America has become intimately familiar with a number of characters who, before about five years ago, made most of their media appearances in the New York City tabloids.
This week, another face from that era turned toward the spotlight. Curtis Sliwa, the bereted founder of the Guardian Angels, won the Republican nomination for mayor in Tuesday’s primary. And standing right next to him, at times literally, was Giuliani — just as Sliwa had done for Giuliani during the 1993 campaign.
In May that year, the New York Times reported on Giuliani’s full-court press for the city’s top job. He’d done all of the sorts of things that candidates do, the paper reported, down to the posse.
“He even has hangers-on,” Catherine Manegold wrote. “Curtis Sliwa, the controversial head of the controversial Guardian Angels, follows in the candidate’s wake, wearing his trademark windbreaker and red beret.”
At the time, as now, Sliwa’s main job was hosting a radio show. When he lost his gig shortly after Giuliani was inaugurated, a slot suddenly opened up at WNYC, the city-owned public radio station. The station’s president, Thomas Morgan, denied that Giuliani — who had publicly prompted Sliwa to move over — had played any role.
“Just because the mayor suggested it doesn’t automatically make it a bad idea,” Morgan told the Times. The paper added that Morgan “acknowledged he hopes to be reappointed to the post he has held for four years.”
That article also noted the extent of Sliwa’s advocacy on Giuliani’s behalf: The Guardian Angels founder “made public speeches for Mr. Giuliani, at least once alleging that Mr. Dinkins won his first term only because of vote fraud.”
You may be noticing that some of this is starting to sound familiar. That seems to be intentional. Sliwa’s campaign hopes to capitalize on re-energized concerns about crime in the city to position himself as the necessary tough-on-crime antidote to the moment — the case Giuliani made 30-odd years prior.
The morning after winning the Republican primary, Sliwa appeared on the right-wing media outlet Just the News.
“It seems that New Yorkers are hyper-focused on the rising crime rate right now in the city,” host Sophie Mann prompted Sliwa. “You’ve been keeping an eye on the streets of Manhattan and the outer boroughs for close to 30 years now. What types of patterns are you seeing as the statistics that we’ve seen over the past year suggest that crime has just risen to an unprecedented level?”
We must interject here to point out that this is a ludicrous claim. Data from the New York Police Department does indicate that some categories of crime have increased relative to the same point in 2020, including murders and shootings, which are up 14 percent and 64 percent respectively. But to reach “unprecedented levels” of murder, New York City would need to see an increase by the end of the year of 383 percent. There have been 194 killings this year, each a tragedy and each a call for justice. In 1990, though, there were 2,262 murders — meaning that the city would need to see more than 10 killings a day through Dec. 31 to reach “unprecedented levels.”
It’s useful to also note that other categories of crime, such as robbery and grand larceny, are down since 2020, as is crime overall. And, again, compared with the early 1990s, 2021 is barely a blip.
In fact, the level of crime in the city in 2020 was also well below where it was when Giuliani left office. He likes to take credit for the drop in crime in the city, and he’s always happy to accept credit offered by others. The reality, though, is that crime was falling nationally at the time that Giuliani was mayor, a decline that began both in the United States broadly and in New York City before Giuliani took office.
Those caveats were no more useful to Sliwa during his appearance Wednesday than it would have been to correct the host’s false claims about crime.
“Now we’re just consumed with crime,” Sliwa said. “And I dealt with Rudy Giuliani, who endorsed me the other day — in fact, was on the podium when I won the Republican primary last night — and learned all the tactics that he used to take a city that was the crime capital of America, the murder capital of America averaging 2,000 murders a year, and turn it into the safest big city in America.”
“Rudy has schooled me and tutored me,” Sliwa continued, “and I anticipate that he’ll be side-by-side with me in the administration.”
For the past two years, Giuliani’s been standing side-by-side with the president of the United States, enjoying the ancillary benefits of that proximity. It seems likely that he’d be happy to stand next to a Mayor Sliwa, as well, particularly given Sliwa’s embrace of his legacy and his 1993-esque approach to the campaign itself.
Should Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams prevail in the Democratic primary, New Yorkers will be presented with a fairly unusual choice in November, between a tough-on-crime former police officer — the Democrat, even given the past 13 months of activism — and the city’s most prominent anti-crime activist, a guy whose efforts are exquisitely timed to the political moment. The contest from 1993 will be shifted one slot to the right, with the Democrat moving to the “law enforcement veteran” slot then held by Giuliani and the Republican candidate shifting out into the realm of vigilantism.
None of this is to say that the increase in shootings and violence is not a valid issue for the city. It is, as it was 28 years ago. No New Yorker familiar with the tabloid coverage of Sliwa, Giuliani and Trump back then would want the city to even come close to the level of crime seen in 1990 — or even the late 1970s, when the Guardian Angels were founded. But it is also important to recognize that the level of crime currently being experienced in the city is distant from those low points.
And, of course, to recognize how Giuliani and Sliwa have teamed up in the past to leverage crime data for political gain.