Mich. Campaign May Earn X Rating
Washington Post Staff
Friday, August 14, 1998; Page A04
DETROIT Anyone who prefers civility with their politics probably should steer clear of Michigan this electoral season. The gubernatorial campaign here is shaping up as the nastiest and perhaps most colorful in the nation this year.
The emergence last week of Geoffrey Fieger as the Democratic nominee for governor has transformed this blue-collar state known for its spirited but rather drab campaigns into the political equivalent of a Jerry Springer show. Fieger, the brash and bawdy millionaire attorney who became a household name in Michigan for defending suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian, has referred to the state's portly but popular incumbent, Gov. John Engler (R), as fat, moronic, racist, corrupt and the product of miscegenation between barnyard animals. And that was BEFORE he won the primary.
Engler and his aides have largely dismissed Fieger as "nutty" and an embarrassment to the state's Democratic Party, which clearly is apprehensive about its nominee. The governor, known as a shrewd politician who has spent two terms softening his own image for mean-spiritedness, has said that his campaign will not allow Fieger's scattershot attacks to go unchallenged.
"Michigan has always been a rough-and-tumble state," said Engler's spokesman, John Truscott. "But we've always managed to be civil. But this guy [Fieger] brings a level of vulgarity that Michigan has never seen before. He's radioactive."
The profane and populist Fieger, who Michigan State University political science professor David Rohde describes as a cross between filmmaker Michael Moore and Ross Perot, is clearly the X factor. While he has never before run for office, he relied on his high profile as Kevorkian's mouthpiece and his millions to catapult over the Democrats' and organized labor's handpicked choice for governor in the primary.
"I would prefer that this campaign focus on the issues, but John Engler has traditionally shown he is one of the dirtiest campaigners," Fieger said. "He's a dirty fighter but he's not particularly intelligent, so while my invectives usually have some humor to them, his are just plain dirty."
Said Bill Ballenger, publisher of a political newsletter in Michigan: "This will be the most brutal campaign that Michigan has ever experienced."
Fieger's somewhat surprising victory represents the first time in Michigan history that a Democrat not endorsed by either the state party or organized labor has been nominated for the executive office. And Fieger did not spare either the Democrats or organized labor from his rhetorical barbs, referring to them as squirrels and mollusks.
Since his primary victory, he has made efforts to mend the fragile relationship, but both high-ranking Democrats including Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and organized labor have been conspicuously absent from Fieger's campaign.
The president of the United Auto Workers' international board did not attend the party's unity breakfast the morning after the primary and a spokesman for the UAW said that the union has no comment on the Democratic nominee.
"The silence is just deafening," Ballenger said. "You just haven't heard anything from the Democrats or the UAW and that's telling."
Despite his flamboyance and broad appeal among African Americans, Fieger runs 20 percentage points behind Engler in most polls, and Democrats are both drawn and wary of the unpredictable lawyer, who is at once charismatic enough to defeat the party's handpicked candidate, and flamboyant enough to be the first gubernatorial nominee in state history whose entourage of consultants includes a makeup artist.
Earlier this week, Fieger flirted with selecting a conservative Republican as his running mate, then quickly backed off when Archer and others publicly criticized such a move.
This is a key election year for state Democrats. With Republicans holding the executive's mansion as well as a majority in the Senate, Democrats need badly to hold on to their slim majority in the state House, and there is widespread concern that Fieger's Howard Stern-like theatrics could drive moderate Democrats to vote Republican, sinking other Democrats' election chances as well as his own.
If the party loses its control of the House, redistricting efforts could push Democrats even further into the political margins.
"The potential is there for Fieger to be a Titanic," Ballenger said. "If you've got your standard-bearer at the top of the ticket taking a bath, it could affect a lot of other candidates as well. The Democrats are squirming, to say the least."
Said Truscott: "There is enormous concern from the Democrats. Credible Democratic leaders are keeping their distance from him. This guy is clueless about the workings of state government."
One high-profile Democrat, Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, has publicly pitched his support to Fieger, and Fieger said that the unions and other Democratic leaders, while cautious at first, are beginning to follow.
"I am a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, but I'm different, and people don't like change," Fieger said this week. "People aren't always quick to take to things that are new."
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