Campaigns & Elections

Sliwa likely to win Republican mayoral primary – but who knows?

There’s been limited polling in this largely overlooked race.

Curtis Sliwa

Curtis Sliwa Ron Adar/Shutterstock

The headlines in New York City have largely been dominated by the Democratic mayoral primary – and with good reason. But there’s also a two-person Republican primary going on, giving the party a choice to select the person who will likely lose to the Democratic nominee in November. The race is between Curtis Sliwa, a radio host who founded the Guardian Angels crime prevention group in the late 1970s and patrolled the high crime areas around the city, and businessman and activist Fernando Mateo, both of whom have quietly become the laughingstock of the party.

A recent poll found Sliwa had a 6-point edge over Mateo, leading with 33% of 250 Republicans surveyed in a PIX11, NewsNation, Emerson College poll released last week. However, the poll found that 40% of Republicans were still undecided on who to choose for mayor.

Republican politicos said Sliwa’s name recognition and backing from the Republican parties in Brooklyn and especially in Staten Island – the strongest Republican county party in the city – could give him a boost. But not everyone is sure.

Neither candidate has qualified for matching funds, and given they are mostly off the radar of voters, Republican voters will likely go with who they know.

“The Republican primary has gotten next to no coverage in the press and none of the candidates have raised the millions of dollars necessary to move a message in the New York City media market,” said Republican strategist Sara Ballou, who previously worked as chief of staff to Rep. Nicole Malliotakis when she was an Assembly member. “Given that, hardly any New Yorkers even know that there’s a Republican primary, the candidate who came into the race with the highest name ID and network is going to be the favorite to win. In this case, that favorite is Curtis Sliwa.”

But Sliwa might not have the name recognition for the right reasons, some say. He had a widely publicized relationship with Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, admitted to faking crimes to garner publicity for the Guardian Angels, and the debate he and Mateo appeared in was described as an embarrassing “food fight” by some.

“Everybody’s going with Curtis’ name recognition, yeah, but what if your name recognition aligns you with being a buffoon?” said a Republican operative, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the race. “That’s (Sliwa’s) problem, he just does these stupid stunts with themeatball birthday cakeand then talking about the fucking 14 cats.” (Sliwa actually has 15 cats.)

Not all Republicans were thrilled to cast their vote in the primary. Outgoing Republican City Council Member Eric Ulrich told Campaign Confidential that he doesn’t have a clue who is going to win, but voted for Mateo anyway because he was “the lesser of two evils.” It wasn’t an enthusiastic vote, he said, lamenting that he wished the party would have had “better choices.” “I voted in the primary on Saturday. I don’t think it makes a difference because neither of them have qualified for matching funds and it’s sort of widely accepted at this point that whoever wins the Democratic primary is going to win the race in November,” Ulrich said.

One Republican contended that despite the choice of candidates, Republicans always have to run someone, even if the odds are stacked against them because you never know what will happen in a race. “What do you do? You just give up? You throw in the towel?” the Republican operative said when asked why bother running as a Republican. “You’re always hoping that someone like another Mike Bloomberg will come along, or you’re always hoping that lightning strikes and three weeks before the election, the Democrat is hauled away in handcuffs or drops dead from a heart attack.”

Parties were divided on who to back in the Republican primary. The Staten Island and Brooklyn Republican parties went with Sliwa, while the Queens, Manhattan and Bronx Republican parties went with Mateo. The division also hit home for some. Billionaire John Catsimatidis, a respected figure in New York City’s Republican politics who ran as a Republican for mayor of New York City in 2013, backed Sliwa, while his daughter, Andrea Catsimatidis, who heads the Manhattan Republican Party, went with Mateo.

In recent days, Sliwa has picked up the endorsements of big names in the party. He won former Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s endorsement over the weekend and, on Tuesday, the endorsement of Malliotakis, New York City’s only Republican lawmaker in Congress. 

But having Staten Island’s support alone is likely all Sliwa will need, said Peter Giunta, the president of the Staten Island Young Republicans. “Staten Island is usually, as it should be, the sign of which way the Republican voters are going citywide,” he said.