NEW YORK — Curtis Sliwa doesn’t care where you went to college.
Pounding the pavement in the Chelsea neighborhood of lower Manhattan on Tuesday, the Republican nominee for New York mayor demanded to know where potential voters went to high school.
It’s a query that lets him tap a mental Rolodex of nicknames, famous alumni and nearby landmarks. He leads a long-shot bid against front-runner Eric Adams or whoever emerges from the Democrats’ “ranked choice” primary, as that race tightens.
Mr. Sliwa told a middle-aged Queens supporter who went to Archbishop Molloy High School that he didn’t care for his famous schoolmate, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He congratulated a group of West African graduates at Liberty High School and joked that their school’s name would fit on a sports jersey — unlike the fancy science and technology academies in town.
“I connect with people. I know about them, based on the high school they went to. That tells me a lot about a person,” Mr. Sliwa told The Washington Times. “I love the subways and the streets. That’s why I love the campaign.”
Oddsmakers don’t give the red-beret-wearing founder of the Guardian Angels, a safety patrol group, much of a chance in the general election. Democratic voters far outnumber Republicans in the city, so the November contest is viewed as a fait accompli.
Still, Mr. Sliwa introduces himself on the street as the “next mayor of New York,” and it’s easy to see where he gets his confidence.
A Hispanic man in a turquoise Air Jordan cap pledged his vote shortly after a woman who identified herself as “S. Tanya,” who is White and liberal, found herself agreeing with Mr. Sliwa, who is putting quality of life and public safety at the core of his mayoral bid.
The woman said the number of people begging and defecating in the streets of pandemic-addled New York makes her question the city’s liberal approach.
“You can’t even walk your dog out in the morning, all the broken glass, all the garbage,” she said. “I find that as progressive as I am, I’m very practical and a lot of progressives really aren’t. And when you start to think about how you’re living and, like, when you walk out your door, a whole lot of that theory kind of goes out the frickin’ window.”
Over the next half hour, Mr. Sliwa greeted a truck driver and a FedEx worker and pledged to help a homeless man from Egypt if elected. One woman told Mr. Sliwa, a former talk show host and New York fixture since the late 1970s, that he is getting more and more handsome.
“You never know. Sometimes people pull your chain and chew your shorts. They may not be wanting to vote for you. I recognize that,” Mr. Sliwa told The Washington Times. “But a lot of it is very genuine. Most of these people are just everyday people.”
Mr. Sliwa is waiting in the wings after easily defeating his sole Republican competitor, Fernando Mateo, a restaurateur who attacked Mr. Sliwa as a “Never Trumper” and not a real Republican.
Mr. Sliwa acknowledged he isn’t a traditional Republican, though he views that as an asset in New York. He said people should immigrate legally but those who have been in the U.S. for a long time and followed the laws should be extended a path to citizenship.
Mr. Sliwa said the Chelsea neighborhood is Exhibit A of what is happening to the city as liberal leaders pursue bail reform and a softer approach to policing and quality-of-life issues.
Chelsea is home to the High Line, upscale Del Posto restaurant and Chelsea Market. Folks in the coveted neighborhood have asked the Guardian Angels to patrol the streets. Mr. Sliwa said the homeless and emotionally disturbed cannot get their medicine or even find a public bathroom because of COVID-19 lockdowns.
“It’s a bohemian place, so there’s a tolerance level here, but the tolerance was shaken to its core when the lockdown came, and all of a sudden they were encampments,” Mr. Sliwa said.
Mr. Sliwa’s platform includes “refunding the police,” rather than cutting their budget, and restoring anti-crime units that have been shuttered.
He said current leadership and his Democratic rivals are too eager to rely on government solutions instead of the personal touch he wields on the streets.
“If government has the answers, how come there’s not enough affordable housing? Why are the homeless in the streets?” he said.
His platform calls for speeding up the permit and licensing process to promote business in the recovering city while capping property taxes for middle- and low-income owners and forcing “wealthy universities and landlords to pay their fair share.”
Graffiti dots apartment buildings and subway stairs near Hell’s Kitchen, a mark of deteriorating conditions in Mr. Sliwa’s view, though he said the fix begins with private owners.
“Look at that,” he said, pointing to the spray paint. “Is that the responsibility of the city? Hell no. Somebody’s got to go to the landlord and say, ‘Hey, you got a custodian, you got superintendent. That’s got to go.’ You give them a warning. Then if they don’t heed the warning, then you hit them with a fine.
“That’s something that destroys the quality of life. That’s a brand-new building,” he said. “How are they going to get any tenants?”
Mr. Sliwa wants animal lovers to know he lives in a small apartment on the Upper West Side with 15 rescue cats.
“I’m running on the independent party line, which a lot of people will vote on, and then I have the animal welfare issue, no-kill shelters, which a lot of people are in favor of,” he said.
Mr. Sliwa said he will spend more time in the subways than City Hall if he is elected, but there’s a long way to go until November. His Democratic opponent hasn’t even been confirmed.
Nearly 32% of New York City Democrats selected Mr. Adams as their first choice for mayor, putting him in a strong position over liberal Maya Wiley and former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who received 22% and 19% of the No. 1 vote, respectively.
Mr. Adams‘ lead shrank significantly Tuesday as elections officials began to eliminate candidates from the bottom of the field and reallocate their numbers based on ballots that allowed voters to rank their top five preferences to succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who is term-limited.
However, elections officials later said they botched the count by including “test” ballots and said they would count again, eroding trust in the process.
The initial tally showed Mr. Adams‘ lead had shrunk to roughly 16,000 votes, or less than 2 percentage points, over Ms. Garcia, the other candidate who remained standing. Ms. Wiley finished third.
Mr. Adams thanked the elections board for admitting its mistake and called for an accurate count.
Tens of thousands of absentee ballots also must be counted, so the results might not be known until mid-July.
Mr. Adams has said he is more than able to take Mr. Sliwa to task if he locks down the Democratic nomination.
The Brooklyn borough president said the Republican nominee might have public safety bona fides but New Yorkers are looking for someone who is well-rounded and can revamp education and usher in fair policing.
“Curtis can wear the red beret and do what he’s doing, but right now we need a well-trained mayor who understands this city,” Mr. Adams told Fox 5 this month.
Mr. Adams, a retired police captain, made public safety a central part of his campaign. He has pledged to bring back shuttered anti-crime units as “anti-gun” units.
Mr. Sliwa said he wants to restore the crime units, too, though he believes Mr. Adams is too hung up on reform to bring them back quickly.
He said Mr. Adams is too wedded to satisfying both sides of the policing debate and cited the Democrat’s support for removing the “qualified immunity” that protects them from lawsuits.
“The cops are going to have to go out and get police malpractice insurance,” Mr. Sliwa said.
To be sure, the mayor’s seat remains a long shot for Mr. Sliwa, but he won over the streets on a 90-degree stroll in Manhattan.
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve been watching you,” said Abayomi Park, a Lower East Side resident who greeted Mr. Sliwa with expletives of surprise. “You should be the mayor, man. Why not?”