Welcome to the 16th edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter. I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and today we have a Q&A with Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa. The Guardian Angels founder has been a longtime political gadfly and commentator in New York, the sort of character really only this city could produce. While it’s no secret that he is heavily disfavored in the general election in a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic, he’s one of the two major-party candidates and is campaigning hard. A bit of a political chameleon, Sliwa has at times taken positions at almost every point in the political spectrum. I ask him about some of the pressing issues facing New York. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You often talk about going out on the streets and the subways and meeting voters, what are you finding that people have been bringing up? Are they responsive to your tough-on-crime messaging?
A lot of parents who have kids in public school are concerned about whether they’re going to be able to go back to school, and obviously, about the vaccine mandate. What blows people away is a, the thought is, wait a second, I thought when I had my two shots, that it was okay. Now I find out I can still get it and be a carrier. So it’s almost like they’re very suspicious about what government is saying. All of our government authorities who speak [on this] really need to lock this down, because they’re all over the map.
What would you be doing differently if you were in charge?
The first thing is I would shut my mouth and not speak every day to the point where I end up contradicting myself and losing all credibility. I would allow the experts who are appointed to these positions to do the talking. The thing I’ve learned from all these updates, whether it was Trump every day, or Cuomo every day, or de Blasio, is like, shut your mouth, sit back, let the experts talk.
You don’t think elected leaders would be raked over the coals for not talking often about the COVID crisis?
I think for them to say, ‘look, today, we’re going to be listening to Dr. so-and-so,’ or ‘you’re going to be listening to this expert, because clearly they know more than I know,’ wouldn’t it be refreshing?
So if you were Mayor Sliwa right now, you wouldn’t be imposing vaccine mandates and masking rules?
The thing we want to encourage is as many people as possible to get the vaccine, knowing that there are some with medical conditions who cannot, or religious observations who will not. And some because, let’s face it, they were taught, like I was taught, ‘don’t take anything, unless it’s FDA approved.’ You have to do a lot of re-educating, and you’ve got to sway people, and you’ve got to spend time talking to them. And you’ve basically got to bribe them with all kinds of tchotchkes.
Besides COVID, you’ve made public safety a centerpiece of your campaign, but it seems to me you’d have an easier time running against some of the other Democratic candidates. Adams is a former cop. Won’t people naturally trust him to handle safety?
The one thing Eric Adams is never asked about, he gave an interview, [they asked] ‘what would you do to fix up the subway system, make it safer, have the trains run on time?’ He said, ‘If I were mayor, I would have free fares.’ That is like the craziest idea I’ve ever heard. [Editor’s note: while Adams appears to have called for free rides for essential workers during the pandemic, we couldn’t find anything on him calling for totally free fares across the board.] When you claim to be law and order, to know how to protect people and make it safer in the streets, subways, and parks, that will make people completely unsafe in the subways and buses. And how else are you going to pay for this system that costs billions and billions of dollars to function? All hell will break loose.
Are you saying that if everyone were allowed to ride on the subways for free, that would somehow attract more dangerous people or more crime?
In a wide variety of mass transit systems that exist around the world, [supporters] would point to one success where this worked. You know, you would say, ‘oh, it works in Zurich,’ or ‘it works in Singapore,’ or any suggestion that there’s a free fares system anywhere. So I’d like [Adams] to enlighten us on how this will not only make it a safer system, but how it can be subsidized, so that it won’t just fall apart.
Number two, he takes the position, when it comes to the low-level crimes violation that — like the DAs in almost all five counties have taken — that they’re not going to prosecute these violations. It seems that he wants to be all things to all people: ‘I’m a progressive, I’m a progressive, I’m law and order, I’m law and order.’ If you’re not going to find and arrest people for low-level violations, if you don’t believe, as I do, that with zero tolerance quality of life actually goes up and not down, then you’re going to have more and more severe crimes committed because people are going to realize no consequences for your actions in New York City.
I’ve certainly often heard from people in minority neighborhoods that they’re also worried about crime and want someone to deal with it, just not this NYPD that so often defaults to suspicion and violence against everyone in the community. How are you going to win those votes when your message of zero tolerance is seen as a proxy for police harassment?
You need to fill the void with other agencies, be proactive, and that’s not happening with our city. So for instance, when de Blasio and the City Council defunded the police [editor’s note: while last year’s budget did ostensibly cut about $1 billion from the police budget, some of this was shifted to pay for law enforcement in other agencies like the Department of Education, and the NYPD budget remained above $5 billion]. The homeless outreach unit was put out of business, the most effective measure that we’ve had in dealing with homeless and emotionally disturbed persons who live in the subways, the streets in the park, lost souls who are a danger to themselves and at times everyone else. They eliminated it and never filled the void.
So if you have a problem, and you don’t want the police to deal with it? Got it. But what do you have that is going to fill the void? Don’t tell us how bad the cops are at dealing with it. Create an entity that is going to deal with the problem. De Blasio has had two years to do that, and he failed to deliver. He’s always saying, ‘Oh, I want mental health experts responding to the emotionally disturbed calls that get transmitted to 911.’ Okay. Why haven’t we experimented with that? Why haven’t we tried it in tandem with the police? We haven’t done anything. [editor’s note: the city has launched a pilot program to have mental health professionals respond to some calls, though in practice it appears that even in the pilot area the program hasn’t been used much.]
Are you saying you agree with the approach of taking some functions away from the police and giving them to other agencies and more specialized professionals?
Yes! For instance, I have a problem because I’m the only candidate that deals with animal welfare issues. Years ago, we took away from the ASPCA the responsibility to check up on animal complaints, to a special unit of the NYPD. It’s clear they don’t want to do it. They don’t do a very good job of it. I know, I’m out on the front lines when we’re trying to rescue these Pits, or these Rottweilers, who are being abused or trained to be fighters. The police respond, the special unit, but they don’t really want to be involved in it. Okay, let’s bring back the ASPCA.
It doesn’t mean the police always do the best job, but if we’re going to criticize them, as we so often do, we blame them for all society’s problems, let’s come up with the alternative. Do it, set up a pilot project. Let’s experiment.
This animal welfare aspect of your campaign actually seems to be an area where you can make common ground with people otherwise very different to you politically.
There are many, many, many people who perceive themselves as being liberal, progressive, or even DSA who really love my concepts on animal welfare. You know, no kill shelters. Why do we spend millions of dollars to give some of these animals only 72 hours to exist in a shelter? And then we euthanize them. When I talk to people they say ‘what?!’ and I say ‘yeah, some of these animals, if they’re not claimed, within 72 hours they get euthanized.’ They actually have a list, it’s sort of like you’re on death row. That’s how we ended up rescuing so many of our cats, we saw that they were approaching the 72-hour mark. It’s a mark of a society. If you’re not taking care of your animals, you’re not going to take care of your emotionally disturbed persons and homeless people because you don’t have compassion. I go into neighborhoods where the only Republican they’ve ever seen is Abraham Lincoln on a $5 bill, and I get respect, because I’ve been there time and time again.
The economic recovery from Covid-19 is going to be a huge issue for the next mayor, and there’s a lot of talk about how to save small businesses and preserve the city’s tax base. How would you respond to another Amazon HQ2-style situation, and how can you help small businesses survive and thrive?
There’s millions of square feet of empty commercial space now that may never be repopulated or repurposed. There’s certain realities that people don’t want to grasp. Because of the pandemic and the lockdown, people have become dependent on e-commerce now more than ever. Amazon and everybody else, everything gets delivered, it can get delivered on the same day. How are you going to get people to go back out to retail establishments? Number two, how are you going to get people back to the workplace when so many of them feel so much better working from home? It’s a healthier existence for them, they’re not stressed out and having to be sardines being moved in and out of New York City, where they’re spending half their life on a train or a bus or in a car.
The employer, or the owner-operator of the business, realizes ‘wow, productivity is fairly good, and I can get rid of this huge overhead, plus the property taxes that come along from the landlords,’ and it’s this trickle-down effect. So I really get a belly laugh when I hear these developers say, ‘we’ve got to get back to developing Sunset Park and the Sunnyside train yards, and all these ultra-big developmental projects.’ I’m gonna say, ‘wait a second. Have you seen Hudson Yards lately? It’s a ghost town.’ How about we first focus on what to do with all the empty space that’s out there, millions of square feet of commercial property, whether we repurpose it into affordable housing or we bifurcate it into small businesses. The tax base is going to continue to leave. And property taxes pay so much of this $100 billion, bloated budget that de Blasio is leaving us with. So it’s sort of like, we’re gonna have to do more with less.
The mechanism already exists: the Financial Control Board. It’s in mothballs, a state agency that was imposed upon the city when Ed Koch was elected mayor in the 70s, because we were on the brink of going fiscally insolvent. We need somebody overseeing the mayor and the City Council, where we have to account for every nickel, dime, and penny and live within our means. Nobody wants to hear that. It’s a very unpopular idea. But it’s an idea that we’re going to have to revert to because we’re not willing to do it on our own.
It sounds like you’d want to use your executive powers to somehow forcibly repurpose commercial space for public gain, which isn’t exactly a conservative small-government idea.
No, the more the government can stay out of this, the better. Because right now, it’s pure capitalism. Supply and demand, and there is a hell of a lot of supply and there’s very little demand in some of these buildings that are going to end up becoming distressed real soon, and they’re not going to be paying their property taxes. You have to allow for the natural order of things. [Landlords and commercial tenants] are approaching each other, they’re making deals. So, for instance, if you’re a business, you can’t pay the lease, you can’t pay the rent, now the landlord is saying, ‘how about if I get a percentage of the profit?’ ‘Okay, we’ll learn to live like this until things normalize.’ Everyone is sort of finding a way to coexist naturally, without government stimulating that.
Government should do less, they should be there to make sure that we don’t have pigs, trying to take advantage of the system. When I say pigs, I mean upzoning. You go into a place like Middle Village, into these residential neighborhoods, and they want to give them the right to put up a six-story monstrosity [among] single and two-family homes? It’s like, no, stop. Stop trying to change neighborhoods.
What else do you want people to know about you and your campaign?
I don’t trust politicians and nobody should trust me. Because the moment that I kissed my first baby and shook my first hand, I’m a politician. And every politician will bamboozle you, they’ll put out their own propaganda. That’s why we need a free press, we need a press that’s not friends with politicians, and keeps our hands and our feet to the fire and doesn’t accept our propaganda that we try to spin.