Curtis Sliwa has been a fixture in New York City for more than four decades, best known for starting the Guardian Angels, the volunteer anti-crime group, but he’s also worked as a trash-picker, newspaper boy, TV and radio host, and cat dad to more than a dozen rescued felines. As someone who claims to know the city streets and subways better than anyone else, there’s a certain logic to his latest move: running for mayor.
The Republican nominee will face off against Democrat Eric Adams in November, a race that pits two New York City natives in their sixties against each other, both claiming to be the best antidote to rising crime and homelessness as New York emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. Sliwa, however, is running with a fraction of the funds and none of the institutional support Adams has.
Known for attention-grabbing stunts, like donning a mantle and crown to troll Governor Andrew Cuomo, and offending anyone and everyone with sexist and anti-immigrant rants on his NY1 segment “The Political Rundown,” Sliwa insists his campaign for New York City mayor is no joke.
“Throw the book out if you just want professional politicians who’ve been bureaucrats like an Eric Adams,” he told Gothamist/WNYC. “You really think you’re going to get different results?”
Sliwa first became a household name in New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s, after founding a group he called the Magnificent 13, later renamed the Guardian Angels as membership swelled into the hundreds. The unarmed anti-crime patrols, in their unmistakable red berets and bomber jackets, were a solace to some New Yorkers as rates of violent crime ticked upward.
To some, they were seen as vigilantes who undermined police efforts and targeted young men of color.
When pressed by television reporter Christopher Glenn in a 1979 segment, Sliwa said he had every right to form the group. “I’m a taxpaying citizen… crime is on a spiraling rate,” he said “I’m not just gonna sit home. I love my city and I’m gonna do something about it.”
His status as leader of the Guardian Angels led him to a seat behind a microphone as a radio host at WABC. Throughout the 1980s, Sliwa was a controversial figure who butted heads with transit police officers, and was arrested dozens of times.
Then, in 1992, Sliwa was shot five times as he climbed into a taxi in the East Village, narrowly escaping death. Prosecutors later said it was retaliation for allegedly bad-mouthing a member of the Gambino crime family on the air. A few months after his recovery, Sliwa came clean: he admitted to lying about six incidents, including bogus attacks on members of the Guardian Angels and a tale that he had been abducted by off-duty transit police.
“I have waited nearly 14 years to say, I told you so,” wrote William McKechnie, the president of the transit police union, in a New York Times op-ed. “I found it hard to believe that in New York, the home of the world’s most sophisticated media, they were willing to accept Curtis Sliwa’s claims of heroics when invariably there were no witnesses to these acts and no victims or perpetrators who could confirm their occurrence.”
In a defiant mea culpa, Sliwa said he felt lying was the best way to gain media attention and recruit more members to the group. “There’s a lesson here to be learned,” Sliwa told host Charlie Rose. “When there’s good out there, I would hope to good golly god that the media would at least give balanced attention to them.”
Sliwa certainly knew how to work the media. Thousands of hours of vamping on live radio over the decades helped. Sliwa even worked at WNYC in the mid-’90s, when the station was still owned by the city; enraged staffers suspected Rudy Giuliani personally selected him for the job.
Ron Kuby, a criminal defense attorney and political commentator who co-hosted WABC’s “Curtis and Kuby” with Sliwa for more than a decade, said Sliwa’s mayoral bid is nothing more than his latest publicity stunt.
“There’s not an end goal in this,” Kuby said. “This is what Curtis wants. People are paying attention, they’re listening, they’re quoting him. They’re talking about him. He’s having a fantastic time.”
Sliwa’s mayoral platform features an array of proposals such as ramping up property taxes on Madison Square Garden, opposing critical race theory in public schools, and making Gracie Mansion a cat and dog sanctuary. On the campaign trail, he has often mentioned that he lives with around 15 cats in his current wife’s 300-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side.
But Sliwa’s central message, as always, is the need to crack down on crime. In his early years, Sliwa was a thorn in the side of the police department but now he’s trying to position himself as its biggest ally, even as he runs against a former NYPD captain.
“I’m gonna take it to Eric Adams, cause he’s been a vacillator,” Sliwa said, shortly before posing for a photo with uniformed NYPD officers patrolling the city’s recent ticker tape parade. It was the day after Adams was declared the victor of the Democratic primary. “Last summer was he defending the police? No, he was on the sidelines. He was waiting to see where the wind would blow.”
Sliwa’s message is resonating with some. Alison Jurado, 71, was passing by a Guardian Angels patrol on a recent morning in Inwood Hill Park after three attacks on women there.
“We need law and order. I mean, it’s crazy. I’ve lived here for over 40 years. I know what it’s like when the city deteriorates,” she said. “Somebody like Curtis is our only hope.”
Violent crime is still a fraction of what it was in the ’80s and ’90s, when more than 2,000 people were murdered each year on city streets, at the same time as the city’s population increased. In 2017, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city saw fewer than 300 killings, the lowest number in modern history. But fluctuations in the crime rate, or the fact that the city is safer now than any year Rudy Giulani was mayor, does not matter to Sliwa, according to Kuby.
“What Curtis realized is how people feel matters. Not what is true,” Kuby said, deriding him for playing on people’s fears. “What is the social good of this relentless, constant, ugly, bilious fearmongering which is always about young Black men? It has always served a very racist agenda in New York City.”
Sliwa rejects charges of racism, often pointing out Guardian Angel membership is mostly Black and Latino. When speaking to Gothamist/WNYC, he conceded the city is safer now than at the start of his career but added, “we’re beginning to move in that direction.”
Critics like Kuby and others said they suspected Sliwa’s mayoral bid was an effort to raise his profile, pure and simple. Gerson Borrero, who co-starred in the NY1 segment “The Political Rundown” with Sliwa, had a more generous take.
“I interpret it as very serious. Other people can say it’s part of a shtick. In his head he has solutions,” Borrero said. “This guy loves being a New Yorker. There’s no other reason. There’s no other gimmick.”
Borrero points out Sliwa’s dedication to New York City and the Guardian Angels, is a longer-running relationship than he’s had with any of his longtime romantic partners. Mary Galda, Sliwa’s third wife, described Sliwa as an “inveterate, world-class liar” in a messy court battle, where she claimed he’d cheated on her with Melinda Katz, now the Queens District Attorney, who bore two of Sliwa’s children though the two never married. Sliwa currently lives with his fourth wife, Nancy Sliwa.
Perhaps Sliwa’s persistence in New York City life is best captured by Sliwa himself in a motivational speech he gave in 2004 to students at New Dorp High School. He talked about a realization he came to while he was recovering from the gunshot wounds a decade earlier.
“There had to be another reason why I was still hanging around. That’s when I realized, ‘stay on the mission, continue to be consistent,’” he said. “Don’t let these guys treat me like a hemorrhoid in a red beret, putting preparation H all over my body, because I’m not disappearing, pal. I am not disappearing.”