The Mayoral Candidate with a Mouth That Roars (2024)

It is a strange moment in New York politics. A once popular governor who won election three times has stepped down in disgrace, leaving his lieutenant to serve out the rest of his term. Locally, it is easy to forget that a mayoral race is under way, one that pits a former N.Y.P.D. officer with a war chest of many millions against a community activist with less than six hundred thousand dollars in campaign funding. That might not sound so odd, until one realizes that the cop is the Democratic nominee, and that the activist is the Republican.

Curtis Sliwa, the Republican challenger to Eric Adams, has little chance of being elected mayor of New York City, where there are roughly seven times as many registered Democrats as there are Republicans. But his candidacy is a radical shift in city politics. Republican mayoral nominees are usually corporate types, or those with backgrounds in government or law enforcement. Sliwa’s experience with government and law enforcement mainly stems from his fights at City Hall and his many arrests over the years.

In 1979, when Sliwa was twenty-three years old and working as the night manager at a McDonald’s on Fordham Road, in the Bronx, he founded the Guardian Angels, a volunteer safety patrol. At the time, crime in the city was soaring: there were roughly seventeen hundred murders that year—a more than fifteen-per-cent spike from the year before—and robberies were also spiralling. The subways, in particular, were the site of many felonies.

Sliwa’s recruits were locals, many of whom were Black or Latino teen-agers. He taught them martial arts and led them into mugger-prone subway stations, bidding them to stand guard against lawbreakers, and to make citizen’s arrests for violent crimes. The Angels, identified by their trademark red berets and baseball jackets, became a mainstay of the tabloid press and local news networks. They gained notoriety for swaggering vigilante-style patrols and for occasional clashes with the police: one Angel was said to be badly bruised after tussling with a would-be mugger; there were reports that Sliwa was kidnapped and threatened by a group of off-duty transit cops, who were angry at the Angels for upstaging them. There were also heroics, such as the story of a pair of Angels who found a wallet that contained three hundred dollars and tracked down the elderly woman who had lost it, in order to return the money. The patrols had little impact on city crime levels, which continued to grow, but they gave New Yorkers a sense of security. “I remember people would applaud them when they came on the train,” Earl Caldwell, a former columnist for the Daily News, recalled. Mario Cuomo, then lieutenant governor, said that the Angels were “a better expression of morality than our city deserves.”

This past July, I visited Sliwa and his wife, Nancy, at their home, on West Eighty-seventh Street, where they live in a three-hundred-and-twenty-square-foot studio apartment, on the ground floor of a limestone building. Inside the studio, more than a dozen cats were sprawled across an array of carpeted towers and shelves. Thick blankets for feline comfort lay across the double bed. There was a desk with two chairs, which the couple uses as both a workspace and a dining-room table, where more cats sat.

One wall of the apartment was covered with Sliwa’s election posters, which bore his campaign slogan, “Save Our City.” Above the desk, he had taped a collection of old newspaper clips about himself and the Angels, alongside copies of flyers declaring “Crack Down on Crack,” and old sketches of a suspect in a series of midtown rapes. Near the front door was a large painting of a grinning Sliwa flipping aside a red tie and pulling open a white button-down, Superman-style, to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “New York City.” (The same image adorns the cards advertising his campaign that he hands out by the hundreds on the street.)

The place was cramped, but it was homey—despite a hole the size of a tennis ball in the bathroom door, which was partially covered with duct tape. “This is our sanctuary,” Sliwa told me. As we spoke, cats leapt into my lap and scratched at my pants. Nancy tried to herd them away, with little success.

Sliwa was a surprise win in the Republican primary this past June. He beat Fernando Mateo, a small businessman and taxi-driver advocate, who spent more than two million dollars on the race. Mateo, who ran to the right of his opponent, spent most of the primary hammering Sliwa for his opposition to Donald Trump, whom Sliwa voted against in both elections. (“I voted for myself the first time,” he says, and for an independent candidate in 2020.) Mateo’s argument gained little traction. “He said, ‘Curtis Sliwa is a Never Trumper,’ and I still beat him,” Sliwa told me.

Sliwa may not have voted for Trump, but his positions often echo those of the former President. This past spring, he held a public mask-burning event. He often rages against Antifa, and says the police must be “re-funded.” His campaign platform is unabashedly conservative: it emphasizes law and order, public safety, quality of life, and zero tolerance for rule breakers. Still, he told me that his name will also be on the Independent Party line in November, an option that he hopes will attract Democrats who aren’t comfortable voting Republican.

But his ace in the hole, he continued, is his pitch to animal-lovers. “The issue I have that no other candidate has ever run on, and which has caused a lot of people to cross over and consider me, is no-kill shelters,” Sliwa said. It’s an issue on which his wife has educated him. He used to believe that some shelters “take it and fix it and adopt it out,” he told me. “Then Nancy shows me on the computers how they kill it. Seventy-two hours later, euthanized,” he said, snapping his fingers. “People don’t know this.”

He met Nancy in 2015. That summer, there was a spike in robberies in Central Park, and Sliwa brought the Angels out to patrol, after a two-decade-long period of relative inactivity. Most New Yorkers hadn’t seen Sliwa in person for years. He was still recognizable, at six feet tall, wearing his red beret, but also he looked weaker and gaunter than the man whom they’d come to know on the local news.

In 1991, while still heading the Angels, Sliwa took to the air as a talk-show host on WABC. His brash Brooklyn attitude garnered him a loyal following, and he wasn’t afraid to take shots at high-profile figures. One of his favorite targets was John Gotti, the flamboyant boss of the Gambino crime family, who went to trial for charges including racketeering and murder in January of 1992. “I would do an update on the trial every morning,” Sliwa told me. The segment was called “Mob Talk.” “I had no idea that Gotti was permitted an AM radio in jail, so he’d be listening every morning and fuming.”

After Gotti’s conviction, in April, three men with baseball bats attacked Sliwa outside his apartment near Tompkins Square Park, breaking his wrist and fracturing his elbow. On his radio show the next morning, Sliwa doubled down, adding Gotti’s son, John (Junior) Gotti, to the list of people he taunted. A couple of months later, on the morning of June 19th, Sliwa got into the back of a taxi near his home. A man hiding in the front passenger seat ambushed him, shooting him several times in the groin and in the legs. Sliwa managed to leap past the shooter, diving out the window of the moving cab. He still remembers the feeling of “pebbles shooting into my face off the tires.”

The Mayoral Candidate with a Mouth That Roars (2024)


The Mayoral Candidate with a Mouth That Roars? ›

Smith was affectionately known as "The Mouth That Roared" due to his outspoken criticism of the political cronyism and corruption for which Hudson County had long been infamous.

Is Curtis Sliwa Polish? ›

Curtis Sliwa was born on March 26, 1954, into a Catholic family of Polish and Italian descent, in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He has two sisters. He attended Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit high school from which he was later expelled. He graduated from Canarsie High School.

How many times was Curtis Sliwa shot? ›

Miraculously, he survived — but 20 years later, his wounds came back to haunt him. Sliwa, the famous red beret-donning founder of the Guardian Angels, was left with five hollow-point bullet wounds and internal damage from the attack.

Is Lisa Evers still married to Curtis Sliwa? ›

Guardian Angels

At that time she was married to its founder, Curtis Sliwa; was known as Lisa Sliwa; and worked as a model with Elite Model Management in New York City and Paris. With Sliwa, she co-hosted a talk radio show on WABC-AM in New York City that ended shortly before their divorce.


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