A clothier’s quixotic quest
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN
July 24, 2018 3:07 pm ET
As he will be the very first to tell you, the 76-year-old former U.S. Army captain and owner for four decades of tony clothing stores across the Upper East Side is a most unconventional and unlikely political hopeful.
“I am not a normal candidate,” said Eliot Rabin in a candid two-hour interview as he sat under racks of boy’s jackets in the crowded stock room of Peter Elliot Blue, his shop on Lexington Avenue and 72nd Street.
Right on cue, he tossed off a trademark politically incorrect bon mot to describe the inventory of his shops. “Ain’t nothing made in China,” he said. After a short pause for effect, “My merchandise is finah.”
Rabin is mounting a Republican challenge, steeply uphill, to longtime Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney in the 12th Congressional District. “I’m old,” he said matter-of-factly. “But I’m fresh.”
The South Carolina native may be a political neophyte. He has scant campaign funds. Modest name recognition. He only joined the GOP a few months ago. He’s vying to represent an area where 70,000 Republicans are out-registered and outvoted by 288,000 Democrats.
But he’s developed a possible campaign slogan: “Maloney is baloney.” And he plans to deploy “my verbiage, my energy and my personality” to topple the North Carolina-born rival four years his junior.
Rabin possesses not only drive, humor and a quirky world view — he’s got two separate identities. His campaign committee, “Eliot Rabin-Peter Elliot for Congress,” may be the only entity registered with the Federal Election Commission that uses alternative names for a single candidate.
His explanation is a political novelty. “Over the last 40 years, I have become, generically, ‘Peter Elliot,’ from the name of my stores,” he said. “But the candidate you’re going to vote for is named ‘Eliot Rabin.’
“The people who know me well call me ‘Eliot,’” he added. “The people who think they know me well call me ‘Peter.’ I answer to both.”
Asked to elaborate on the duality, Rabin — who grew up in Charleston attending Reform synagogues and now prays at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue — offers a ready answer. “Think Yiddish, look British!” he said.
At stake in the race is a district that’s been Maloney’s political base since she was first elected to Congress in 1992. The prize takes in the Upper East Side, Midtown, including Trump Tower, Union Square, Flatiron, Roosevelt Island, the East Village and parts of Chelsea, Brooklyn and Queens.
A 1964 graduate of The Citadel, the military college in his hometown, Rabin entered the Army, served in Germany during the Vietnam War, developed a fondness for guns but a loathing for the NRA, and to this day, treasures the rigor and discipline of service.
The returning veteran became a buyer at Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street, later designing menswear for Givenchy and Oscar de la Renta. But he never forgot the words of his father, Leon, who owned men’s stores in Charleston and once handed him a broom, saying, “If you can fold a cashmere sweater with your left hand and clean a toilet with your right hand, you can make it in business.”
A RETAILER’S TRIUMPHS AND DISASTERS
In 1977, Rabin did just that. He opened the first of what would eventually become five Paul Elliot shops on the East Side, and the business took off. But there were spectacular failures, too, and Rabin discusses them with a candor rare for any political candidate.
“I over-expanded the business, I burned up the money,” he said. “I had creative ideas for new retail businesses, but I was undercapitalized from the beginning.” He contracted, closed shops. Today, there are two left, including Peter Elliot Women at 1071 Madison Avenue.
“It’s my fault, 100 percent, my responsibility,” Rabin said.
There’s more: In 1984, he could have bought a building on Second Avenue at 80th Street where his first shop was housed. It was offered for $375,000, his lawyer and accountant felt it was worth $275,000. Eventually, it sold to a third party for $450,000. A quarter-century later, it traded for $36 million.
“Biggest mistake I ever made in business,” Rabin said. He added, “I was smoking dope at the time, I wasn’t thinking straight.”
Why is he running? “I’m a patriot,” he said. “I’m tired of incivility. I’m tired of the socio-economic divisiveness, it’s extremely dangerous, and I think we can bring a little bit of manners back to the city.”
Civility doesn’t typically figure in rough-and-tumble, big-city politics, but it’s vital to Rabin: “I will always be a Southern boy,” he said. “I’m bringing Southern gentility to New York City.”
Admittedly, it’s an old-fashioned approach. “I profess to be a little bit of a gentleman,” he added. “I still say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and I still open the door for a lady.”
At that point, Molly C. Braswell, his Mississippi-bred campaign manager, interjected, “You have no idea how much some of us really appreciate that!”
Rabin continued, “The bottom line is this, when I compliment a woman in my elevator, and say, ‘Ma’am you look very nice,’ I get a thank you, and I really appreciate that.”
The Parkland school massacre was a catalyst for his decision to run, Rabin said, and he had been stirred to action by what he deems the “moral decay of our society, the moral bankruptcy of a lot of our leaders.”
He adds, “It’s not just about guns, it’s about a collective breakdown of our society.”
In Congress, he’d seek to reverse that. One approach would be to bring back the draft, he argues. “With no exemptions for Mr. Trump, no exemptions for Mr. Clinton, no exemptions for Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Podunk University,” he said. “All genders would serve.”
Under his plan, conscientious objectors could serve in two new branches of government, a Youth Reaction Corps, to supplement first responders, and a Domestic Peace Corps, to boost the poor and needy.
Another item on his agenda: “English should be our national language. Period,” he said. “Everybody in this country should learn a second language, but English is our native language, our primary language. It’s as simple as that.”
Like the incumbent he seeks to dislodge, Rabin has long been rooted in the Upper East Side. He lives near First Avenue at 81st Street, and his two favorite restaurants — Gracie Mews, an upscale diner, and A.O.C. East, a French bistro — are right around the corner.
A few blocks away, Fifth Avenue and 79th Street is his favorite street corner. “It’s a marvelous mix of local and tourists. They’re all in awe, peaceful and loving, as they enter the park or the Met, feasting along the way,” Rabin said.
Posted on 25 Jul 2018, 14:51 - Category: In the News