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With Under Six Months to the Primary, 2021 Republican Mayoral Field Slowly Takes Shape

City Hall park flags plaza

City Hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

With just under six months to go until the June 2021 primary election, several Republicans have said they are exploring a run for mayor but just one has officially created a campaign committee. It remains uncertain if there will be a contested primary as the party and all the potential contenders are waiting to see whether billionaire mogul John Catsimatidis will jump into the race.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a two-term Democrat, cannot run for reelection because of term limits and a crowded, growing field of Democrats has already emerged to seek the primary nomination to replace him. Republicans, on the other hand, are in near unanimous agreement that fighting a primary battle would be unwise and many party leaders are hoping to coalesce behind a single candidate to mount the best possible general election campaign. But that may be easier said than done.

Catsimatidis has publicly flirted with the idea of running, which has Republicans on tenterhooks. If he does declare – he said he’d make an announcement after the holidays – the entire party machinery will likely get in line behind him and nearly all other contenders have indicated they will back out.

Besides Catsimatidis, the candidates who have declared they’re running or are exploring a bid include Sara Tirschwell, a former Wall Street executive who is chief financial officer of Foundation House, a mental health nonprofit; Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels; Fernando Mateo, head of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers and the United Bodegas of America; and Bill Pepitone, a former NYPD officer, who is the sole candidate to have filed papers with the city Campaign Finance Board. Kelly Mack, president of Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, was also rumored to be considering a bid earlier this year.

Party leaders have, however, remained relatively tight-lipped about announcing their support for a potential Catsimatidis campaign. “We are going through our process,” said City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, in a text message.

City Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Queens who openly considered a run in 2017 but has ruled out a 2021 bid, said of Catsimatidis, “I think he would be a very formidable candidate, should he decide to run.”

Catsimatidis not only has the resources to independently fund a campaign but also the relationships across the city’s public and private spheres to wage a strong effort against daunting odds, Republicans say. His daughter, Andrea, is also the chair of the Manhattan Republican Party. “For any Republican to run and win in New York, they would have to spend a lot of money. And the amount of time between now and the election next year doesn't really lend itself to a candidate that is not a self-funder,” Ulrich said.

Republicans readily acknowledge that they face an uphill battle to take back the mayoralty, considering that the city has nearly seven registered Democrats for every registered Republican voter. As of November 1, there were almost twice as many party-unaffiliated registered voters in New York City (just over 1 million) than Republicans (about 568,700), while there were more than 3.7 million registered Democrats.

But Republicans see a silver lining in the recent presidential election results. Though President Donald Trump lost New York State to Joe Biden, he surprised many by increasing his vote-share in New York City by five points, a remarkable 317,789 more votes than he received in the city in 2016. And while turnout surged in immigrant-rich neighborhoods, according to an analysis by the New York Times, most of those new votes went to Trump.

Most of the potential candidates share similar philosophies, though they have somewhat differing views of and allegiances to Trump, who the GOP mayoral nominee will no doubt be tied to by whomever comes out of the Democratic primary. They want to improve public safety and quality of life, tackle what they see as an out-of-control crime problem, rein in a spendthrift city government, and correct the mismanagement of the city under de Blasio’s tenure. It’s a core message that could be attractive to some chunk of the independent and moderate Democratic voters whose support is necessary for a Republican to win a citywide general election.

“De Blasio’s done such a terrible job of the seven-and-a-half years that I think people might be receptive to...getting the city back on track and in a different direction,” Ulrich said.

But there are candidates who have wholly embraced the politics and rhetoric of the national Republican Party and Trump, and who may therefore struggle with that necessary crossover appeal. Some of the negative hyperbole about conditions in the city may turn off voters who see significant problems but want them addressed sensibly and fairly. Republicans in New York have often struggled in recent years to establish an affirmative agenda in conjunction with pointing out problems that must be solved. While their critiques of Democratic politicians and policies may land as true to some voters, to win a citywide election will likely require a moderate platform with a number of big ideas for the city’s future.

Catsimatidis has said he would run as a “common sense” candidate with broad appeal. Though he is a staunch Trump ally and praises his performance in office, he admits that the president has a “terrible” personality.

“I'm a Democrat, I'm a Republican. I'm an independent. I'm a liberal. I'm all of the above. But the real word is, I'm a New Yorker,” he said in a Tuesday interview, emphasizing that he wouldn’t run for glory but to save New York from an uncertain future. “If we get the wrong person for the next mayor, New York is dead. DOA. Dead on Arrival,” he said.

He had pointed criticism for Democrats who he blamed for the outmigration of wealthier New Yorkers to other states because of worsening crime and their insistence on increasing taxes. Asked if rich New Yorkers could afford to pay more in taxes, he said, “Yeah, a little bit more, but they don’t deserve to get the cucumber up the rear end.”

“You know what I'm afraid of if I run?...I'll probably win,” he added. Brushing aside concerns about a competitive primary, he said, “It’ll give us something to argue about.” Catsimatidis previously ran for mayor in 2013 and lost in the Republican primary to Joe Lhota, who went on to lose to de Blasio.

Unlike the other candidates, Tirschwell has described herself as a “Rockefeller Republican” who is fiscally conservative and socially left of center. In an interview with Gotham Gazette earlier this year, she pledged to campaign on addressing crime but also police reform, and said she would tackle school segregation as well as systemic racism. 

“New Yorkers can’t afford a 3rd De Blasio term,” said Chapin Fay, a spokesperson for Tirschwell, in a Tuesday statement. “Sara Tirschwell is a single mom who found success on Wall Street by investing in troubled situations. She is determined to make opportunity out of crisis and is not beholden to anyone. Sara is seriously exploring a campaign for Mayor because politicians have gotten us into this mess and it will take someone with real world experience like Sara to lead us out of it. She will be making an announcement in the coming weeks.”

A source familiar with Tirschwell’s exploratory efforts said she will announce she is running and does not intend to withdraw even if Catsimatidis decides to run. The source said Tirschwell has already secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in pledges from potential donors and that fundraising consultant Christina Sofia-Comer, who recently worked for Representative-Elect Nicole Malliotakis’s successful congressional campaign, has agreed to work for her.

Pepitone, who is the nephew of former New York Yankee Joe Pepitone, also said in an interview that he would stay in the race if Catsimatidis announces a campaign. As a former cop who has served under Mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg, his overriding concern as a candidate is public safety. “I'm a firm believer, if you don't have public safety, you really have nothing else,” he said. “You have no economy, you have no business, you have no tourism, you have unsafe schools. And you have what we're seeing now, a mass exodus out of the city. So everything really builds off public safety.”

Pepitone does expect that if he faced Catsimatidis in a primary, he’d be at a serious disadvantage. “It's obviously a money issue and Mr. Catsimatidis certainly has a lot of money,” he said, though he noted that he’s participating in the city’s public matching funds program, which could help him raise enough for a viable campaign. “I respect the man greatly, but I think I would be the better choice for New York City at this time. I believe I'm the better candidate at this time.”

Sliwa, a radio host with a history of misogynistic and racially-insensitive behavior, was the first candidate to publicly declare his run for mayor as a Republican but he has yet to create a campaign committee. In an interview, he said he would make it official in January, after the next campaign finance filing deadline.

Sliwa said he’s running because the city’s current situation harkens back to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when the city was facing insolvency. That was when he created the Guardian Angels to boost the struggling city’s ability to police the streets. “It's gonna take a while for the city to recover so I think somebody needs to basically level with the city and say, ‘We all got to pitch in, we got to do what we can do, but we all have to learn to do more with less.’” All the other candidates, he said, “seem to be saying, ‘We'll take money from Peter to take care of Pauly.’”

He’s ardently opposed recent efforts to cut funds from policing, while also criticizing the city for giving police officers responsibilities that shouldn’t be part of their portfolio, chiefly dealing with people experiencing mental illness and homelessness.

Sliwa, who hosts a radio show on the WABC station which was acquired by Catsimatidis’ Red Apple Media group last year, seemed to welcome a primary contest that includes Catsimatidis. “[T]hat would be a great debate. Curtis, the guy from the streets and John, who’s from the suites,” he said. But he did not commit to either staying in the race or withdrawing. “Let's say John determines, ‘I really want to run, this is something I really want to do.’ We would sit down and have a conversation.”

Mateo is the latest potential entrant into the race and has been courted by Bronx Republican Party Chair Mike Rendino to run. In an interview, Mateo called himself “a blue-collar urban Republican that wants the best for the city of New York.” He said he will consider jumping into the race only if Catsimatidis does not run.

As with other candidates, Mateo’s pitch centered on public safety. He said that the NYPD, which already has the largest per capita police force of any large city in the country, should hire 20,000 more officers (on top of its roughly 35,000-strong current uniformed tally). “We all need to understand that police officers...need to respect but they also need to be respected. Not spat at, not dumped at, not trashed, not humiliated,” he said. “We need a city with law and order. Nobody's going to come to a city that has no public safety.”

While the city has seen large spikes in shootings and murders this year, the seven major felonies are roughly flat year over year, and even with the troubling increase in violent crime, those numbers are at levels seen during the Bloomberg years. Public safety, as well as police reform, will undoubtedly be front and center in both the primaries and the general election for mayor.

As someone who has run a small business, Mateo critiqued the city’s overregulation and bureaucracy that he says has caused the crisis of empty storefronts. “None of the candidates that are running, most of them haven't worked in the last four years and none of them have had their own business,” he said. “So they don't know firsthand what we go through. All they do is go from one office to the other to the other to the other, and they spend a lifetime as politicians.” (That critique does not apply to the other Republicans considering a run given that none have held elected office.)

Rendino said convincing Mateo to run was Plan B if Catsimatidis doesn’t run. He said that Hispanic communities have been underserved by successive Democratic administrations and that Republicans can make a strong appeal to those voters, as was apparent in the turnout for Trump. “[Mateo] is the future of New York City,” he said. “They can call it a diabolical plan I had in my head from the beginning trying to think five steps ahead, but seeing more and more of the Hispanic community in the South Bronx underserved by the Democratic Party, has made me realize there's an opening and a lane.”

“I think it would be an uphill battle, but anyone who's lived in the city for the last eight years has to know the city of New York is not well-run under a Democrat,” he said. “And the last thing we need and the last person we need running this city is another politician.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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