Curtis Sliwa has a lot of cats.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, there were 16 felines packed into the Manhattan apartment that Sliwa, the Republican candidate for mayor of New York City, shares with his wife.
One, called Tuna, lounges in the window. Another is lying on the bed, two more are hiding in a corner. As Sliwa discusses his long-shot campaign, one white and brown cat leaps from a tower onto a filing cabinet, before climbing on top of the fridge and settling down for a rest.
There isn’t a lot of space to accommodate the cats – some of whom Sliwa is fostering temporarily – and Sliwa and his wife. At 328 sq ft, (30.66m2), the apartment is about the size of two car parking spaces. (In New York the minimum legal size for a new apartment is 400 sq feet, but apartments built before 1987 can be much smaller.)
Still, Sliwa, who founded the red-bereted Guardian Angels, a neighborhood protection group that has spread around the globe, and was shot six times during one incident in the 1990s after speaking out against a powerful New York crime family, seems used to the lack of room.
“I end up operating a lot of the time just out of this apartment,” Sliwa says in a thick Brooklyn accent. “And then on the subways, campaigning on the streets. It’s not your conventional campaign. A lot of one-on-one interaction with people.”
The campaign has had to be unconventional because Sliwa has struggled to raise money, and attention.
He defeated the better-financed Fernando Mateo, a businessman and political activist, in a Republican primary for mayor that mostly slipped by unnoticed as the more vaunted Democratic candidates jostled and jousted through spring. Eric Adams, a former police officer and former member of the New York state senate, won that primary and will face Sliwa in the November election.
Sliwa, 67, benefits from unparalleled name recognition in New York City, where he has vigorously, and sometimes dishonestly, courted press attention since the 1970s, and has hosted a talk radio show for three decades. But with the majority of New Yorkers leaning Democratic, the politics of the city is against him.
Another problem is Donald Trump. Sliwa did not vote for Trump, who did not officially weigh in on the mayoral race, but the former president’s election lies are causing him problems.
“With Republicans, the biggest problem I have is: ‘What’s the sense in voting? It doesn’t count.’ Because they’re mostly Trumpers,” Slilwa says. “You know: ‘It’s fixed. They’re never gonna let you let win. The machines don’t work.’
“All during the Republican primary that was my biggest impediment, was convincing people to vote. You could see they were tortured, they’re really starting to believe their votes are not counting.”
Sliwa himself has been vocal in his belief that the 2020 US election was not stolen, a viewpoint that puts him at odds with Trump and his supporters. Some 691,682 New Yorkers, or 23%, voted for Trump in 2020, defying the city’s reputation as a pure bastion of liberal politics.
It was Sliwa’s outspokenness that led to him being shot in June 1992. Sliwa had been critical of John Gotti, the head of the Gambino crime family, who was on trial at the time, and one day he hopped into a cab only to find it contained two members of the mafia. One of them shot Sliwa six times in the abdomen; Sliwa survived after leaping over the gunman and diving through the passenger side window.
Sliwa still has bullet fragments in his body and related health issues.
“They patched me up, and the surgeon said: ‘You’re gonna have problems in 20 years,’” Sliwa says. “And then I really pushed it. I was involved in competitive eating, I finished third in eating hot dogs at Nathan’s in Coney Island. I was the world pickle-eating champion. I pushed the limit.
“[Roughly] 20 years later, I felt this pain in my left side. I ended up with ileitis, colitis, and full-blown Crohn’s disease.”
Mateo may have been the Trumpier candidate in the Republican primary, but Sliwa won the endorsement of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s sometime lawyer and a two-term mayor of New York, who recently had his law licenses suspended in New York and Washington.
Sliwa has known Giuliani for a long time through his Guardian Angels work. He speaks highly of Giuliani’s “zero-tolerance” crime policy in New York in the 1990s and says he would institute “broken windows” policing – a tactic of punishing minor crimes which led to a disproportionate number of Black and Latino men being arrested for relatively trivial offenses. Sliwa also shares Giuliani’s gift for hyperbole.
“I’m dealing with neighborhoods now in which there’s lawlessness and disorder that I’ve never seen before because it’s learned behavior. You know, it’s like people realize you can get away with it, there are no consequences for your actions,” he says.
Sliwa mentions issues like young people “blasting boomboxes” as examples of unacceptable behavior, in a troubling discussion about how to flatten a rising crime wave in New York.
“Everybody just feels that they can do whatever they want, when they want, how they want. And there are no consequences for their actions and you’re beginning to see it in all different neighborhoods,” he says.
“Behavioral modification will help in teaching young men especially and some young women, that they have to, you know, respect other people’s rights, because it’s not coming from the house.”
Part of Sliwa’s belief that he can overcome the odds and defeat Adams in November is his theory that Adams has already been “anointed”, in his words, as the next mayor.
Sliwa thinks that means a lower turnout. He also thinks some Democrats will be turned off from Adams after a grueling Democratic primary.
But Adams, who is notably pro-police, is probably the most difficult of the Democratic candidates Sliwa could have faced. And Sliwa’s promises to return law enforcement to a 1990s standard that is now widely loathed are anathema to most Democrats.
Younger voters, in particular, seem likely to run from a candidate whose promises of “behavioral modification” seem from a different time.
That is going to be disappointing for Sliwa, who believes he has some hip millennial bona fides. He has a growing presence on TikTok and is a passionate, if unlikely, lover of electronic dance music. His main thrust for restoring New York post-Covid centers on bringing back the city’s bars, restaurants, and nightlife, even if his ideas on how to do so return to policing: “You gotta have safe streets, safe subways.”
“Because let’s face it, that’s the way people are going to get around. And especially women, women are terrified because of the pervs in the subways, the violence, the emotionally disturbed, the homeless, sometimes it’s just frightening,” Sliwa says.
“But if women are not going out and enjoying themselves, there’s a very good chance, that a lot of nightlife is just not going to be able to recover. Women out-populate men. Women in many instances have more income now to spend than men.”
As could be expected from a talk radio host, Sliwa can talk effortlessly, and at length. He is undeniably charismatic, with a practiced turn of phrase.
“I go into neighborhoods where the only Republican they’ve ever seen is Abraham Lincoln on a $5 bill,” he says, more than once, as he describes his campaign strategy of essentially just turning up somewhere and letting people talk to him.
It’s a strategy that is partly borne out of necessity – he has raised a fraction of Adams’ total cash, and the Democrat has benefitted from millions of dollars spent in his favor by secretive Super Pac groups – but also, given Sliwa’s fame in the city, it sort of makes sense.
On the streets near his apartment, Sliwa, wearing his distinctive red beret, is stopped every few strides by people saying hello or wanting to talk to him. He hands out business cards to each one, directing them to his website. Not everyone says they will vote for him, but plenty does.
“I appreciate your work,” one man tells Sliwa. “I hope you make it.” A woman says she’ll vote for him. Another man, Danny, is standing outside Sliwa’s local bodega and flags him down. Danny wants to adopt one of his cats.
Suggested to Sliwa that this must be a grueling way to campaign, and live, he says he is used to it. To relax, he turns to his EDM music, which he first came across when setting up a chapter of the Guardian Angels in London.
“I can’t wait to hear what’s coming out of Europe, because Europe is the place where it all generates,” he says, adding: “I used to be quite the dancer.”
Sliwa still dances, but these days his foot-tapping mostly takes place in his apartment.
“My wife will look at me and say: ‘Oh my god, you’re 67, Curtis’. I say: ‘Yeah, but it’s in me.’
“Some people take ecstasy, some people take other drugs, but for me, electronic dance music is a natural mood elevator.”
If Sliwa can defy the odds, the gap in fundraising, and the statistics that show New York is an overwhelmingly Democratic city by winning the mayoral election, he likely won’t need electronic dance music to elevate his mood.