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G.O.P. Rivals Trade Insults in Chaotic N.Y.C. Mayoral Debate

They fought over almost everything, hurled insults back and forth and caused so much general chaos that both had their microphones cut off at different times.

And if that wasn’t enough, the two Republicans running for mayor of New York City even brought props — a photograph and a stuffed bear — to their first major debate on Wednesday.

It wasn’t as if the two candidates, Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, and Fernando Mateo, a local businessman, lacked common ground: They agreed that public safety was the most critical issue facing the city and have pledged to “re-fund the police” and to add officers to the department, instead of defunding the police as some Democrats want to do.

But for the most part, the men avoided policy discussion in favor of unveiled criticisms of each other. It began with Mr. Sliwa criticizing Mr. Mateo for his fund-raising efforts for Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat.

“Bill de Blasio single-handedly destroyed this city,” Mr. Sliwa said, before holding up a photo of Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Mateo together.

“Along with you,” Mr. Mateo, a restaurateur, shouted back, repeatedly.

They continued to yell during the virtual debate even while muted, pointing their fingers toward their cameras.

The candidates were once friends, but the race has turned bitter ahead of the Republican primary on June 22. Mr. Mateo called Mr. Sliwa, who joined the Republican Party last year, a “compulsive liar” and a comedian.

“Curtis, you’re a clown, and you’re making a mockery of this very important primary,” Mr. Mateo said.

The crowded Democratic primary has received far more attention and is likely to decide the next mayor in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than six to one. Still, Mr. Sliwa and Mr. Mateo are fighting hard to become the face of the Republican Party in the general election in November.

There were some brief agreement on policy issues: Both want to raise the cap on charter schools and get rid of speed cameras. Both said police officers should not have to live in the city, and both want to keep the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the only criteria for entry to elite high schools.

Mr. Sliwa repeatedly accused Mr. Mateo of not riding the subway — “there is no subway stop in Irvington,” he said, referring to the village in Westchester County where Mr. Mateo owns a home.

Mr. Mateo, oddly, accused Mr. Sliwa of being a subway rider as if that were an insult in a city that had nearly six million daily subway riders before the pandemic took a toll on ridership.

They disagreed over whether President Donald J. Trump won the 2020 election. Mr. Mateo said he did; Mr. Sliwa said he did not. Mr. Mateo voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020; Mr. Sliwa did not.

“I have had a love-hate relationship with former President Donald Trump going back 30 years,” Mr. Sliwa said.

Both candidates said they supported a decision by Representative Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican from Staten Island, to vote to not certify the 2020 presidential election results.

Mr. Sliwa and Mr. Mateo are first-time candidates and publicity hounds who have appeared in the tabloids for years. Mr. Sliwa, 67, became a celebrity in the 1980s as the founder of the Guardian Angels and was a radio host known for outrageous comments. He has staged a series of attention-grabbing events — including a mask-burning ceremony as members of the Trammps sang their 1976 disco hit, “Disco Inferno,” and a 24-hour subway tour where he visited the site of a bloody stabbing.

Mr. Mateo, 63, was born in the Dominican Republic and wants to be the city’s first Hispanic mayor. He is perhaps best known for his “Toys for Guns” program in the 1990s, and he ran a carpet business and led groups that advocated for livery drivers and bodega owners.

An earlier debate hosted by WABC-AM this spring turned nasty when Mr. Sliwa brought up the fund-raising issue. Mr. Mateo claimed that he had damaging information on Mr. Sliwa.

“I have enough dirt to cover your body 18 feet over,” Mr. Mateo said.

At the debate on Wednesday, Mr. Mateo said he had bundled money for Mr. de Blasio, but that he did nothing illegal. He compared it to other Republicans who had donated to Democrats in the past, like Mr. Trump, who gave money to Hillary Clinton, and the billionaire John Catsimatidis, who gave to Mr. de Blasio.

“That’s what we do when we’re in business,” he said.

Mr. Mateo and Mr. Sliwa had been friends for 40 years, and Mr. Mateo once installed carpet in Mr. Sliwa’s home. But the feud began when they both entered the race.

The Republican Party has been weakened in the city in recent years, and its leaders are split between the two candidates. The Manhattan, Queens and Bronx parties endorsed Mr. Mateo. The Staten Island and Brooklyn parties backed Mr. Sliwa.

Mr. Mateo has raised more money — about $520,000 — and says he will qualify for public matching funds soon. Mr. Sliwa has raised about $315,000.

The top Democratic candidates have raised far more. Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, has collected more than $9 million through private and public funds.

With less money for television advertising, the Republicans have been trying to get in front of news cameras as much as possible. Mr. Sliwa is “pure showbiz, and he’s awfully good at it,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College.

“The name of the game in the Republican primary is going to be name recognition,” he said, “and that generates pressure to be more and more outrageous to get more and more free publicity.”

Near the end of the hourlong debate, Mr. Mateo suddenly introduced his own prop: “Trumpy Bear” — a stuffed animal wearing a red tie and featuring Trump-like hair. Then he criticized Mr. Sliwa’s living arrangements.

“He lives in a 320-square-foot apartment with 13 cats,” Mr. Mateo said.

“Fifteen rescue cats,” Mr. Sliwa corrected him.

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