Brash Candidate a Problem in Michigan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 1998; Page A08
DEARBORN, Mich., Sept. 23As Democrats across the country assess the potential fallout of President Clinton's woes on their candidates this fall, here in Michigan the question is whether another tainted Democrat could do even more harm than the scandal-plagued president.
Geoffrey Fieger, the profane lawyer for suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian, has caused more than a little hand-wringing in Democratic circles since winning the party's gubernatorial nomination. A political novice, Fieger has offended many with off-color remarks about people of faith, his opponent, Gov. John Engler (R), and even the governor's 3-year-old twin daughters.
"On the hierarchy of problems, Fieger may be a major problem," said attorney Abe Singer.
Emerging from a private fund-raising breakfast for Rep. Sander M. Levin today, Singer said he worries that both Clinton and Fieger could hurt the reelection prospects of other Michigan Democrats including Levin, who finds himself in an uncomfortably tight race against businesswoman Leslie Touma.
The president's prospects may have improved with the airing of his grand jury testimony, Singer said, but Fieger, "he's dropping like a rock. A lot of Democrats are turned off by him."
Democratic House candidates "are afraid of losing seats because of Clinton and Fieger," said Jacklyn Molner, a city councilor in nearby Taylor. "It's a real lot of controversy."
Among the list of Fieger outrages, according to critics, are his comments that "rabbis are closer to Nazis than they think" and that Engler is the product of miscegenation between barnyard animals.
Today, the task of rallying the party faithful fell to Vice President Gore, who in a matter of hours raised $210,000 for Democrats and generated some headlines with heart-wrenching stories of managed care gone awry.
The one thing Gore refused to do was offer an endorsement of Fieger, skipping the obligatory photo op and neglecting to mention him during a lengthy list of credits. Gore aides said Fieger had to rush to Lansing for a labor rally today, but that the vice president had a private, five-minute meeting with him earlier.
Gore has so perfected the art of podium thank-yous that his media consultant has joked about rolling the list of names on a screen next to him to save time. Today was no different as the vice president devoted five full minutes of his speech at a fund-raising lunch to recognizing Michigan Democrats at every level.
To state House Speaker Curtis Hertel, he remarked: "I am a great admirer of your leadership." Rep. John D. Dingell was described by Gore as "a legend . . . a fighter." He paid "special tribute" to Attorney General Frank Kelly and called former senator Don Riegle "my old pal."
The closest Gore came to mentioning the controversial man at the top of the ticket was to recognize his wife in uncharacteristically unadorned language: "Keenie Fieger, thank you very much for being here."
In his speech, Gore stayed on safe terrain. "We have a winning ticket from top to bottom," he said, noting several times, "We need a Democratic legislature here in Michigan."
Much of the attention this election season has been on the battle for control of the House, where Democratic losses appear increasingly likely. But the darkest clouds of all for the party are forming over statehouses, where Republicans currently control 32 governorships and appear unlikely to lose much ground. (Two Democratic bright spots are Massachusetts and California.)
Here in Michigan, Engler had a 3 to 1 lead over Fieger in the latest Detroit News poll. And as the state prepares for the 2000 census and redistricting, Democrats face the prospect of losing control of the House, the party's only remaining power center in Michigan.
With less than six weeks to Election Day, many Michigan Democrats are bracing for the worst. Levin, for example, has told White House strategists he is nervous about the challenge by the well-funded Touma.
Rep. John Linder (Ga.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said today the GOP would likely capitalize on the Fieger controversy with ads targeting Levin and fellow Democratic Reps. Bart Stupak and David E. Bonior.
But Dingell, who joined Gore today, said the hullabaloo will die down. "Geoffrey Fieger will surprise you and I and a lot of other people," he said, adding, "Mr. Clinton is doing splendidly."
Staff researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company