Two Aspiring Politicians Draw Upon 9/11, But in Opposing Ways

Opponents, in the foreground, and supporters of a Sheepshead Bay mosque traded cries of "Shame on you!" as police officers watched. The mosque would be located behind the wooden planks in the back.

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is located several miles from Ground Zero, but it's in this neighborhood where two strikingly different visions of post-9/11 America are taking shape. For Linda Sarsour, a Brooklyn-born activist who deals with the area's burgeoning Arab population, the neighborhood represents an immigrant ideal: a place where newly-arrived Palestinians and Moroccans can maintain their distinct identities while simultaneously engaging in the democratic process. However, her neighbor, Andy Sullivan — an anti-mosque activist — sees this influx as a source of concern. Both were deeply influenced by the World Trade Center attacks, and both hope to get elected to public office.

Andy Sullivan: Blue-Collar Activist

Years before the World Trade Center attacks, and before he became a favorite of the Tea Party by campaigning against mosques, Andy Sullivan was a professional, full-contact fighter.

"I remember one time this guy kneed me in the face so hard, that my bottom teeth came out," he said, while seated at an Italian sidewalk cafe near his home in Bay Ridge. "I had like a slit where my teeth went through because I wasn't wearing a mouthpiece on the bottom. It was nuts!"

Sullivan's now a construction supervisor. On 9/11, he and his co-workers were at a construction site near the World Trade Center and served as first responders. But the attacks were deeply personal, claiming the life of a woman he was involved with, outside of his marriage.

Right: Andy Sullivan in Bay Ridge (Arun Venugopal/WNYC)

"My girl, her name was Jody. She was working for Cantor Fitzgerald," he said, adding that it was "an inappropriate relationship."

In time, Sullivan's marriage fell apart. He continued to agonize over the death of his girlfriend, Jody Tepedino, and developed an addiction to painkillers. He eventually cleaned himself up and became an activist, rallying union leaders to oppose the lower Manhattan trial of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, the 9/11 mastermind.

Last year, he organized a boycott of construction workers against Park 51.

The very idea of a mosque near Ground Zero, he said, felt like having to go through yet another funeral for Jody.

"Just when you've processed all the grief, all the pain, all the misery, and you begin the healing process, and you think you're going to move on with your life, and all of a sudden — boom!"

Sullivan continues to fight a proposed mosque in Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn.

"I've seen the pattern," he said. "And you notice, at first, a small percentage of Muslims come into an area, and they're very nice. Wonderful people. They raise their kids, and they work hard, and they're pleasant, and they have these little things and they dress different, and they do their prayers, and everything is charming, almost. It's nice. it gives a nice flavor."

He continued, his voice taking an ominous tone.

"And then comes centers, and mosques. And it seems like not so much assimilation as domination."

Sullivan's views on Islam and immigration have earned him national support from the Tea Party, which backed him during his recent attempt to win Anthony Weiner's congressional seat. That campaign fell short, but Sullivan's looking for his next shot at public office. He thinks many voters are like himself, worried about the influx of Muslim immigrants.

"If you go to Dearborn, Michigan, you'll see it. Because I was there," he said.

As for Bay Ridge, "You go 20 or 30 blocks from here, you will see a radically different place. Especially the place that I grew up in. It's gone." He added, with a laugh, "They call Bay Ridge, Beirut!"

Linda Sarsour: In Defense of Arab New Yorkers

Like Sullivan, Linda Sarsour was raised in Bay Ridge, and her professional life has been shaped almost entirely by the attacks. Just a few months after 9/11, she joined the Arab American Association of New York, dealing with Arab-American hate crimes and bullying cases in the city's school system.

Today she's the group's executive director, and aims to be the first hijab-wearing elected official in America.

Right: Linda Sarsour, with City Comptroller John Liu, at the Arab-American Bazaar (Arun Venugopal/WNYC)

Earlier this summer, she could be found on a stage in a Bay Ridge park, egging on a large crowd of Arab-American youth.

"Algerians, where you at?" she shouted out, drawing cheers.

Nearby, boys in the crowd draped themselves in flags from their native countries, while families picnicked under the trees nearby, or lounged around hookahs. Judging from the crowd response, and interviews with attendees, Sarsour was clearly a popular figure in the community.

"I think many people in our community know that I'm interested in city office," she said, "in particular, a city council seat. And many elected officials know that, too."

Sarsour's defense of the Arab and Muslim communities hsd resulted in her being smeared by opponents. She's also received anonymous phone threats, and seen her organization's office vandalized. At the same time, she and her community have managed to build relationships with prominent political figures, some of whom took to the Bay Ridge park stage to address the crowd.

"I consider Muslims my brother," intoned David Weprin, the Democratic Assemblyman who's campaigning against Republican Bob Turner for Weiner's old seat, "and I would love to have your support in the special election on September 13."

If and when Sarsour runs for office, she thinks she'll have a shot because she's built bridges, and because her community wants someone who looks like them. The streets around her office, are filled with Arab fashion boutiques, restaurants and sweet shops.

"Literally when I walk the streets I feel like I'm in Ramallah, in Palestine," she said. "Or Beirut in Lebanon."

That's exactly the kind of scene that has Andy Sullivan and his allies worried. But Sarsour said she doesn't take her opponents that seriously. And even welcomes the attention they generate for her.

"They're, like, basically our free publicists, so unfortunately they're paying to bring us down and they're actually paying to bring us up. Which I'm very happy with," she said.

Debbie Almontaser, another hijab-wearing Arab activist, believes Arab-Americans facing strong opposition, like her, "will have our day."

Almontaser has had her own share of controversy, losing her job as head of the Khalil Gibran International Academy over her "Intifada" comments in 2007. She thinks Sarsour is one of a few Arab-American candidates who are well positioned to run for public office, and she thinks it would send an especially strong message if a hijab-wearing woman won election.

"It would carry such symbolism to have a Muslim woman in hijab in a leadership position, that people who voted her in simply saw beyond the headscarf," said Almontaser, "saw the person that was representing them and leading on their behalf."

Sarsour plans to run for the city council in 2017, but is also looking beyond that, given the support she has from her community.

"When I think now, they say sometimes jokes in front of me, like 'Here is the next congresswoman,' like just as a joke, and I kind of feel like telling them, 'that's not really that funny. I think I could do it.'"