The Motown Motormouth
Can pugnacious Geoffrey Fieger, lawyer to Dr. Death, tone it down
enough to unseat Michigan's Governor?
By Ron Stodghill II/Detroit
Usually it's not all that tough getting Jesse Jackson's blessing. Whether you're a scandal-plagued President, an ear-chomping boxer or a hard-luck farmer, Jackson generally doesn't mind offering up a little private prayer and some public words of encouragement. Of course, when you're Geoffrey Fieger, the man infamously known as Dr. Death's lawyer, getting even a nod from Jackson becomes a tad more complicated.
Last week, after Fieger stunned Michigan's Democratic machine to become the party's nominee for Governor, one of his first orders of business was heading into downtown Detroit, where Jackson was preaching at a crowded Baptist convention. Fieger (rhymes with tiger) is aggressively courting black voters and was looking forward to Jackson's imprimatur.
Yet with his 6-ft. 2-in., 230-lb. frame hunched in the backseat of a speeding Jeep Grand Cherokee, Fieger didn't seem in the mood to sit quietly through a holy event. It would only interrupt his nonstop rant about the shortcomings of his opponent, Republican incumbent John Engler. "He's a cheater, a liar and a coward," said Fieger. "He's a man of mediocre intelligence who's never done anything in life but suck off the public trough." The Engler camp, meanwhile, is clinging desperately to higher ground. "Fieger can roll in the mud by himself," says John Truscott, an Engler spokesman.
Indeed, Fieger might be Michigan's fastest-rising Democrat, but he sometimes sounds more like "shock jock" Howard Stern. From disarming candor ("Sure, I smoked marijuana. And I inhaled. I'm not a liar like Clinton") to mean-spirited jabs (his favorite: Engler is the "product of miscegenation between barnyard animals and humans"), Fieger has spent his career making waves and lambasting virtually anyone who disagrees with him. "He's too quick. He's too unscrupulous, and he's too feisty," sniffs University of Michigan law professor Yale Kamisar, an expert on assisted suicide who has endured more than a few clashes with Fieger over his controversial client, Dr. Jack Kevorkian. "There are no rules. He'll do anything to win."
Of course, somewhere in the Geoffrey Fieger Show now lies the more serious question of whether he could actually win the gubernatorial race in November. While the 47-year-old millionaire attorney managed to draw a plurality of 41% in the Democratic primary, his drawbacks in a general election are obvious. While most of his positions (pro-choice, pro-environment) put him on the liberal end of the political spectrum, his crude, combative style has largely alienated the state's traditional party Pooh-Bahs and threatens to scare upscale Democrats into Engler's camp. Some Dems, though, see a silver lining in Fieger's ascent: his in-your-face campaign style could lure a fresh wave of young voters, as well as win back blue-collar constituents and reinvigorate African-American voters outraged by Engler's conservative, pro-business policies. Fieger admits his mudslinging is starting to yield "diminishing returns" and hurting his effort to broaden his constituency in a general election. He says he'd like a more issues-oriented race.
Still, he can't seem to fight his twitch for getting ugly. As he stepped into the convention center to greet local Baptist ministers, he unleashed. "I don't know how African Americans can vote for Engler," he says. "That's like Jews voting for Adolf Hitler."
Geoffrey isn't the first Fieger to draw some limelight. His dad, the late Bernard Fieger, was a prominent Detroit labor lawyer, and his mother June was a union organizer. Of three siblings, younger brother Doug enjoyed the most fame, as the lead singer of the rock group the Knack, whose song My Sharona topped the charts worldwide in 1979. Sister Beth is a writer. But the family isn't surprised that Geoffrey has become so colorful in his work. "Look at the people who will go on the Jerry Springer show and display the most hideous aspects of their character just to go on TV," says brother Doug. "I'm not sure politicians aren't the same."
But as Geoffrey Fieger pressed his way backstage for a private chat with Jackson, he looked almost humble. Jackson greeted Michigan's aspiring Governor warmly, whispered something in his ear and then strode out to the pulpit. Fieger was pleased. He swaggered out and took a place in the audience, awaiting a few words of praise from the reverend. But Jackson only issued the terse acknowledgment that the "Democratic nominee for this state" was present, and asked Fieger to stand--without bothering to mention his name. "I guess he didn't want to try to pronounce Geoffrey," a deflated, sarcastic Fieger mumbled. "The name always catches people up."
Then he turned to his handlers and barked, "Let's get out of here."
--With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York