NEW YORK — Eric Adams beat out a slate of qualified Democrats, survived a residency scandal that drew national headlines and is all but assumed to be the next mayor of New York. The one thing standing in his way: a general election against one of the city’s most colorful public figures.
Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and former NYPD captain, won his party’s nomination after pushing a tough-on-crime message. Curtis Sliwa, a Republican best known for founding the vigilante group Guardian Angels, had the opportunity to test the limits of that strategy Wednesday night in the first of two debates ahead of next month’s general election.
Adams has a big edge in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 7-to-1 margin. But Sliwa, whose safety patrols became synonymous with the crime-ridden New York of the 1980s and 1990s, has vowed to give the former state lawmaker a run for his money. He’s been battering Adams over his residency, his close ties to big donors and his ethical record as a state senator.
The Democratic nominee had the chance to respond Wednesday night as the two faced off in a 7 p.m. debate co-hosted by by WNBC, POLITICO, Telemundo 47, the Citizens Budget Commission and the New York Urban League.
The candidates sparred over their differing views on public safety and the Covid-19 pandemic. The debate kicked off with a question about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vaccine mandate for city workers, and Adams was pressed on whether he supported the benching of police officers and fire fighters who refuse to get vaccinated.
Adams said he saw what happened on the ground in the early days of the Covid pandemic, with families dropping loved ones off at the hospital only to never see them again. He said he supported the mandate, but would have approached the implementation differently, meeting with union members in the city to reach an agreement.
When it was Sliwa’s turn to have the floor, he said the city is already facing a shortage of police officers that such mandates will only exacerbate the problem.
The conversation quickly shifted to another contentious topic, public safety, during which Sliwa said he’s the only candidate who has said he would hire more police officers as mayor. Adams rejected the criticism.
“Well first of all, let’s be clear, New Yorkers are going make the determination of a person that wore a bulletproof vest, protected the children, families of the state and fought crime against a person who made up crimes, so that he could be popular,” Adams said.
Sliwa was asked about his past comments about returning to “old school ways of policing,” including the use of stop and frisk — a tactic that was deemed unconstitutional as it was used by the NYPD to target young men of color.
Sliwa responded that he would selectively use stop and frisk with reasonable suspicion, adding that Adams has proposed the same.
“And I suggest that we use, especially in areas where there is gang activity, gang wars, constant shootings, constant gun activity, that should be at least utilized by police officers who have to preemptively stop the gangs, stop the gun violence, because it’s going to take its toll on innocent citizens,” he said.
Adams took the question personally, saying he was “arrested and assaulted” by police officers before becoming a police captain himself. The moderators then asked the Democrat, who has also called for more aggressive policing tactics, how he would protect young Black and brown New Yorkers from being disproportionately targeted.
“I protected Black and brown and low income New Yorkers as a police officer when I was fighting for reform, testifying in federal court about the overuse of stop and frisk,” he said, adding that his son was a victim of stop and frisk in the city.
As the campaign has entered its final weeks, the two candidates have been ratcheting up their rhetoric. Sliwa blasted Adams over his questions about where he lives, hobnobbing with elites and comments about carrying a gun, and Adams branded his foe a racist who has turned the election into a circus.
Ahead of the debate, Sliwa said he was heading into the subway system — the turf his beret-wearing Guardian Angels have patrolled since the 1970s — to consult fellow straphangers as a “focus group” for debate prep tips.
He summed up the message he hopes to present: “Safe subways, safe streets, safe parks, safe schools. That’s the priority, without which the city cannot economically recover, we can’t get back on track.”
A spokesperson for Adams, who focused his successful primary campaign on combating violent crime, sounded similar themes. “Eric is going to share his vision for a safer, fairer, more prosperous New York, and his plans to deliver for working people,” said Evan Thies.
The winner of the Nov. 2 election will take over from term-limited Mayor Bill de Blasio, leading the nation’s largest city as it tries to move on from a pandemic that hobbled its economy and fueled widespread public safety and quality of life concerns. Adams, the heavy favorite, has framed himself as the future of the Democratic party. He would be the second Black man to lead New York.
But Sliwa has also been honing his attacks, painting Adams as a tool of the elite who has been spending his time fundraising in the Hamptons and vacationing in Monaco. “Vote for a typical Democrat, and you got a guy who’s getting wined, dined and pocket lined,” Sliwa said last week while launching a group of Democrats supporting his campaign. He added in response to POLITICO’s reporting that the Democratic nominee spent a summer trip in Monaco: “Who the hell goes to Monaco but the rich, the famous, the elite?”
Sliwa also plans to go after Adams on the debate stage over his record at the NYPD, he said this week after local publication The City reported that Adams led a sexist smear campaign against a fellow cop in the 1990s. He wants Adams to demand the full disclosure of his NYPD personnel records, which the police department initially refused to release and then released only a portion of. “The people of New York City have a right to know,” Sliwa said.
Sliwa has kept up an active campaign schedule in recent months — though he has struggled to get attention, even with publicity-friendly events like his trip to the New Jersey apartment Adams co-owns with his partner, carrying a milk carton with the candidate’s face on it. Adams has kept a lower profile and has been reluctant to engage his opponent.
“If he wants to participate in a circus, that’s fine. I’m just not buying the tickets,” Adams said last week. “We have two debates. That’s what the process calls for. I’m going to do two debates. I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “What I’m not going to do is participate in the antics during these serious times. … I’m focused on this city, and he enjoys the antics. He enjoys the yelling and screaming.”
Adams did take aim directly at Sliwa during a recent interview on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show, saying, “It’s difficult for Curtis to talk about the systemic racism, because he is a leading voice of being a racist.” He added that it is “challenging for me to engage in a conversation with a person who acknowledged that they made up stories about crime,” he said, referring to Sliwa’s admission that the Guardian Angels had staged fake crimes for publicity.
On the issues, the two candidates have disagreed in recent days on whether to impose a Covid-19 vaccine mandate on public school students. Adams supports such a mandate, while Sliwa is opposed. But they both oppose de Blasio’s plan to axe gifted and talented elementary school classes and say they would keep the program as mayor.
Adams’ focus on public safety, including a plan to bring back the NYPD’s controversial anti-crime unit, has complicated Sliwa’s efforts to make law and order his signature issue. The Republican — who lives with 15 rescue cats in a small studio apartment he shares with his wife — has also made animal rights a central part of his platform, releasing plans to stop euthanizing animals at city shelters and ban the horse carriage industry.
Adams raised $2.4 million in donations since August, according to recent fundraising reports, bringing his balance to nearly $8 million. Sliwa raised $200,000 in the same period and has $1.2 million on hand after receiving public matching funds this fall.
Amanda Eisenberg contributed to this report.
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