Our Town & Sliwa, Now & Then

The newspaper’s past connects with present day politics and a longshot mayoral bid.

| 30 Aug 2021 | 06:38

With Our Town hitting 50 year, I’m always scoping out stories where there’s some connection between the paper’s past and present day New York. And Curtis Sliwa’s mayoral candidacy brings back the memory of a 20-something Sliwa in the late 70s to early 80s making his way into Our Town’s street level offices to talk up and promote his idea of how to deal with crime safety in the city – the subways in particular – to publisher Ed Kayatt. A young, tall Curtis – decked out in what would become his signature Guardian Angels garb of a red beret and red bomber jacket – made his way into the Our Town office. The office in those days was home to 10 live-in cats and a staff of editors, volunteers, as well as locals lining up with copy for Classified Ads. Ed (my then husband) would spend hours with Curtis figuring out how to deal with matters relating to growing crime in the city and its subways, and how the Guardian Angels could engage in protecting the public.

Sitting with Sliwa in his mayoral campaign headquarters for an interview, I wanted to know if he remembered those days. “Do I remember?,” he smiled, and went on to talk about the years that the Guardian Angels was starting out and wanted to aid in the fight against subway crime by patrolling the subways. The immediate problem for the fledgling organization was that all volunteers were young, most just out of school, and they didn’t have fare to get onto the subway seven days a week, and the Guardian Angels didn’t have the funds either. In those days, you needed a token to get into the subway. After a subway strike, the subway token was raised to 75 cents in 1981, and by 1986 had gone up to a dollar. Two dollars a day for tokens was too much for the young volunteers to pay. With the Guardian Angels unable to fund them, and transit police and then-Mayor Koch resisting the help being offered and unwilling to waive the fare, Sliwa’s project was not getting off the ground.

The Our Town intervention
Week after week there were articles, editorials, ads seeking donations of tokens. It worked. Thousands of tokens were donated by readers and others. The tokens were delivered in brown paper bags full to Our Town and turned over to the Guardian Angels. Simpatico with the sentiment was then-Governor Mario Cuomo, who had just beaten Koch for the governorship. Cuomo jumped into the fray in support of Sliwa’s Guardian Angels. Koch would have none of it. All these years later, Sliwa remembers that so many bags full of tokens were delivered to him that the floor in the closet where they were kept began to sag. No problem, I guess. The landlord probably understood.

Fade out. Fade in. Now, some 40-odd years later, the same Curtis Sliwa is the Republican candidate for Mayor in the 2021 election and is still wearing a red beret and Guardian Angels bomber jacket. I was there to hear all about it in his campaign headquarters in an office building opposite Madison Square Garden. One of his campaign staffers, Anna Zell, met me in the lobby and escorted me to the 7th floor headquarters where staffers, volunteers, and Guardian Angels were doing nitty gritty campaign work – at laptops, at tables, on the phones. It doesn’t seem as though the campaign is getting the type of knock-down, drag-out help, donation-wise or otherwise, that one expects from a Republican campaign for a major office. But toil they do. Loyalty to Curtis seems to come in large part from his image as a fighter against crime, no-kill animal shelters, keeping Rikers open and other causes that he advocates, sometimes loudly.

Arnaldo Salinas, one of the original Guardian Angels, has been with Sliwa for 44 years and is part of the team that’s putting together campaign swag like tee shirts, totes, along with info on Sliwa’s positions, and how you can come on board to volunteer. In addition to the nitty-gritty work, there was the campaign staff – Campaign Manager Rob Hornak, Political Strategist Robert Cole, Press, Maria Sliwa, one of Curtis’s sisters, Consultants, Oliver Roberts, Anna Zell, and Office Manager/Consultant James Perrone. When asked about contributions and fundraising, Sliwa was quick to point out that politicos from both parties contribute to the opponents – meaning to competing candidates. To prove it, he mentioned that Brooklyn Dem Leader Frank Seddio contributed $2,000 to his campaign. Sliwa didn’t talk about the big-dollar Republicans who were supporting him politically but fundraising in the Hamptons for his opponent Democrat Eric Adams. Although Sliwa has made it known that he’s no fan of Donald Trump, his loyalty to Rudy Giuliani is steadfast and he tolerates the former mayor’s allegiance to the former president. Giuliani endorsed Sliwa. No mention about a donation.

As for his candidacy, Sliwa emphasized his plans for education with a comprehensive overhaul of K-12 and beyond, implement college degree pathways to make college more financially accessible for NYC residents, 3-year college degrees. And no-kill animal shelters.

On policing, he wants to “re-fund” the police, not “defund” them, and wants to crack down on protesters. As Mayor, he says he’ll be going around to police precincts throughout the city to promote morale. And won’t carry a gun as a Mayor Adams promises to do. I asked Sliwa, who was a crime victim and entitled to get a gun license, why he didn’t carry a gun. He said he thought it was a bad message for the Mayor to walk around with a gun.

Sliwa’s convinced he can win. He thinks that everyone is forgetting the gubernatorial run of George Pataki, when an unknown Pataki beat the invincible incumbent, Mario Cuomo. While the analogy is not flawless – everybody knows Curtis – it’s a mistake to dismiss him out of hand. When he’s out on the streets, people call out to him, walk up to him, shake his hand. Horns honk. Cats call. To show the affection and affinity the public has for Sliwa, Tom Robbins, in a recent New Yorker newsletter, wrote about people’s reaction to Sliwa as he campaigned on Amsterdam Avenue. One elderly woman, stopping to shake Sliwa’s hand and take his card, said, “I am not voting for you, but I think everything you do is great.” Sliwa’s got work to do.