For columbia county entrepreneur leslie gabriel politics is business—but not as usual. With the formation of votebushout.biz last spring, which Gabriel describes as a combination of “political campaign, political paraphernalia, and political Web site,” the merchandise is the message.
Fueled by Gabriel’s own political philosophy, the Web site—which offers signs, t-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers printed with slogans such as “Support Our Troops: Vote Bush Out,” as well as links to other like-minded resources—averages 60,000 hits a week. The items have been sold in 40 states to distributors, stores, state parties, and activists. “It pays,” says Gabriel. “You could make a living off of it. But it’s not so much a living. What’s really important is the message.”
The sales also support Gabriel’s appearances at political events, where he harnesses the “combative spirit” Howard Dean’s campaign generated. And how does he do that? He dresses as Rocky (a character based on the Sylvester Stallone movie role) and—in his own form of political street theater—boxes an oversized doll that resembles George Bush, the “Lyin’ King.” “I’ve always been politically active,” Gabriel says. “I ran for office when I lived in Red Hook, and I got really involved in the peace movement. But,” he says, “once the bombs started to drop, I gave up trying to stop the war.”
While sitting in front of his computer “obsessing about the war” one day (he even broke into a rash, which he’s just getting over, he notes), Gabriel had a brainstorm. “I thought, my god, there’s an election coming up. Maybe there’s something I can do.” With extra money left over from the peace campaign, he designed and purchased signs and started selling them. Then in May 2003, he was invited to set up a booth at the Democratic Rural Conference in Lake Placid. “What am I going to do, just stand there?” he recalls thinking. So he decided to take a page from his past.
“In my younger years I used to box, and I thought: Rocky,” Gabriel notes. In fact, Gabriel won the Forest Hills Jewish Center Boxing Award when he was eight years old, and even appeared on the David Frost Show with boxing great Joe Louis. “Some of his spunk rubbed off on me,” Gabriel adds. “I thought I’d take over the very powerful and very American popular issue of Rocky.” So he donned some red, white, and blue boxing gloves and began publicly battling the ‘Lyin’ King.’ “Rocky always wins,” Gabriel adds. During his first appearance, he got five minutes of airtime on msnbc, and decided to follow up by starting the Web site.
Gabriel lived in Queens until he was 15, then moved to New Jersey with his father. He went to Utica College and majored in marketing, eventually making his way to New York City, where he started The Realty Evaluators, a company that provides engineering inspectors to appraise and survey properties and perform environmental inspections throughout the five boroughs. He moved to Tivoli with his family in the early 1990s, and now lives in Hillsdale, where he runs both the New York City company and the Web site out of his home.
Over the next few months, Gabriel plans to appear at rallies in all of the swing states and to continue updating and maintaining votebushout.biz, which he believes provides Democrats and others with an opportunity to become more connected to the political process. “What was missing from the Democratic Party and the whole progressive movement is having to work as a team,” he says. “The Web site actually has a lot of good links available, a lot of good media and a lot of good information.”
He also believes that becoming more informed will help to return the power to the people. “I want to go in a direction, and provide people with some kind of way to choose their own direction, to get active in any way they can,” Gabriel emphasizes. “I want to get people back involved in their own democracy, to take control of their own democracy.”
So far, he adds, he thinks he’s been successful. “We’ve had [a] very good impact, I think,” he says. “We’ve been noticed by the right wing. We get hate mail, which I always answer.” In fact, he’ll be happy if his business comes to a screeching halt with the election of a Democratic candidate. “My intention is to go to the inauguration in my Rocky boxing shorts, and have my left glove signed by the new president,” he says with a smile.
In the meantime, he adds, he’s made a lot of great friends around the country, and has fanned his own political aspirations, which might include running for the town board in his hometown “and winning—it’s important to win something.” His business venture has also proved something else, Gabriel adds. “It also shows that one person can make a difference. You don’t have to stop yourself from making a difference.”
Leslie Gabriel’s interest in politics dates back to his Utica College days, when a fraternity brother decided to run for local office. “That was my first time going door-to-door,” he recalls. He himself ran for student office then, as well. “I wanted to take ownership of my own life,” he says about his involvement. “I wanted to take an active role.”
The first vote he ever cast was for Ted Kennedy in the Democratic primary in 1976, and later he followed up with a vote for the eventual Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter. In 1980, he found himself working for the failed third-party presidential bid by John Anderson.
In 2001 he ran for town council in Red Hook, where he was living, and won 23 percent of the vote in a three-way race. His platform included the protection of open space, and one of the ways he raised money was to collect bottles and cans lying along the street. “It was a way to show how you can use recycling,” Gabriel notes. “It was great, even though I smelled like beer.”
Though he says he’s “on an Abraham Lincoln losing streak,” Gabriel doesn’t feel discouraged in his own political career. If he does eventually win a local election, he hopes to use that as a way to get to Congress. “The people of Red Hook were nice enough to give me a very respectable showing,” Gabriel adds. “With that political capital, I’m going to stay involved to fight another day. Votebushout.biz is one of the ways.”