Curtis Sliwa: Inside the cat-loving ‘vigilante’ Republican’s long-shot campaign for New York City’s next mayor

GOP hopeful has forged himself into a local institution, fuelled by relentless self-promotion and his controversial Guardian Angels, writes Alex Woodward

Monday 23 August 2021 21:35
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<p>On 4 August, New York City’s Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa joined a protest demanding the resignation of Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom the Guardian Angels founder has called his ‘nemesis’. </p>

On 4 August, New York City’s Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa joined a protest demanding the resignation of Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom the Guardian Angels founder has called his ‘nemesis’.

There are currently 16 cats in Curtis Sliwa’s 320-square-foot Manhattan apartment.

“And people like to make fun of that,” he tells The Independent. “As the population of the world grows, as we’re running out of space, depleting our resources, we’re going to have to do more with less. And that’s how we live our lives – with 16 cats.”

Mr Sliwa’s ubiquity over the last five decades of New York life, politics and tabloids has forged him into something of a local institution, fuelled by relentless self-promotion and the presence of his Guardian Angels, his volunteer street and subway patrol group in their signature bomber jackets and tracksuits with matching berets.

He wears his red beret every day, paired with a suit and tie, on the campaign trail as the Republican candidate running for New York City’s next mayor, the logical next step and biggest yet in a career spent vying for the city’s attention.

After defeating Fernando Mateo in the city’s Republican primary election, he will face Democratic candidate Eric Adams – the well-financed Brooklyn borough president and former police officer – in a general election in November.

Mr Sliwa casts himself as a populist, arguing that his chance to get on the ballot with a third party was effectively eliminated under campaign finance laws supported by his decades-old nemesis Andrew Cuomo.

“So now what party do I join? I join the Republican party,” he says. “In this race so far, even though it’s more of a coronation for Eric Adams, while he’s spending all his time in the suites – fundraisers, wining and dining, getting his pockets lined – I’m in the streets and subways.”

Mr Mateo attacked his opponent for disloyalty to Donald Trump; Mr Sliwa did not support him in 2016 or 2020, nor does he support his baseless narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Still, he welcomed the endorsement of election lie proponent and former mayor Rudy Giuliani and joined his son Andrew Giuliani to protest the city’s Covid-19 vaccine requirements.

His campaign has reintroduced the city to his brand of charismatic bluster, with a suite of catchphrases (“I can go into neighbourhoods where the only Republican they’ve ever seen is Abraham Lincoln on a $5 bill”) to place himself in stark contrast to city and state leadership he has long accused of becoming warped by special interest groups and wealthy donors and out of touch with the working class.

It’s also a long shot – the city’s registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans roughly seven to one.

Mr Sliwa, meanwhile, lives in his 320-square-foot Upper West Side apartment with his wife, spends his days on the subway after decades patrolling them, and has stomped throughout New York’s neighbourhoods on the campaign trail to point out Mr Adams’s absence in them.

Ron Kuby, a criminal defence attorney and political commentator who co-hosted WABC’s “Curtis and Kuby” programme with Mr Sliwa for more than a decade, told Gothamist that his run for mayor is the latest in a career of publicity stunts.

“There’s not an end goal in this,” Mr Kuby said. “People are paying attention, they’re listening, they’re quoting him. They’re talking about him. He’s having a fantastic time.”

Mr Sliwa’s campaign also has reintroduced his organisation, criticised throughout the decades as made up of violent reactionaries, racist thugs and aimless vigilantes targeting young Black and brown New Yorkers, or welcomed as heroes to a violent city that Mr Sliwa often illustrated with grim, often-fantastical anecdotes.

Following his decades with the Guardian Angels, Mr Sliwa’s campaign – in addition to running one of the most-prominent animal welfare platforms for a candidate vying for office in one of the country’s largest cities – is largely concerned with public safety, combatting crime and supporting police.

Though he avoids the culture-war grievances stirring GOP campaigns across the US, he is promoting a means-tested universal basic income pilot programme – that would pull money from a beleaguered city-run mental health initiative – and he supports a “broken windows” theory towards policing that has been largely abandoned by criminal justice advocates.

His pilot proposal for a $6.6m universal basic income programme would send $1,500 a month to 500 New Yorkers for two years, though their spending would be tracked by the city, which would determine whether people “lack self control” to spend it wisely to “maintain themselves,” he says.

“Distribute the money – obviously most of it would be directed to poor or impoverished areas, and let’s follow it,” Mr Sliwa says. “Then we track them. If they’re willing participants they’ll allow us to see what exactly you’re doing with the money.”

He wants to end what he calls the “warehousing” of people experiencing homelessness without first addressing addictions and mental health issues, though his solution to flatten crime in the city’s young, largely Black and brown neighbourhoods is in “behaviour modification”.

“We have dysfunction in homes, we have dysfunction in neighbourhoods, we have dysfunction in schools – we’re not addressing it. You have to have behaviour modification,” he says. “There’s a line you don’t cross or there are consequences.”

The city’s rates of violent crime, particularly on its subways, have dissolved from their highs in the 1980s and 1990s. But recent spikes, sensational coverage and uprisings in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and cries to “defund the police” have centred public safety as a national priority, one that reflects the compounded crises from the coronavirus pandemic and socioeconomic disparities.

Now facing a former NYPD captain in the mayoral race, Mr Sliwa – who says he has been on the receiving end of police “wooden shampoos and concrete facials” – has championed himself as their biggest ally. He has vowed to “refund” the department after the New York City Council approved a budget that shifted $1bn from its $6n operating budget, the most expensive in the US.

His first order of business if elected: “Every lobbyist … I’m kicking their ass out of City Hall, the city council chambers and the city council offices across the street.”

“Their priorities is different than what government priorities should be,” he says. “Do the people have a lobbyist? The answer is no.”

Following the resignation of now-former Governor Cuomo after a growing number of sexual harassment allegations against him and threat of a weeks-long impeachment investigation, Lt Governor Kathy Hochul has ascended to the executive office, now helmed by a woman for the first time in the state’s history.

That change in leadership will likely adjust the dynamic between Albany and New York City’s next mayor, though Mr Sliwa – who staged protests calling for Mr Cuomo’s resignation – is thrilled to see him go. He travelled to Albany on his last day in office to request custody of Captain, Mr Cuomo’s dog, following reports that the former governor would be leaving him behind.

“He’s been my nemesis for over 20 years,” he says. “There is no love between me and Andrew Cuomo. … This is like the sixth family of organised crime, the way he runs government – the Genovese, the Gambinos, the Lucchese, the Colombos, the Bonannos, and you got Andrew Cuomo and the executive chamber in Albany. It’s all intimidation. It’s fear, fright and hysteria.”

He also criticised “golden boy” media coverage that contrasted Mr Cuomo’s daily pandemic briefings with Mr Trump’s chaotic response despite thousands of New Yorker deaths and a probe into Covid-19-related nursing home deaths.

“The lesson we learn here is no person should be put up on a pedestal. All persons running for elected office should have their feet and hands kept to the fire by the media,” Mr Sliwa says. “It should be adversarial, it should not be friendly. That’s the only way we get to the truth.”

Curtis Sliwa grew up the southeastern Brooklyn enclave of Canarsie, where he worked as a paperboy and a “junk man” recycling neighbourhood trash. His grandfather kept cats in the basement to prevent pests and dogs in the yard as security. His uncle kept pigeons on the roof.

After moving to the Bronx, where he managed a McDonald’s in the Fordham Heights neighbourhood, he initiated a graffiti clean-up crew, a predecessor to his Magnificent 13 Subway Safety Patrol – later named the Guardian Angels.

“Unarmed, no weapons, in America, are you kidding?” he remembers his critics saying. “You’re just gonna get shot and killed. You’re not gonna make any difference. You’re probably gonna become a gang.”

Within the group’s first 13 years, Mr Sliwa was locked up 76 times “when the cops viewed me as a hell’s angel, vigilante, gang member,” he says.

In a 1979 television segment, a then 23-year-old Sliwa said: “I’m not just gonna sit home. I love my city and I’m gonna do something about it.”

Following a wave of anointing press and favourable marks from criminal justice chiefs at City Hall, his profile grew, though he repeatedly clashed with transit police officers.

On 19 June 1992, during an early-morning cab ride to his radio programme, a gunman shot Mr Sliwa five times, what prosecutors said was an execution attempt by a powerful organised crime family.

After his recovery, he admitted to embellishing or lying about several attacks against Guardian Angels, including a story about being abducted by an off-duty transit police officer – a confession that stung his reputation but that he readily admits as being in the wrong.

The admission prompted the president of the transit police union to write “I told you so!” in The New York Times.

But the group continues to expand internationally, with “safety patrols” spanning more than a dozen countries and nearly half the US.

“I travel by myself many times, I’m on the subway, campaigning by myself, going place to place by myself,” Mr Sliwa tells The Independent. “I’ve always said the moment I’m afraid to travel by myself in a city where I was birthed, it’s time for me to retire to the sixth borough of the city of New York – Boca Raton, Florida – or get a job hanging wallpaper. The moment I have any fears or trepidations, it’s over. I trust people. I don’t trust politicians.”

But it wasn’t until his experience with the city’s animal shelter system that pushed him to make a run for office.

His wife Nancy, who has helped care for feral cat colonies in Sunset Park and directs the Guardian Angels Animal Protection programme, was on her way to adopt a cat named Peanut Butter when she learned a city-run shelter had euthanised the animal.

“She pulled the vehicle over to the side on Woodhaven Boulevard and started pounding on the dashboard,” he says. “That’s when I told her, ‘Look, I’m gonna run for mayor. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s no-kill shelters.’”

His animal welfare platform would eliminate shelters that euthanise animals, expand shelter capacity across the city, and create animal sanctuaries upstate.

His campaign has also directed attention to emaciated carriage horses and the plight of pigeons – he has mulled banning bird spikes on ledges that impale them, or implementing population control measures.

He would also make pigeons the city’s official bird.

“The pigeons follow me wherever I go. They follow the red beret,” he says. “I realise there are people who hate pigeons – they view them as flying rats, and they have all kinds of torture devices they put on their windowsills to basically keep birds away, and they end up getting impaled. The pigeon has been here before any of us. They’ll continue to be here.”

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