Dead Man Walking

by Jonathan Chait | October 18, 1998

It seems like a natural audience for a Democratic candidate. A few hundred retired union workers are sitting on folding chairs in a large hall that resembles a cafeteria at a run-down school-- right down to the off-white walls lined with tan cement columns. Outside, several letters have fallen off the billboard so that it reads, "united ood & commercia workers ufw local no. 876 afl-cio." A lawn sign beside the driveway declares, "no news or free press wanted here!"--a message of solidarity with the infamous three-year-old newspaper strike that met a miserable defeat.

The ufcw retirees have come here to listen to Geoffrey Fieger, the Democratic candidate for governor, who is not so much speaking to them as shouting at them in the kind of urgent, blurting manner you might use to tell someone he's suddenly caught fire: "They want to cut every benefit you have!" And: "There is a war going on!" It's not particularly effective; the retirees are just staring at him impassively. So Fieger must finally resort to another strategy: begging. "Come on, folks," he pleads. Finally, there are a few sympathetic claps.

Here is the state of the Democratic Party in Michigan. Its gubernatorial candidate is Fieger, Jack Kevorkian's bombastic mouthpiece, who is best known for ridiculing religious leaders and calling his opponent, Governor John Engler, "the result of miscegenation between humans and barnyard animals." Fieger is currently at about 20 percent in the polls--abysmal for any major party candidate, let alone one running against an unloved Republican in a state with a proud liberal heritage. Yet a debacle like Fieger's candidacy is, alas, nothing new for Michigan Democrats. It is merely the latest evidence of the state party's long slide into political decrepitude.

In addition to being loud, Fieger is tall, and his thin face seems to be perpetually red with anger. Before Kevorkian, his chief claim to fame was his reputation as a flamboyant personal-injury lawyer--and it is immediately clear to anybody who meets him why he made millions at it. A good personal-injury lawyer must convey to clients and juries the scurrilousness of his foes. Fieger, who holds a degree in theater, has an almost preternatural ability to maintain himself in a constant state of outrage. His essential technique is to dehumanize his adversaries. At a press conference for Kevorkian, Fieger once displayed a photograph of an opposing lawyer's face with a clown nose pinned on it. He has called Engler "dumber than Dan Quayle and twice as ugly," and he once suggested that Engler's babies might have corkscrew tails.

Fieger has conducted his campaign as if he were waging a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the entire population. He accuses Engler of racism, poor economic management, neglect of social spending, and, as redress, many other evil things. He promises the protection of every existing job, plus more spending on infrastructure, the environment, and education--and huge tax cuts, too.

It's a breathtaking series of promises, and they make sense only if you grasp Fieger's core political belief: Governor Engler is massively looting the state budget. Fieger clings to this notion with the feverish certainty of a conspiracy theorist. But, while most other conspiracy buffs immerse themselves in endless minutiae--the make of Oswald's gun, the weather conditions at Roswell--Fieger lacks even rudimentary facts. In a meeting with the Detroit News editorial board, he explained: "The money is there. ... The federal government says we have thirty-five billion dollars. Mr. Engler's budget shows revenues of 21.5 billion dollars. That's a difference of 14.5 billion dollars. Maybe it's going out the back door."

Fieger's facts are almost right. The state spends $31 billion and takes in only $23 billion in revenue. But there is an innocent, none-too-secret explanation for the $8 billion gap--that's the amount of money the federal government contributes to the state budget. And, even if that were not the case, the $8 billion discrepancy would prove the opposite of what Fieger intends; it is usually an indication of embezzlement if the state is spending less than it brings in, not more. Yet Fieger revels in his ignorance. When the News asked him how much revenue the state income tax brought in, he answered, "I have no idea." He then put a transcript of the interview on his campaign website.

But Fieger's nonwonkishness has not hurt him because it has been entirely subsumed by a metaphysical debate over whether he is a religious bigot. The debate, unfortunately for Fieger, is not breaking his way. Republicans have taken to calling Fieger "the Democrats' David Duke," and in their commercials they repeat his familiar attacks on religious leaders. Fieger has, on various occasions, called Jesus "some goofball that got nailed to the cross," said a group of Orthodox rabbis was "closer to Nazis than they think," and called a Catholic archbishop a "nut." In fairness, the Jesus line is an out-of-context quote of a sentiment that Fieger did not endorse. More generally, in the Fieger lexicon, these are insults so mild that they could almost be considered compliments. If he is treating religious leaders any differently, it is with uncharacteristic reverence.

How, you may ask, did such a man become the Democratic nominee for governor? The answer begins with the Michigan Democratic Party and the fact that it remains a kind of political time capsule, a remnant of the party preserved intact as it existed 20 years ago. In the last decade, the national party has decided that its candidates cannot simply reflect the views of its composite interest groups but must also appeal to centrist, independent voters. Yet Michigan Democrats have moved in the opposite direction--because, very simply, the United Auto Workers wants it that way.

Since Walter Reuther's day, the party in Michigan--one of the nation's most unionized states--has never made an important decision without the UAW's consent; labor historically reciprocated by exercising its power with a restraint born of enlightened self-interest. A candidate who appealed only to unions could not muster enough votes to carry a general election, so, in 1982, for example, the UAW asked James Blanchard, a moderate suburban congressman, to run for governor. Blanchard won, and he served eight years.

Around the time that Blanchard lost--to Engler, in a narrow upset--the calculus began to change. The UAW decided it cared more about its control of the party than about the party's winning elections. "The old union leadership was careful to distinguish between being a union member and being a Democrat," says a Michigan Democrat friendly to the UAW. "This union leadership wants to be the Democratic Party." For instance, two years ago, a regional director of the UAW sent all Democratic officeholders in the state a letter asking them to back every UAW-endorsed primary candidate. The letter arrived before the UAW had even made its endorsements. One Democrat refused to sign.

Meanwhile, the UAW's influence over the rank and file diminished. In the 1992 presidential primary, the UAW put its muscle behind Tom Harkin and then Jerry Brown; Clinton won easily. This year, before the gubernatorial primary, the president of the UAW tapped his close friend, Larry Owen, a former Lansing mayor. And, while Owen, who is widely considered an ineffective campaigner, generated little enthusiasm among Michigan Democrats, none dared challenge the UAW's selection. This opened the door for Fieger. By constantly attacking Engler as a racist, Fieger appealed to blacks, who voted in unusually high numbers due to a widely publicized referendum on casino gambling in Detroit. Fieger also took a large chunk of the union rank-and-file vote and narrowly won the primary.

Things have gotten rockier since then, as the religion issue has taken its toll. Fieger, naturally, attributes his difficulty to a vast plot. "There is a power structure with billions of dollars going on," he tells a group of Detroit clergymen. The power structure is terrified because "you could have, for the first time, a governor who came from the people." And they will stop at nothing: "I'm a little worried about [Engler] shooting me."

Later, at the offices of Fieger, Fieger & Schwartz (the first Fieger is Geoffrey's father), he recounts how great men of history must inevitably endure the slings and arrows of the elite. As Fieger's assorted minions scurry through the elegant, marble-floored lobby past walls lined with paintings and photographs of himself, he seems to have lost none of his sense of grievance. "The only other parallel," he bellows, "is to read descriptions of Martin Luther King." Later, Fieger reconsiders and evokes a different parallel: like Jesus, he is "a threat to the status quo." No, wait, Jesus was a martyr--"I'm not a martyr, I'm gonna win"--so maybe Galileo would be more apt. ("Didn't they condemn Galileo?") Finally, he settles on Michael Jordan. "If Jordan could hit the curveball, Major League Baseball would have been pissed as hell," he declares.

They are angry with Fieger because he is a great lawyer who then became a great politician. "They've been hostile to me because of who I am," barks Fieger. "They've been hostile since day one. Now they're, like, sixty times more hostile." And then he lets out an uproarious, maniacal laugh.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.  

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