The votes are still being counted to determine the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary for mayor of New York City, with Eric Adams enjoying a lead in the first round of the ranked-choice race. But the Republican primary is decided.
Meet Curtis Sliwa, the brash founder of the Guardian Angels, a citizen group that has patrolled New York City streets for more than 40 years, often to the chagrin of police and public officials who have at times labeled them vigilantes. He said he’s ready to take the fight to Adams, if he turns out to be the winner, with a populist message on public safety and police reform.
Sliwa, a familiar figure to many New Yorkers in his signature red beret, is in some ways well known to voters given the enduring presence of the Guardian Angels. But there is much they may not know about him, including his deep interest in animal welfare. And Jewish voters may be intrigued by the fact that Sliwa, born into a Catholic family, has two Jewish sons who are being raised as Jews by their Jewish mother.
Sliwa, 67, said he did not vote for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. That may please even some Republicans in New York City, where the former president is deeply unpopular. But Sliwa still faces an uphill battle in the solidly Democratic city. In a phone interview with the Forward earlier this week, he said he plans to confront Adams, a former cop who ran a successful campaign with a moderate message on public safety, with his own efforts on crime control, which have made the Guardian Angels a household name and seen the proliferation of chapters across the nation and the world.
He’s also going to downplay his party affiliation, and highlight other issues — including homelessness and animal welfare — which he says will broaden his appeal to moderate and independent voters.
“I can go into neighborhoods where the only Republican they’ve ever seen in New York City is Abraham Lincoln on a $5 bill,” said Sliwa. “I have got to convert moderate Democrats and independents into understanding that my populism is what is going to attract them, not my Republicanism.”
For that, Sliwa created his own independent line, called the Animal Welfare party, to allow voters who won’t cast a ballot for a Republican to vote for him in the November election. Sliwa, who fosters 15 rescue cats in a 320-square-foot studio in Manhattan, has called for a “no kill” policy in the city’s animal shelter system and vows to end the practice of euthanizing dogs and cats within 72 hours if they’re not claimed or adopted. “People who voted for Biden, people who voted for Trump, people who are apolitical, they love animals.”
The 1.1 million Jews who live in New York City generally favor Democrats, though they have supported several Republican mayoral candidates in recent decades. Sliwa will also face a particular challenge with Orthodox voters, despite their tendency to favor Republican candidates in general and national elections.
In 2013, Mayor Bill de Blasio became the first Democrat to win the Jewish vote since Ed Koch won his reelection bid in 1985. He also split the Orthodox vote because he had a longstanding relationship with the community, having represented parts of Borough Park on the City Council and earning the support of some leading Hasidic voting blocs in the primary.
Adams is expected to take a page from de Blasio’s playbook with the Orthodox Jewish community. He received significant support from them in Tuesday’s primary.
Asked by the Forward on Thursday if he’s satisfied with Jewish turnout for him on Tuesday, primary day, Adams smiled brightly. “I love it,” he said.
Sliwa said in November’s general election he would prefer to face Maya Wiley, a progressive candidate who is currently in second place after the first round of counting. “She would probably be the one that people might be afraid of because she has such a radical approach to a crime problem that is skyrocketing,” he said.
But if Adams is the Democratic nominee, Sliwa said he’s ready, and that those supporting whoever wins the Democratic mayoral primary should not underestimate him. As he told the “thugs” when he started the Guardian Angels, he said, “don’t go to sleep on me.”
A history in Crown Heights
Sliwa first became familiar with the Jewish community in the early 1990s, when tensions between the Jewish and Black communities erupted into the Crown Heights riots. Sliwa said he will remind Crown Heights residents that he rushed to their aid then.
He brought his Guardian Angels to patrol the community for a month to quell violence that broke out after a vehicle in the motorcade of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, struck and killed a 7-year-old Black child in the summer of 1991. The incident led to angry protests and the fatal stabbing hours later of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Chabad student from Australia. In the riots that ensued, more than 200 people were injured. Property damage was extensive. Jewish leaders in Crown Heights accused then Mayor David Dinkins of restraining the police and allowing rioters to harm the Jewish community.
The neighborhood has seen a spike in violent antisemitic incidents in recent years. But Crown Heights Jewish community leaders have already endorsed Adams, who represented the district in the State Senate before he became Brooklyn borough president, and brought out some 3,000 voters for him in the Democratic primary. A police officer at the time of the Crown Heights riots, though not one who worked in the area, his message on public safety and reassurances on combating hate have resonated well with voters in the neighborhood.
Sliwa said he plans to remind the Crown Heights voters that he showed up during the community’s worst hours. “I am going to say: where were you, Eric Adams, when the riots in Crown Heights broke out? Everyone knows where I was and they will never forget that,” he said.
Sliwa said Adams “supported at that time, and still does, Rev. Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson, who led the rabble-rousers.”
“Why would you support someone who’s been a fair-weather friend when I’ve been a friend of the Jewish community consistently every time they were under attack?” he added.
He said he will make his case to voters over the heads of their leaders. “I’ve been with the ultra-Orthodox and hasidim for many, many years, and I see increasingly the younger generations are not part of the bloc vote,” he said. “Many of them have grown up with me. Many of them don’t watch TV, so they listen to talk radio and they’ve listened to me on 77 WABC radio for 30 years. I’ve been a fixture in their households for all those years. And so they know my whole story.”
“Just because their rabbinical leaders say they have to back Eric Adams, I don’t think that’s a guarantee that they’re going to turn out in a bloc vote and support him in a general election,” he said.
A contrary stance on yeshivas
Sliwa’s views on yeshiva education may alienate some potential Hasidic support. In a recent televised debate, Sliwa said that he doesn’t think the de Blasio administration did enough to enforce the state guidelines that require education at private schools to be “substantially equivalent” to instruction at public schools. And in a video circulating on social media, Sliwa is seen telling an audience in 2018 that they need to stop taxpayer subsidies for yeshivas “because they don’t follow the rules of the Department of Education in the city of New York.”
Talking to the Forward, Sliwa doubled down and called for city government to inspect yeshivas for compliance with state standards. “The rules are the rules for everyone,” he said. “If parochial schools and religious schools that are not ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic have to follow those rules, then everybody does. We can’t start making exceptions.”
Sliwa continued: “You may not want to teach the young boys and young girls these [secular] subjects in elementary and junior high school, but they have got to start learning them in high school because there’s a whole world out there, they’re going to have to function. I have been to shuls, I have been in the places where they’re teaching kids, and I got to tell you, they are educated kids. But most of what they’re being taught is religious theology. You know, that’s fine. You want to teach them 12 hours a day, but you have got to give them some of the other subjects.”
Even if yeshiva students live fully in the Hasidic sphere, he added, “they still have to know about what’s happening in the rest of the world.”
Adams, who has recently said he came away impressed by the level of secular education at a Brooklyn yeshiva he visited, has promised to tread very lightly on the issue. In a recent interview with Kol Satmar, a news hotline that is affiliated with the Satmar community led by Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum of Kiryas Joel, Adams pledged not to interfere in their way of life or school system.
Sliwa also accused Adams and de Blasio of pandering to Hasidic groups in exchange for their support, and said that Adams is being disingenuous in his support for Israel. Sliwa pointed to an interview Adams recently gave in which he joked that he likes Israel so much that he wants to retire to the Golan Heights in northern Israel.
“What are you doing, aliyah?” Sliwa mocked. The Republican nominee said what Adams says he feels for Israel doesn’t track with the support he has received in the past from followers of the Nation of Islam, led by a minister infamous for his antisemitic rhetoric. “Early in his political career, when he challenged Major Owens for his congressional seat, he was supported by the Nation of Islam,” Sliwa said of Adams. “You had members of Louis Farrakhan’s temple in New York going out and getting him signatures and Eric Adams was very supportive of them. And now all of a sudden, you are converted to a Jewish guy and doing aliyah? Get outta here. Nobody believes that.”
As a radio broadcaster, Sliwa visited Israel three times, trips he described in detail. “I was able to be exposed to a lot of things which taught me a lot more about the state of Israel than anything I could read in the New York Times or watch on the evening news,” he said.
Sliwa said he believes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is wrong, but stopped short of describing it as antisemitic for singling out Israel. “Israel is one of the elite countries in terms of technologically developing major improvements that have benefited everyone,” he said. “I saw the whole sort of Silicon Valley there when I visited. And, obviously, when it comes to being our ally in that part of the world, we know we can strongly depend on them. So BDS, absolutely not.”
The red yarmulke
Sliwa, who is not Jewish, has two Jewish sons from a former relationship with Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz. He was granted visitation rights after the couple separated in 2014.
Sliwa recalled taking them on Saturday to a Conservative synagogue in Forest Hills with their mother and visiting them in Hebrew school. “It was an eye opening experience,” he said. “I certainly knew of some of the ceremonial functions in the Jewish religion, but had never really experienced them in the course of a rabbi preaching and a cantor singing, and what the congregation’s responsibility was.”
He said he recently attended his son Carter’s bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue in Rego Park, Queens.
Sliwa is known for wearing a red beret, the headgear and most well-recognized symbol of the Guardian Angels. He said his sons once told him, “Daddy, you have the biggest kippah in the world.”
But while he may continue using it instead of a yarmulke, Sliwa said he would get rid of it if elected mayor.
“The red beret retires,” he said. “I wear it now because it’s synonymous with law and order, and public safety. It’s what I’ve done for 42 years. But when you are mayor, you have got to represent everybody. It’s not just about crime and law and order.”
Sliwa also joked that his kids have a full drawer of yarmulkes for him to wear on Jewish occasions. “I just won’t put on a New York Mets yarmulke. I hate the Mets. I love the Yankees,” he said.
A majority of the leading Democratic mayoral candidates told the Forward in a recent survey that said they would retain the de Blasio administration’s policy that accommodates the Orthodox community on a risky circumcision practice known as metzitzah b’peh. Sliwa indicated he would also keep that policy in place. “That’s a religious ceremony,” he said about circumcision in general. “It’s been passed down through the centuries. It just needs to be done safely. I would say, I wouldn’t interfere with that too much.”
Asked for his favorite Yiddish word, Sliwa didn’t hesitate: schmendrick, a term used to describe a pathetic or foolish person. “It is my favorite word I love to use many, many times to describe politicians that I have to listen to,” he said.
The Democratic primary for NYC mayor is over. Meet the Republican challenger.