Mayoral contenders Curtis Sliwa and Fernando Mateo faced off in their first official debate, obscuring their real policy ideas with stage combat.


Fernando Mateo introduces Trumpy Bear as fellow Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa and NY1 host Errol Louis look on.

On paper, Republicans ought to have a shot at winning the New York City mayoralty this year. Crime has spiked and the economy is struggling, thanks to the pandemic. The current Democratic mayor is term-limited and unpopular, and is at war with the Democratic governor, who faces multiple investigations. A lot of sharp elbows are coming out in the Democratic primary, potentially dividing the party. And the business class seems desperate to avoid another progressive mayor. Sure, it’d be an uphill battle—Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city by a six-to-one margin—but not an impossible one, given the opportunities that are out there.

Wednesday’s Republican mayoral debate suggested the party is unlikely to capitalize on those opportunities. Entrepreneur and business advocate Fernando Mateo and Guardian Angels founder and radio host Curtis Sliwa offered voters an hour of personal attacks and bizarre moments that managed to obscure some legitimate policy ideas each had to offer.

Watch the debate here.

At one point, Mateo—hoping to demonstrate his love for former President Donald Trump—displayed his Trumpy Bear and made a “grrrrr” sound. At another, Sliwa said some bike lanes were so underused you don’t even see Pee Wee Herman riding on them. And the two candidates offered different numbers for how many rescue cats Sliwa hosts in his apartment: Sliwa said 15, but Mateo repeatedly said there were 13. Mateo also said twice that Sliwa had 14 litter boxes for those 13 cats, raising a whole other set of questions.

From nearly the first moment, the debate descended into shouting and insults. Sliwa accused Mateo of making illegal campaign contributions to Bill de Blasio. Mateo dismissed Sliwa as nothing but a “subway rider,” a “clown” and a “compulsive liar.” Mateo appeared to take personal credit for getting Mike Bloomberg the Latino votes he needed to become mayor. Sliwa appeared to take personal credit for making the city’s streets and subways safe in the 1990s.

There were plenty of areas of agreement. Both said that alleged fraud in the 2020 presidential election warranted investigation. Both blamed de Blasio for all the city’s woes, and both pledged to re-fund and expand the police. Mateo, who did the lion’s share of the shouting and interrupting, said he would remove all residency requirements for police officers (there is now a limited set of counties in which they can reside) and exempt them from paying any tolls. 

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Both agreed that communities should have a say in deciding where homeless shelters are located. Sliwa spoke rather eloquently about the need to help those homeless people who are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems, faulting the city for not providing sufficient services. “The city is not doing that and it’s a sin,” he said at one point.

Neither candidate supports mandatory COVID vaccines for students or wants to prioritize desegregating city schools. Both believe the SHSAT should remain the only criterion for entrance to the city’s specialized high schools, that schools should teach that Christoper Columbus “discovered America,” and that charter schools should be expanded.

Both candidates would have the NYPD cooperate with federal immigration agents. Both expressed extreme hate for speed cameras and vowed to remove them all. And both want to remove the restaurant sheds that have popped up around the city; Mateo, who said the city “looks like a shantytown” says restaurants should be allowed to use their sidewalks but not any street surface.

Both agreed human-caused climate change is real. Mateo said he wants to convert the entire city vehicle fleet to electric, and Sliwa vowed to prioritize shoreline resiliency.

Those were not the only actual policy ideas either man articulated, between the fireworks. Mateo wants to create a system of safe havens in subway stations by posting two police officers on every platform, to give every small business the same set of generous tax incentives the city was willing to give Amazon and to allow more building contractors to self-certify their work. Sliwa wants to cap property taxes and eliminate any animal shelters than euthanize creatures, moving to a full “no kill” model.

One of the final questions was about which cultural or sporting event each man would attend first now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. Sliwa said he wanted to see “Hamilton.” Mateo said he wanted to go see “Jersey Boys,” which he has already seen three or four times. Sliwa, extending the only olive branch of the night, agreed that the music in “Jersey Boys” is excellent.

Voters can still register for the Democratic or Republican party in time to vote in the June 22 primary, for which early voting begins June 12. The deadline is this Friday, May 28.