Kevorkian's Lawyer Enlivens Race
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 1998; Page A02
DETROIT Geoffrey Fieger campaigns for governor in much the same way that he has successfully defended suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian from prosecutors and critics for eight years now, which is to say loudly.
"John Engler has never held a real job in his life," Fieger says of Michigan's two-term incumbent Republican governor. "The only experience he has is robbing you, cheating you and lying to you. He's the biggest crook there is in this state. I wouldn't be running for governor if the guy wasn't a racist, dumb boor. What's in this for me? I can't get more famous. I'm going to lose all the money I have. But it's time for the best and the brightest to step forward." The morning has hardly begun and already Fieger has turned beet red, shouting into the telephone during a recent interview with a Detroit radio station. And this millionaire attorney, who takes neither prisoners nor deep breaths, has turned Michigan's gubernatorial campaign into perhaps the most entertaining in the nation in this electoral season.
After unexpectedly entering the race only two months ago, the 47-year-old lawyer has managed to parlay his millions and his celebrity status as Kevorkian's bombastic mouthpiece into a surprisingly spirited campaign, leapfrogging in the polls two Democratic party stalwarts with political credentials but little charisma and little name recognition. There is little doubt why. With more than 100 assisted suicides to his credit, a buzz cut and a comical resemblance to a scarecrow, Kevorkian may seem an unlikely political kingmaker. But the eccentric, retired pathologist known as Dr. Death has breathed life into Fieger's political ambitions.
If he wins the Aug. 4 Democratic primary, Fieger is, at best, a long shot against the conservative Engler (R), whose approval rating remains high even if it is not quite as strong as it once was. But unlike other millionaires-turned-first-time politicians most recently Al Checchi, the former Northwest Airlines executive who financed his campaign for California governor but failed miserably in the Democratic primary Fieger does not have to spend time, money and energy introducing himself to voters.
Fieger has defended Kevorkian since Kevorkian's first assisted suicide eight years ago, and since then, his blond hair, bronzed face and brawny physique have arguably become as well known to Michigan's voters than any politician.
"I really think that Jack and I have changed the world in terms of empowering people at the end of their lives," Fieger says, blending bravado with truth. "But I was really the spokesman for the issue of assisted suicide, not Kevorkian."
Even before Kevorkian sought his help, Fieger made millions as an attorney specializing in malpractice and personal injury lawsuits. A populist in pinstripes, he is particularly popular with blacks in this city, known as the Johnnie Cochran of Michigan for his advocacy of the underdog, including Kevorkian and blacks injured or killed while in police custody. His campaign slogan is "The fighter for you."
"The African American community knows my background," he says one morning in his teak and leather corporate office. "They know that I'm a freedom fighter."
When he entered the race, Fieger said he wanted to protect the right to abortion, mental health care and, of course, assisted suicide, which the Michigan Supreme Court has ruled a common law felony in the state.
His campaign remains light on specifics. Fieger's proposals include reforming public education by uncoupling school funding from local property taxes, a system that rewards wealthy school districts while putting poor schoolchildren at a disadvantage. He has said he would bolster the state's efforts to protect the environment and overhaul capital punishment in Michigan to reduce racial disparities. And he has said he would cut taxes, though he will not say exactly how until he is elected and has a chance to examine the state's finances. He does say, however, that he would manage Michigan's economy better than Engler.
But if his politics are decidedly liberal, of the Jesse Jackson variety, his manner is pure Howard Stern. In the same breath, he compares himself to Muhammad Ali, Barry M. Goldwater and Martin Luther King Jr. In an era when most politicians seem to measure every word and calibrate every gesture, Fieger has publicly described Engler as Hitler, fat, a moron, and the product of two barnyard animals.
"He's a bully, just like Mike Tyson, picking on people [smaller] than himself. The only difference is that Engler is stupider than Tyson. He wants to test welfare mothers for drugs but I don't see anybody asking [Chrysler Corp. Chairman Robert J.] Jack Eaton, who receives millions of dollars a year in corporate welfare, to [urinate] in a bottle."
Engler's aides have questioned Fieger's competency to hold office. He has consistently misrepresented the governor's positions, they say, and they have described the attorney as an embarrassment to the Democratic party.
Indeed, while polls have Fieger running ahead of the pack in the Democratic primary, they also show that Engler would garner the widest margin of victory if Fieger were his opponent in the general election. Organized labor, Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara and other Democratic party officials have rallied behind another millionaire attorney, Larry Owen, as their nominee.
"The fear is that a lot of Democrats are going to say "to hell with Fieger. I'm going with Engler," said consultant Morrow.
Fieger relishes his status as an outsider. In campaign ads and stump speeches, he reminds audiences that he is no career politician, a group he he accuses of cozying up to corporate interests. "I am not beholden to anybody. I will not make any backroom deals, and I promise you, I will clean house," he says.
There is, in Fieger, something of the mischievous frat boy, an outsider crashing the party, sometimes literally. En route to a campaign appearance last month, Fieger took noticeable delight in describing to an aide how he upstaged Owen at a political rally held in a Detroit church.
Asked what other candidates were invited to the forum, beaming proudly, Fieger answered: "I wasn't invited. I crashed it."
Kevorkian has shown up at few of Fieger's public appearances in his gubernatorial bid, though Fieger said that his most famous client has been supportive. Would there be a place for Dr. Death in a Fieger cabinet?
"Jack Kevorkian will not be my lieutenant governor," Fieger says. "Can you imagine a man with more skeletons in his closet that Jack Kevorkian?"
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