Inside Curtis Sliwa’s long-shot Republican run for NYC mayor (2024)

Curtis Sliwa, the charismatic if quirky Republican nominee in the New York City mayoral race, lives in a 325-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side with his wife, more than a dozen rescue cats and no TV.

He recognizes that few people believe he has a chance of winning the November general election against the Democratic nominee, Eric Adams. He seems unfazed.

“The over-under point spread is a challenging one, there’s no doubt about it,” Sliwa, 67, said recently in his Brooklyn brogue. “But, you know, this has been my whole life. I don’t ever remember a time in my life where the odds were for me. They’ve always been against me.”

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That life, which began in the middle-class enclave of Canarsie, has been spent in the city’s streets and subways and marked by relentless self-promotion.

In 1979, Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels, a controversial crimefighting group that drew plaudits and putdowns as it battled muggings and mayhem below ground. For years, the subway crew was Sliwa’s primary claim to fame.

But now, after winning a sleepy Republican mayoral primary against Fernando Mateo, a businessman, Sliwa has set about trying to spoil Adams’ ride to Gracie Mansion. He faces seemingly impossible odds.

Adams enjoys the advantage of a six-to-one edge in New York City voters registered to his party, a robust campaign infrastructure, and support from a laundry list of powerful politicians, from Mayor de Blasio to President Biden.

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Sliwa’s greatest advantage might be the simple fact that he has assumed the mantle of a sort of New York institution over the years, weaving himself into the city’s cultural fabric through decades spent ping-ponging across radio and TV. His time as a blustery say-anything political commentator could provoke nostalgic memories in some voters.

It is unclear whether the martial arts expert — who reliably sports a red beret — can add even a dash of competitiveness to the race.

But he will surely make the contest captivating. He is a gregarious tabloid titan from the city’s seedier age, an admitted fabulist with a flair for theatrics.

His populist campaign, which is focused on supporting cops and rescuing animals, figures to be stacked with stunts.

“His bid to become mayor of New York is not serious in the sense of: Does he have a reasonable possibility of becoming New York City’s next mayor? In that sense, it’s utterly non-serious,” said Ron Kuby, a left-wing lawyer who formerly co-hosted a WABC-AM radio show with Sliwa.

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“I think Curtis is taking this seriously as the greatest opportunity he’s had for attention since the founding of the Guardian Angels,” Kuby added. “Curtis is having fun.”

Sliwa has already started to tail Adams, showing up at a news conference on July 19 that the Brooklyn borough president staged with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). The gambit worked to a degree.

A crush of reporters listened to Sliwa speak, at least for a while, after Adams retreated into Brooklyn Borough Hall. And some lingering passersby praised the streetwise Sliwa, noting his decades dedicated to serving his city.

The trick seemed intended to draw from Adams’ media attention. Sliwa has complained that journalists and political leaders have crowned Adams as the next mayor, and he has often noted that the general election has yet to take place.

Sliwa said he intends to paint Adams as a political chameleon with evasive positions; his opponent is a former NYPD captain who was once registered as a Republican.

In the Democratic primary, Adams ran a centrist campaign on issues including the police and education, while wading out into more progressive waters on housing and transportation.

“He’s doing the twist: Every time he speaks, it’s a different Eric,” Sliwa said. “At some points, he sounds like the Manhattan Institute. That’s not Eric Adams. At other points, he sounds like, you know, he’s a liberal progressive. That’s not Eric Adams.”

But Sliwa’s own flexible politics complicate the charge. Raised by a family of Democrats, he only recently joined the Republican Party, and he carries few hard-line conservative positions beyond his calls to pour money into the Police Department.

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Though he was endorsed by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and venerates his tenure, Sliwa is an avowed critic of former President Donald Trump. “I’ve disagreed with what Rudy’s done in the Trump era,” Sliwa said.

On a recent afternoon, a Bernie Sanders doll sat near Sliwa in his home as he spoke positively of former President Barack Obama. “They used to make fun of Obama — community organizer — well that’s what the hell I am,” he said. “I didn’t dislike Obama.”

As for the progressive Vermont senator, he noted, “I actually like a lot of Bernie.”

But he consistently rages against Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo, Democrats who he says are out of touch with the people.

Sliwa’s sparse policy planks include an expansion of charter schools and vocational training; a so-called “refund” of the police; and $1,000 payments for pet owners who rescue animals from shelters. But perhaps his most basic pitch is that he’ll stick to the pavement and remember his roots.

The son of a merchant sailor and a dental technician, Sliwa grew up with two sisters in a southeastern section of Brooklyn. He worked for a time as a bike-riding paperboy.

After a brief marriage in his early 20s, he said, he gravitated to the hard-boiled Bronx of the late ’70s, scoring a gig as a manager at a McDonald’s in the Fordham Heights neighborhood.

It was there that he hatched the idea of launching a clean-up crew that swept streets and painted over graffiti. The group proved popular, he said.

But at a certain point, he determined he wasn’t serving the struggling city’s most pressing need. And so the Magnificent 13 Subway Safety Patrol was born.

The group’s unarmed volunteers watched over the No. 4 train, then known as the Mugger’s Express. Don Chin, a manager at McDonald’s and Sliwa’s mentor, at first thought his friend was nuts.

“But then again, I was a little crazy back then, so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,'” recalled Chin, a physically imposing former gang member. “We’d see people get mugged sometimes. So we started testing it out: He would sit at one end of the subway, and I would sit at the other end.”

The group grew rapidly to about 70 members, Sliwa said, and changed its name to the Guardian Angels. Though Chin left to focus on his fast food work, he said Sliwa offered more than a sense of security to straphangers.

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“I think the Guardian Angels was Curtis’ calling,” Chin said. “It gave a lot to people that wanted to feel part of a family.”

The group divided the city. Critics viewed its beret-clad members as aimless vigilantes. Mayor Ed Koch questioned the Angels’ intentions; Sliwa called him a “bonehead.”

Nicknamed Rock at the time, Sliwa told stories — some ginned up — of his team’s heroics: Fighting a rape attempt in a Brooklyn subway station, saving mugging victims, raiding drug dens.

A flattering report from Koch’s criminal justice coordinator helped boost the group, and reporters spilled seas of ink on the Angels, relaying Sliwa’s sensational stories of crime prevention with a sometimes quizzical eye.

“We had those who went too far in defending us, and then those that went out of their way to knock us,” Sliwa said. “You’d get kissed, and you’d get smacked.”

Whatever the alchemy of the media coverage, his group blossomed. Its membership stretched into the thousands; its footprint spread across the globe.

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On occasion, disaster struck.

Four times, Guardian Angels were shot dead, beginning with a 19-year-old named Malcolm Brown, who was hit by gunfire on a Brooklyn street in 1981. Sliwa said Brown was attempting to break up a robbery when a bullet pierced the back of his head.

“Immediately, there were ramifications,” Sliwa said. “It was a difficult time. And that’s when our critics really waylaid: ‘Ah you see, this is going to get people killed.'”

Each death, which Sliwa called “incredible setbacks,” would bring the same pattern: Increased external criticism, internal calls for firearms from Angels. But Sliwa said he never considered pulling the plug on the Guardians, figuring that members might have gotten caught up in violence whether or not they joined his crew.

On June 19, 1992, Sliwa almost met the same fate. On an early morning cab ride to his WABC-AM radio show, a gunman hiding in the taxi opened fire before Sliwa escaped into the predawn darkness of the East Village, cops said.

Sliwa, wounded by five hollow-point bullets, landed in Bellevue Hospital. Dr. Leon Pachter, his surgeon, said one bullet came close to paralyzing him.

Aleta St. James, Sliwa’s 73-year-old sister, said she rushed to the hospital, and that Koch — Sliwa’s old nemesis — was looming over her brother when he opened his eyes. “I must be in hell,” Sliwa deadpanned, according to St. James’ telling. (His other sister, Maria, is his top campaign spokesperson.)

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John A. Gotti of the Gambino crime family was later charged with ordering a hit on Sliwa over radio criticism of his dad. But prosecutors ultimately dropped the case.

“The one thing I love about the mafia — don’t like the fact that they put a hit on him, all right, even though we grew up with them — the fact of the matter is that they don’t come back,” said St. James, a life coach who is running the Democrats for Sliwa push. “If they give up on a hit, you’re home free after that.”

As Sliwa floated in and out of Bellevue over six months and underwent two surgeries, he recalled, he decided to make a rattling confession. In November 1992, he went public: He said he had staged six of the Guardian Angels’ early crime encounters.

At the time, he said he didn’t feel worthy of the outpouring of love that followed the shooting. Last month, he echoed those notes, saying that he came to the confession as he lay on a hospital bed, deciding that he should not “put Guardian Angels in a position to defend things that I did.”

He added that the bunk crimes came as part of a “PR war” with the police. “Looking back on it,” Sliwa said, “not a smart thing to do.”

In the years since, the confession has clung to his personal biography, a black mark that could resurface throughout the general election campaign. But it hardly derailed his publicity-prone ride.

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He continued to lead the Angels and appear on the radio. His personal life still animated the newspapers — dispatches on his romantic affair with Melinda Katz, now the Queens district attorney, proved particularly eye-catching.

Along the way, Sliwa married and divorced Mary Paterson, who later wed former Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat who at one point had a radio show with Sliwa.

Today, Sliwa is with his fourth wife, Nancy Regula, a cat-loving lawyer who described him as a ball of energy. “He keeps me up late at night,” she said. “He wakes up early in the morning. So it’s nonstop.”

His patrol group, said to still number about 200 members in New York City, is in its fifth decade. As a New York character, one with a Forrest Gump-like tendency to pop up throughout history, he seems to have at least nine lives.

And even his critics, who could grow louder in the theater of the November election, will be hard-pressed to question his peculiar staying power.

“I’m out there with the people all the time,” Sliwa said. “Subways, streets — they know who I am. People know me. Now, the question is: Can I convince them to vote for me?”

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Inside Curtis Sliwa’s long-shot Republican run for NYC mayor (2024)
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