Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY
The Guardian Angels leader’s history is marked by both fabricated tales and true events that sound like fiction. Here’s what to know about the beret-wearing, cat-rescuing, vigilante radio host trying to make it to City Hall.
In 2021, with cursory understanding of the name Curtis Sliwa, you’d be forgiven if you thought of the Republican nominee for mayor of New York City as just that wacky red-beret-wearing, cat-loving Guardian Angels leader with hardly a prayer of winning.
Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 7-to-1 in the city, and Sliwa is up against Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams who has practically been anointed to the gig by party leaders across the spectrum.
But those who know Sliwa well say it would be folly to count him out completely. And his decades-long career — or “series of escapades,” as Sliwa’s longtime radio co-host Ron Kuby put it — belies a deep understanding of the city (and its id) and an exceptional talent for garnering attention.
“Curtis is primarily motivated by the number of ears listening to him and the number of eyeballs watching him,” said Kuby, a decidedly liberal lawyer. “If you think of his mayoral run as a talk show, you’re a lot better off.”
Since winning the Republican primary in June, Sliwa’s unorthodox campaign has been marked by attention-grabbing stunts and stances, including:
- Holding an event attacking the concept of “critical race theory” in public schools.
- Protesting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vaccine mandate for bar and restaurant patrons.
- Twice intervening — with cameras rolling — as emotionally disturbed people disrupted press events, first in The Bronx and later at Penn Station. Sliwa has made support for the homeless and mentally ill a major focus.
- Branding himself as a big-time cat person with media tours of his cat-filled home and a first campaign ad featuring one of his many feline rescues.
- Racking up millions of views on TikTok through his campaign’s official account, which had more than 100,000 subscribers as of early-October.
The show is on between now and the November general election. And Sliwa thinks he’s got a real shot.
“Nobody does retail politics better than me, because I love it,” Sliwa told THE CITY, sitting in his studio apartment he shares with his wife, Nancy Regula, and 17 cats. “Even though, obviously, the enrollment differentials are great — don’t ever go to sleep on Curtis Sliwa.”
To help you understand the tough-talking Republican nominee, THE CITY delved into the events that built him into an oddball New York icon.
Sliwa’s history is a wild and unbelievable timeline pockmarked by tales the now-candidate fabricated for his own gain — like when he faked his own kidnapping by transit police, or made up foiling a rape on a train in Brooklyn. And then, there are episodes that sound like fiction but are real, like when he was shot and nearly killed by reputed associates of the mob boss John Gotti Jr.
His many marriages and relationships — with the now-Queens district attorney, a spouse of a former governor and a model-turned-TV-journalist — have been tabloid fodder for years.
Sliwa has also appeared as a character in some of the biggest controversies in the city, such as when he became an outspoken cheerleader for Bernhard Goetz, the infamous “subway vigilante” shooter who shot four Black teenagers on a downtown 2 train in 1984.
“Historically, Curtis has appealed to and has vindicated the sentiments of angry white people,” said Kuby, who is white and represented one of Goetz’s victims in court.
And there are the times his brash talk has gotten him in hot water, like when he acted out a distorted impression of a Mexican person on NY1 in 2011, or was suspended from the station for saying he wanted to have sex with then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
“There’s no doubt that he’s offensive. There’s no doubt that in his attempt to entertain — he’s an entertainer — he goes overboard, and has gone overboard,” said journalist Gerson Borrero, Sliwa’s former broadcast partner on NY1 and radio.
Is the act, and his actions, racist? Sliwa says his work with the Guardian Angels — “in predominantly Black and Hispanic areas” with “predominantly Black and Hispanic and Asian members,” he said — speaks for itself.
“Would a racist be spending all of his time helping people of color? It defies the definition. If anything, a racist would be saying, ‘Stay out of that area. Don’t have anything to do with them,’” he said.
Borrero described Sliwa as many things — infuriating, provocative, a big-mouth — but never saw him act with racial bias or corruption, he said.
“People call him a clown,” Borrero said. “Well, he’s a caricature. And I consider him a comedian.”
“He’s done some good for the city. He’s done a lot of good for himself. He’s made a lot of money on radio.… He stays relevant. How many people can say that?” Borerro added.
Sliwa knew how to get a headline from a young age.
At just 16 years old, Sliwa first appeared in the Daily News — for collecting a mountain of trash. The Brooklyn teen gathered up 5.5 tons of reusable garbage as part of an early recycling program, according to a report in the tabloid at the time. When the Associated Press picked up the story, papers all over the country printed his name.
Just weeks later, in December of 1970, Sliwa’s hometown paper, the Canarsie Courier, credited him with saving six people’s lives in a fire that killed a 70-year-old woman, Sylvia Koofman. The paper noted Sliwa came upon the early-morning fire on his way to his job as a delivery boy — for the Daily News.
The heroics won Sliwa a heap of praise, an “International Newspaperboy” award and a visit to the White House. In a full-page Daily News profile about him in 1971, he said he wasn’t so impressed with then-President Richard Nixon — and his sister Aleta closes the piece with a somewhat prescient quote about her brother’s future: “Maybe he’ll go into politics — who knows, he could even be president.”
Here Come The Guardians
By his early twenties, Sliwa had developed a penchant for hooking journalists and their audiences. Gimmicks and stunts abounded.
As a manager at a McDonald’s in The Bronx, Sliwa — then going by the nickname “Rock” — banded together the restaurant’s workers into the so-called Rock Brigade, a volunteer litter-cleanup crew. On New Year’s Day 1979, Sliwa organized the group to do a 60-hour “Marathon Sweep” across 140 miles of the city, starting in Staten Island and ending at Rockefeller Center, according to a 1978 Daily News article.
By later that year, the group had morphed into the “Magnificent 13,” a crime-fighting ensemble and precursor to the Guardian Angels. One of the earliest mentions of the 13 appeared in a story of them staging a protest in Times Square. They were demonstrating against “The Warriors,” the classic street gang film, which Sliwa said glorified violence.
“This movie is going to start a trend,” he warned in an AP article.
The Magnificent 13 expanded to bus patrols in Brooklyn, and the Canarsie Courier headlined its Nov. 1, 1979, story on their effort “Guardian Angels on Our Buses.” Within weeks, the group dropped their name for a new one: the Guardian Angels.
Sliwa and the Angels quickly become tabloid fixtures.
“Curtis Sliwa knows by heart every telephone number of every radio and TV station, newspaper editor and reporter in the city,” William McKechnie of the transit police union — and one of Sliwa’s harshest critics — told The Herald Statesmen in 1981.
Sliwa even turned his wedding into a press event. When he married Lisa Evers, a fellow member of the Guardian Angels and future journalist on FOX5 and Hot 97, on Christmas Eve 1981, the pair traveled to St. Louis for their “honeymoon” — where they stayed in public housing to draw attention to its decrepit conditions.
Sliwa remarried twice after splitting with Evers in the 1990s, and had two children with Melinda Katz, now the Queens district attorney, though the pair never married.
His relationships have been extensively covered in the press, with the exception of one: His first wife, a Black woman he met at 19 years old at a dance party at the Stapleton Houses in Staten Island, he said.
The pair got an apartment in Brownsville, then moved to The Bronx because they “got a lot of hate from everybody” in Brooklyn.
“If I was in predominantly Black Brownsville, I was vilified [and] if I went back to Canarsie amongst the Italians…I couldn’t go visit my family because it was perilous. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” he said. “So, our marriage lasted one year.”
As the Rock Brigade turned into the Magnificent 13 and then the Guardian Angels, Sliwa peddled several bogus stories to boost their reputation.
In a 1992 interview with the New York Post — given just weeks after he had nearly been killed in the mob-linked shootout — he confessed to six major lies.
Among them was a saccharine tale about returning a lost wallet with $300 inside to an elderly lady, picked up (supposedly) by one of the Rock Brigade street-sweepers. City tabloids printed the made-up story in December 1978, and a businessman donated $300 to the group for their good deed.
In 1979, Sliwa set up a fake rescue of a Bronx mugging victim. Just a few weeks later, Sliwa said he fought off a group of six would-be rapists on a subway train, describing one as a shotgun-toting “gorilla,” to the Daily News. “It was right out of a kung-fu movie,” Sliwa told the paper.
None of it was true, Sliwa admitted years later.
His biggest lie came in October 1980 when — in the midst of a feud with the police and then-Mayor Ed Koch — Sliwa claimed he was kidnapped near his Bronx home by Transit Authority cops. The incident was wholly fabricated.
One of the reporters who published some of those tall tales was Murray Weiss, whom Sliwa later confessed to in the 1992 interview. Weiss gives him some credit for ultimately ’fessing up.
“There are people in public life to this day who won’t acknowledge their transgressions, their fabrications, their whatever, that helped get them where they want to be,” Weiss told THE CITY.
Sliwa said of the lies, “I apologized for all of them. I didn’t justify them.”
At the time, he felt he was in a “public relations war” where his enemies were painting the Guardian Angels as a gang who were “purposely going and creating problems,” he told THE CITY from his Upper West Side apartment.
“I said, in order for this concept to survive, I gotta buy some time,” he said. “Then I just utilized some of these lies to give us cover.… And it was wrong.”
Kuby, who first came in contact with Sliwa during the infamous Goetz trial in the mid-1980s, said of the lies: “Curtis had designed a post-truth world well before it became a political movement.”
Starting in 1991, Sliwa began the job that would define much of his working life: talk radio jock.
Through the years, Sliwa has broadcast mostly on WABC — which he jokingly said stands for “We Always Broadcast Curtis” — with a brief detour to WNYC and, later, appearances on NY1’s Inside City Hall.
His first show included a segment called “Mob Talk” about the goings-on of the mafia. He contends that’s why, in 1992, he was accosted and nearly killed in a shootout inside a taxi. Years later, John Gotti Jr. and an associate were charged in the incident, but never convicted for the shooting directly.
Throughout, he continued to lead the Guardian Angels, which has become an international organization with thousands of members, he says.
For years, the Angels and Sliwa appeared in fraught places, either called there to patrol or showing up for publicity. Whether they help or hurt has been debated for decades.
They acted as security for “Restaurant Row” on 46th Street in the late 1980s, operating out of a donated storefront. They patrolled the Christopher Street area and West Side piers, called there by locals fed up with noise and drug use.
John Blasco, a former organizer with the group FIERCE NYC, which advocates for LGBTQ youth of color, often saw Sliwa’s Guardian Angels in the West Village when he worked in the neighborhood between 2007 and 2014.
To him, the group was there to harass.
“They were responding to young people voguing on the street. They were responding to what we knew as ‘quality of life’ violations, which often to us just meant they were targeting Black and brown young people,” Blasco told THE CITY.
More recently, the Angels patrolled neighborhoods where temporary homeless shelters opened on the Upper West and Upper East Side. During last year’s Black Lives Matter marches, the Angels set themselves up as defense against anyone looking to break into stores in Manhattan’s commercial districts.
Sliwa said that move was all about “protecting product, property and people.”
“You can’t allow anarchy to persist like this, because then there’s no consequences for actions. So, we took a stand,” he said.
Sliwa is running as a Republican, but he hasn’t always been a member of that club.
Up until five years ago, Sliwa said he was “what is pejoratively referred to at the Board of Elections as a ‘blank,’ a person of no consequence — an independent voter.”
Then in 2016, he gave a third party a shot, helping to take over the New York State Reform Party, a short-lived venture that died when the party lost its ballot line in 2018.
Today, there are many in the GOP who don’t share his views. That’s because Sliwa is a proud member of the “Never Trump” camp — and has bashed Donald Trump for years.
For example, when Trump was running for president in 2015, Sliwa attacked the developer for spreading the racist lie that Muslim people cheered in Bergen County, N.J., on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I hate Trump,” he said in a late 2019 interview. “There’s no buts there…I started out early on, when he was the candidate.”
Still, Trump’s ever-loyal lawyer Rudy Giuliani endorsed Sliwa this year — returning the favor of Sliwa’s support in the 1990s.
Can Sliwa bottle some of the success Giuliani and later Mike Bloomberg had as Republicans in New York? Before Trump was elected, Kuby would have put the chances at “precisely zero.” But now?
“Having watched Donald Trump become the Republican nominee and become president of the United States, I have to put the figure as somewhere just above zero,” he said.
Sliwa said pessimists told him he had no shot in the primary. But he kept the faith.
“Even some of my supporters would say ‘Oh, that’s it. You’re buried.’ Nah, I’ve been in these neighborhoods for years. I disagree,” he said.
Sliwa did win the Republican primary with 67.9% of the vote, besting livery driver and bodega owner advocate Fernando Mateo.
Borrero believes it’s a steeply uphill battle to win in the general, but not impossible. To Adams, he says: “You minimize Curtis at your own risk.”
“There’s no one in politics right now, in general, in New York, that knows New York City better than Curtis Sliwa,” Borrero said.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.