet of religious acceptance while the families of 9/11 victims obtain the peace of mind they deserve," McMahon said.
A few vulnerable Democrats have chosen to stay silent on the matter, including Syracuse-area Rep. Dan Maffei, Rep. Bill Owens in northern New York and Albany-area Rep. Scott Murphy.
Murphy's Republican opponent, Chris Gibson, posted a statement on Facebook appearing to support the Islamic center project, saying, "It's either all or nothing – churches, mosques and synagogues should be treated the same." He later issued a clarification, saying he didn't think building a mosque near ground zero was a good idea.
There was a bit of a role-reversal in the Utica-area district where two-term Rep. Mike Arcuri is facing a strong challenge from Republican Richard Hanna. Arcuri was the first New York Democrat to break with Obama on the project, while Hanna initially said he didn't have a problem with it.
"This country was founded by people who were running away from religious persecution. So how can we become what we have beheld and found contemptible in other places?" Hanna said in a statement. He later switched course, saying it was insensitive to locate the project at ground zero.
Justin Phillips, an assistant professor at Columbia University who studies state elections, said the rejection of the mosque by vulnerable Democrats wasn't surprising.
"The Democrats who are going to lose in 2010 are from moderate to conservative districts, so these are the Democrats who are trying to be very careful in their handling of this issue," Phillips said. "They don't want to take an unpopular position on anything right now."
Indeed, Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who faces only token opposition as he seeks his 10th term, has been one of the most outspoken advocates of the project. Nadler's district includes the World Trade Center site.
Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who faces a feisty primary challenge from attorney Reshma Saujani, announced her support for the Islamic Center two weeks ago but is being pushed by Saujani to speak out more forcefully. The primary is Sept. 14.
"This is a major debate unfolding in our city and country, and our leaders ... are weighing in with lukewarm statements," said Saujani, who strongly supports the project.
The matter has even quieted the state's normally garrulous senior senator, Chuck Schumer, who is seeking re-election this year and has yet to weigh in on the controversy that is roiling the state. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is also facing voters this fall, has issued terse statements of support for the center but said she would also back efforts to move it if community members decided to do so.