Cover Story

New(er) Democrat?

The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 ushered in the era of the "New Democrat," the smooth-talking centrist who pays at least lip-service to some conservative social values. But in nominating Jack Kevorkian's lawyer to challenge an incumbent Republican governor in Michigan, have Democrats found in Geoffrey Fieger a new model, sharp-tongued advocate of hard-core liberalism?

Issue: "Clinton: Time to resign," Aug. 29, 1998

In Detroit - Two writers from the Detroit News stand in the reception area of Fieger, Fieger and Schwartz. A crisply professional blonde woman handles 23 phone lines and, without losing composure, tells the two newsmen that their appointment with Geoffrey Fieger must be postponed. One man clears his throat. He's clearly annoyed. The receptionist smiles warmly and offers them a later time slot. "You can have half an hour at one o'clock," she says. "But if you wait until 2:30, I can get you a full hour." The man she's addressing looks at his partner. The other guy (a Detroit News bureau chief who has some experience with Mr. Fieger) shrugs. "Take the one o'clock," he recommends. "Don't worry about the time. If we get him wound up, he'll give us the full hour. He won't be able to stop." The receptionist smiles again. To call Geoffrey Fieger "unpredictable" is to miss the point entirely. Unpredictability-some might term it "bombthrowing"-is the 47-year-old lawyer's trademark. He can be relied upon to throw around insults and invectives about whatever subject is at hand. When that subject is religion or politics, the insults are beauties. Gov. John Engler, according to Mr. Fieger, is the "product of barnyard miscegenation between animals and humans." He's called Jesus Christ a "goofball" and Detroit's Adam Cardinal Maida a "nut." Pope John Paul II, he says, is "some [expletive deleted] who's wearing a hat three feet tall." So when Mr. Fieger won a three-way primary earlier this month to capture the Democratic nomination for governor of Michigan, party leaders and pundits dutifully expressed surprise and apprehension. Then they waited for the uncivil discourse to continue through the expected reelection of Gov. Engler in November. But Mr. Fieger's popular appeal is worth a much closer look. What made 41 percent of Michigan's Democratic voters choose him over two candidates who appeared, at least on paper, so much stronger? Larry Owen, for example, was the pick of the United Auto Workers. Doug Ross also had labor links: He was an undersecretary in Clinton's Labor Department. Nevertheless, Mr. Fieger defeated both handily, and now even the popular Gov. Engler is beginning to look vulnerable (especially so if the voter turnout in November is excessively low, as many pollsters expect). Don't look too deeply for answers to that question, or for an understanding of Geoffrey Fieger. The brash attorney isn't a complicated man. He's no Jane Austen hypocrite or Bronte-esque villain. Rather, he's more a two-dimensional character from John Bunyan: He is Atheist, embodying the traits and saying the expected things-little else. Politically, he's Outsider-for now, at least. In the end, though, it's most likely he'll have turned out to be just Unsettling Blip. When Geoffrey Fieger comes in more than an hour and a half late, he offers no verbal apology, but does flash an engaging, lopsided smile. He's dressed as a successful plaintiff's attorney: a blue-black pinstripe suit (that's the attorney part) with a bright pink shirt and a brighter pink-on-black silk tie. His shirt cuffs are buttoned, not linked. He has a thousand-dollar, unnaturally white smile and a six-dollar haircut. Everything about him and his office bespeak new money. Small offices are crammed with expensive furniture. Recently acquired sculptures and paintings set off dated wallpaper and worn carpeting. For the most part, his wealth is new. He graduated from law school 20 years ago and joined his father's law firm. In the 1980s he chalked up some significant wins. By the end of that decade, he had won more multimillion-dollar verdicts than had any other attorney in the history of the state. In the first four months of 1998 alone, he racked up $25 million in judgments (he stopped practicing in April so he could campaign full-time). When Jack Kevorkian needed an attorney in 1990, Mr. Fieger offered to represent him for free (he has successfully defended the suicide doctor in three court cases). He admits receiving advice from Dr. Kevorkian, but has kept his distance during the campaign. He also says he's against assisted suicide and abortion: "But I can't tell you what to do with your body, and you can't tell me what to do with mine, period." His views of religion are full-bore atheism. But he was uncharacteristically careful in his WORLD interview: "I'm a person who is curious about all religions. I can't tell you that most of my life is taken up with the practice of my religious beliefs. Frankly, I think it's what's in your heart is important. If in your heart you don't want anyone to hurt or suffer or be sick, then you have strong religious beliefs." He smiles to himself, feeling he's handled the question well. Then he lets more slip. "If it [Christianity] is true, you can't explain the time in which life existed on this earth when there were no human beings. Or maybe God saw fit, prior to the time when humans were here, to send another being down, in the form of a dinosaur; an Incarnation for the dinosaurs." On other occasions he has said that the Roman soldiers (presumably, reliable eyewitnesses) thought of Jesus as some goofball, not the Son of God. And in the same way, people in centuries to come might deify Elvis. "Nietzsche said that surely religious beliefs must be one of the last vestiges of prehistoric men," he said in 1996. The religious right "is not right," he says. "They have every right to whatever belief or practice they want to impose upon themselves or their flock, however in a country with a separation between church and state, we have to be ever-vigilant against them imposing that on others." The only example he came up with was school prayer: "Any attempt to require people to pray in public schools is wrong." Wouldn't the religious right throw a fit "if a group of Muslims wanted to impose their prayers on everyone by law," he says. "Anyway, I don't subscribe to any particular belief; obviously there is some greater force. But I don't put a human face on it, as if we won't evolve into anything else." The Washington Post got it right when it wrote in 1996, "Such zealous certainty, such complete control. This must be the way an atheist practices his religion." A great part of Geoffrey Fieger's appeal, clearly, is his outsider status. And it's not an affected quality; when it was revealed in the press last week that Mr. Fieger had voted in the wrong precinct in 1996, the revelation helped rather than hurt him. He doesn't speak like a politician-he doesn't hold his tongue, temper his words, or qualify his opinions. "Mr. Engler has turned over the state business to special interests," he says. "He lacks compassion and sensitivity to the needs of people. He is willing to destroy the natural environment of the state. He has abandoned public school education and the state infrastructure." These are some of his most measured words about the governor. In the past, he has called Gov. Engler effeminate, a racist, and a moron. The governor is "dumber than Dan Quayle and twice as ugly," he has quipped. He once said of Gov. Engler's triplets that "unless they have curly tails," they're not the governor's children. He never apologized for that one, by the way, but did say later that the insult was directed at Mr. Engler, not the children. But he makes the mistakes of a political novice. He seems to have no positive agenda. "My positive reasons are the negative reasons," Mr. Fieger told the Detroit News and repeated to WORLD. "I'm running to remove John Engler." When pushed to outline what he'd do differently, he's clearly out of his depth. "I would examine how the system is set up," he said. "I'd make sure nobody is abandoned, that a system is in place and works." He finds a theme and focuses on Michigan's pioneering welfare reforms (which Mr. Fieger claims are not reforms). "I would make sure that if you take a mother out of the home, that she has adequate child care, adequate transportation to and from the job, and that the job pays more than she would receive in welfare, so that there's not a disincentive." Are those things that government can do? "Of course," he says sharply. How? "You set it up in the program." His other talking points (though he's easily distracted from them-he has not yet learned the politician's trick of answering the question that ought to have been asked) includes tax cuts. He likes tax cuts but claims that Gov. Engler hasn't made any (his evidence is that his own taxes don't seem to have gone down). He says he would reduce the state sales tax by a third; he would eliminate the gas tax and the state's Single Business Tax (a sort of self-employment tax). How would Gov. Fieger make up the shortfall? "Eliminate waste," he says. "If you run government as I intend to do, you'll be amazed." He calls himself a "fiscal conservative" (Mr. Engler, on the other hand, is a "radical"). But his campaign has been a string of attacks on Gov. Engler for cutting the budget. It's this lack of familiarity with the process of government, ultimately, that may be the political undoing of Geoffrey Fieger. For now, some see him as a breath of fresh air. He has an unexpectedly strong following in the black community-pundits ascribe it to his reputation as a plaintiff's attorney, who sticks up for the little guy. And the day after the primary, Michigan's prime Democrats in Congress-Reps. David Bonior, John Dingell, John Conyers, and Debbie Stabenow, and Sen. Carl Levin-all endorsed their Newer Democrat. But he's not ready for prime-time politics, the Detroit News editorialized. "Fieger the candidate, unlike Fieger the private citizen, now faces background scrutiny that no amount of verbal theatrics can erase, including a drunken-driving conviction and accusations of spouse abuse-factors that would send most politicians running for the hills." Chief among his now public past indiscretions is the charge of striking his wife, Kathleen "Keenie" Fieger-something she alleged when she filed for divorce in 1995. This was the second time she had filed. In 1990, they were reconciled a few weeks after she had initiated divorce proceedings. In the 1995 document, she alleges Mr. Fieger put his hands around her throat and began to strangle her, and that he hit her in the back. But they again reconciled, and they have both declined to talk about the allegations. More concrete is his 1986 drunk-driving conviction. A Breathalyzer test showed his blood-alcohol level was 0.18, nearly double the legal limit. He contested the conviction, but in the end he paid the $710 fine, along with $3,000 he paid in lieu of doing community service. There are other problems in his past: a few complaints to the state bar's ethics commission, but that's usual for any attorney, more so for a plaintiff's attorney. He was censured in 1996 by the Michigan Attorneys Grievance Commission for judge shopping (filing a case in numerous courts and determining which judge seems most sympathetic) in a Kevorkian case. And he owes a couple of thousand dollars in back taxes on two of his four homes (three are in the Detroit area, and one is a Caribbean island vacation home). Clearly he is bothered by his new lack of privacy. "I can't wake up on a Sunday morning, totally unshaven, hair tousled, and go down to the deli and get orange juice and a cup of coffee and read the Sunday paper." He complains he's been caricatured. "The part of me that is played up in the press, the outrageous, flamboyant quips, that's not the real Geoff Fieger." But it is precisely that "unreal" Geoff Fieger who won the primary and all that media attention. Imagine the surprise of reporters covering his announcement last week that he would sign a "clean campaign pledge" in the governor's race. "I will refrain from all personal attacks," Mr. Fieger said, just as reporters began scrutinizing him. And not a moment too soon. Add "timing" to Mr. Fieger's collection of dramatic skills.

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