Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Poll showing Fieger ahead won't cause him to run

"If you build it, he will come." - Field of Dreams, 1989

"If you hint it, they will print it." - Geoffrey Fieger, 2010

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - Okay, now for the multimillion-dollar question: Will Geoffrey Fieger run for governor of Michigan again?

Not on your life. Certainly not this year. Most likely, not ever.

Heads turned last week when EPIC/MRA came out with a new poll showing the flamboyant lawyer would be far ahead of the pack if he joined the race for the Democratic nomination for governor.

For weeks, there has been increasing speculation that Mr. Fieger would jump into the race, which features three candidates who are largely unknown and unexciting, and whose chances of winning in November have been all but written off by the experts.

To reporters, the prospect of Mr. Fieger in the race holds the promise of turning an otherwise dull campaign into Christmas every day. They remember 1998.

Twelve years ago, Mr. Fieger had burst into national celebrity status, thanks to his tenacious and wildly successful defense of the apostle of assisted suicide, Jack Kevorkian. He had persuaded jury after jury essentially to nullify laws against what his client did.

He had gotten rich from his successful medical malpractice business. He had a burning contempt for incumbent governor John Engler, whom he openly described as a "fat, corn-fed bowser."

Actually, that was one of the nicer things he said about the Republican governor, who had pushed the legislature to toughen laws against what Dr. Kevorkian did best. Mr. Fieger also told reporters that John Engler was the product of miscegenation with barnyard animals.

He said he wouldn't believe the governor was the father of his triplets unless their diapers were removed and they could be shown to have corkscrew tails. In one of his more moderate statements, he said that the governor "has never held a real job in his life. The only experience he has is robbing you, cheating you, and lying to you."

Mr. Fieger wasn't impressed with the "mealy-mouthed" Democrats either, and so he decided to get into the race.

The party responded unofficially with horror, and few expected him to win the nomination. But his opponents were lackluster. Labor leader Mark Brewer and the Democratic establishment largely backed Larry Owen, a colorless lawyer whose wife, Faylene, had been an effective fund-raiser for President Clinton. Doug Ross, a former state senator, ran as sort of the principled, thinking-man's candidate.

Mr. Fieger spent lavishly, dominated the state's media markets, and took the primary, with 41 percent to 37 percent for Mr. Owen and 22 percent for Mr. Ross. The Democratic establishment went into shock. Most of the state's leading political figures put as much distance between themselves and Mr. Fieger as they could.

Nevertheless, Mr. Fieger actually appeared to believe the polls were wrong and he would win the general election. He spent nearly $6 million on the effort, a huge sum in that era. He had defied expectations in the courtroom, time after time.

But the court of public opinion was different.

On Election Day, he lost in a stupendous landslide: Mr. Engler, 1,883,005, Mr. Fieger, 1,143,584. The defeated candidate disappeared for days, and never formally conceded.

"Why would I concede to that fat nincompoop?" he snarled at me later when I asked.

Mr. Fieger seldom speaks of that campaign today. He would be the first to tell you, however, that he doesn't like to lose.

But would he run again? I asked him that just before HBO showed the made-for-TV movie, You Don't Know Jack, in which Mr. Fieger is prominently, and on the whole sympathetically, portrayed.

He looked at me. "Sarah Palin could get elected governor of Michigan this year, running as a Republican. Sarah Palin!"

He shook his head.

Besides not wanting to lose, there are other reasons that Mr. Fieger is far less likely to run for governor these days. Michigan's governor makes $177,000 a year.

Mr. Fieger has an extremely expensive lifestyle, which includes a mansion in Bloomfield Hills, a nice house on a lake in north Oakland County, a fancy house in Arizona, another house in northern Michigan, and an estate on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, where he is building a luxury hotel.

He has his own airplane. In the past nine years, he and his wife Keenie, both of whom are 59, have adopted three babies. All this takes some overhead. Although he has partners, the law firm his father founded is largely an extension of himself.

Clients come because he is there. As for being governor, "I couldn't afford the pay cut," he told me finally, in a moment of candor.

But all he has to do is hint at it, and the reporters rush to come.

And for the state's brashest (some also say, best) attorney, free publicity is never bad.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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