Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Fieger still cares passionately about Michigan

BLOOMFIELD HILLS. Mich. — Geoffrey Fieger, the man best known for making Jack Kevorkian a household word, holds out a newspaper article. "Look at this," he shouts. "Did you ever see anything like this?"

The attorney is holding a story about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. "He says God told him to run. Then he says he told Him: ‘You've got the wrong man.' And God says: ‘Run anyway.' Where do they get these people?"

He is less disgusted than contemptuously amused.

"You know, when you go to any mental institution, the number one thing you hear is that God speaks to them," he says. "Has there ever been a time when there was a lower level of people running for national office in this country?"

These days, Mr. Fieger is in the news mostly when he wins gigantic medical malpractice judgments. A $144 million award last month may be the biggest civil case of its kind in history. He also likes to take high-profile cases in which mostly poor, mostly black folks say they've been abused by police.

Today, many voters and even some of his clients don't remember that he was the 1998 Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan. But the state's most flamboyant lawyer says he still cares — passionately — about what's happening. Nationally, yes, but especially here.

"The main problem here is that the state of Michigan has never had, for any significant time, quality leadership," he says. "That‘s partly the voters' fault, but also the fact that there are no reporters anymore. The newspapers are a joke. Where are today's Eric Sevareids or Andy Rooneys?"

He notes that he allowed 60 Minutes to interview Kevorkian on the condition that the late Mr. Rooney would be the reporter.

Mr. Fieger has been interested in politics for years. His father was a well-respected civil-liberties attorney. His mother was a successful organizer for the American Federation of Teachers.

After winning national fame by keeping Kevorkian out of jail, Mr. Fieger decided to run for governor in 1998. He spent lavishly by the standards of the day — $6 million from his own pocket — and stunned the Democratic establishment by winning the primary.

But his general election campaign was less successful. He lost in a landslide to incumbent Gov. John Engler.

"It was the right time for me personally to run, but the wrong time politically," he says now. "Engler was able to claim that he was responsible for the prosperity that, if anything, was due to [President Bill] Clinton's policies."

The attorney's campaign was, suffice to say, unorthodox. The incumbent governor refused to debate after Mr. Fieger said he wouldn't believe the governor was the father of his then-infant triplet daughters unless they had "corkscrew tails."

Thirteen years later, Mr. Fieger does not have anything good to say about Michigan's ruling Republicans. He describes them as "a bunch of angry people filled with fear, mainly of minorities. They only win when Democrats don't vote."

But he has surprisingly little bad to say about Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. He doesn‘t like the governor's policies, but doesn‘t think he's "evil" like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The man who makes his blood boil is Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who he says is "using his office to wage war against the people" by refusing to recognize the Medical Marijuana Act, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2010.

But if he loathes Republicans, he doesn't have a great deal that's good to say about his own party, either. He regards Democrats mostly as incompetent hacks.

"[U.S. Sen.] Carl Levin told me accurately the day I was nominated that there was no Democratic Party," he says. "There was just a mannequin you stuff with cash every four years."

Still, Mr. Fieger won nearly 1.2 million votes, and ever since, there's been speculation that he might run again. So, I ask, is he tempted to run?

"Probably not," he says. "I've come to the conclusion that I can make more of a difference not running for office. The main thing a governor has is the bully pulpit.

"Well, I can do that — I have a pulpit and the forum and the media cover me."

The only elected position that might tempt him, he says, is mayor of Detroit. "What you first have to do is repopulate the city," he says, "and [create] a good education system. Everything else will follow.

"I'd throw the city open to artists. We wouldn't enforce any law against marijuana, or against the classier sort of prostitution," such as exists in Amsterdam or Hamburg. "Immigrants? Absolutely. You could repopulate this city almost overnight.

But he seems an unlikely candidate. Mr. Fieger, now almost 61, and his wife, Keenie, adopted three small children, and devote much of their time to them.

Plus, Mr. Fieger has at least five major homes, his own airplane, and a vast staff. It is unlikely that he could stand the pay cut.

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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