While the Democrats running for mayor have been dominating the headlines, the two Republicans seeking their own party’s nomination took full advantage of their first head-to-head televised debate on Wednesday night to lob personal attacks at each other while arguing over who was the true Republican.
Curtis Sliwa, the founder and head of the Guardian Angels, a nonprofit group of volunteers focused on crime prevention and known for their red berets and sports jackets, faced-off on Zoom with Fernando Mateo, a restaurateur who is the founder of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers.
Co-hosted by Gothamist/WNYC, The CITY, and NY1, the hour-long debate lived up to its theatrical potential, with plenty of shouting and schoolyard insults. Sliwa, also a radio show host and former NY1 political commentator, wasted little time attacking his opponent for fundraising for Mayor Bill de Blasio and living in Westchester, while Mateo repeatedly accused Sliwa of being a fake Republican who had failed to vote for Donald Trump.
Sliwa was reprimanded for using props, a photograph and a New York Post article showing his opponent with de Blasio. Mateo later whipped out a stuffed animal he called “Trumpy Bear.” Both men had to be muted several times.
The event was the first of two Republican primary debates. Errol Louis of Spectrum News NY1 was the host. He was joined by two moderators: Brian Lehrer from WNYC and Josefa Velazquez from THE CITY.
The Republican contest has generated relatively little interest for good reason: Republicans are outnumbered seven to one by Democrats in New York City, making the Democratic primary the likely determinator of the mayoral election.
Neither candidate has yet met the city’s fundraising threshold; Mateo has raised $520,000 while Sliwa has raised around $313,000. As a result, the debate was not sanctioned by the Campaign Finance Board.
Here are some highlights from the debate.
Candidates Split Over Whether Donald Trump Won Re-Election
The same divide that exists within the Republican party nationally, between those who believe former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen and those who believe President Joe Biden was duly elected, also split the Republican candidates running for mayor.
Asked by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer whether they believed President Trump won re-election, Mateo said yes. “I think he won re-election, yes I do. I believe Donald Trump was a good president,” he said.
Sliwa said he did not think Trump won the 2020 election.
Mateo then attacked Sliwa for being a phony Republican. “Curtis is a clown. I think his red beret is too tight on him,” he said, mocking the signature cap Sliwa wears to signify the Guardian Angels. “He never voted for Trump. He never supported the president.”
Mateo also said he supported the decision of the city’s only Republican in the congressional delegation, Representative Nicole Malliotakis, to vote against the certification of the election results, which occurred on January 6th, the same day a violent insurrection stormed the Capitol. Five people died in connection with the event.
Sliwa, who was until recently a member of the Reform Party before changing his affiliation to Republican last year, said he supported Malliotakis’ vote against certifying the election results.
“We were entitled to an investigation,” he said. (Sliwa also claimed to have Malliotakis’ support; Matteo disputed that; Malliotakis did not respond to a request for comment.)
NYPD Reforms: Re-fund The Police And Pay No Tolls
The two candidates have positioned themselves in direct opposition to the “defund the police” movement, but they are also promising to further shield the NYPD and the police commissioner from what they say is unnecessary oversight.
In his opening remarks, Sliwa said he was inspired to enter the Republican race for mayor so that he could “re-fund the police. ” He has proposed adding 5,000 more police officers.
While some Democratic candidates for mayor have said they would rein in the power of the police commissioner and have a greater role in disciplinary decisions, Sliwa argued that the NYPD currently has more oversight than any other city agency and that he would keep “qualified immunity” for officers.
Similarly, Mateo promised to give his police commissioner “every authority that they need to look after the rank and file.”
Mateo said he would combat subway crime by requiring two officers on every platform, a proposal that Sliwa scoffed at.
“You need them on the moving trains,” Sliwa said, adding, “You haven’t ridden the subway. You live up in Westchester.”
Both candidates said they were opposed to a proposed requirement that new officers live in the five boroughs, agreeing that police officers should be able to live wherever they choose.
But Mateo went a step further: if elected mayor, he said, all police officers would no longer have to pay bridge and tunnel tolls.
“That would be part of their package,” he said. “Making sure that they do not pay another toll in this city.”
How Many Cats Does Sliwa Have Again?
A point that Sliwa made repeatedly throughout the debate was his love for animals and his commitment to protecting their welfare, sharing that he and his wife have 15 rescue cats at their apartment on the Upper West Side.
Sliwa also claimed he collected enough independent nominating petitions to secure a spot on the November general election ballot on a new “Animal Welfare” line. (The last day to file those petitions with the Board of Elections was Tuesday; objections can be filed through Friday.)
That number of rescue cats was so hard to process that Mateo got it wrong when he tried lob an attack back at Sliwa over his professional record here in the city.
“Curtis Sliwa is a subway rider. That’s all he knows how to do, communicate with the subway homeless people, because that’s what he takes pride in. And he communicates with his 13 cats and 14 litter boxes in his house. That’s what he does,” said Mateo.
Broadway As The Great Uniter
Although the two candidates found ways to agree during answers to yes or no questions, there were relatively few friendly or calm exchanges during the often zany debate. Both criticized the C train as being the worst subway line.
“You wait and you wait,” Sliwa groaned.
But the real moment of unity came when they were asked how they would celebrate the city’s reopening.
Both said they would see a show on Broadway, which is scheduled to resume performances in September. Sliwa said he planned to take his three sons to see the musical “Hamilton.”
“I know it’s going to cost me a pretty penny,” he added.
Calling Broadway the “lifeline of the city,” Mateo said he would go see “Jersey Boys,” which he said had already seen three or four times.
At which point, Sliwa interjected: “I love that musical too! So we agree!”