Suicide Mission?

updated 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The morning after Geoffrey Fieger—best known as suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian's lawyer—won Michigan's Aug. 4 gubernatorial primary, some Democratic party leaders didn't show up to rally behind their anointed candidate at a scheduled unity breakfast. Perhaps it was because Fieger had repeatedly denounced them as "wimps." Or maybe they felt he had gone too far by calling incumbent Republican Gov. John Engler such things as "a shill for reactionaries, polluters, insurance companies and developers" who was "dumber than Dan Quayle and twice as ugly."

The shock value of Fieger's comments may help explain how the combative 47-year-old lawyer, in his first run for office, was able to grab so much attention and 41 percent of the votes in the three-way Democratic primary. Hardly anyone foresees this darkest of dark horses toppling Engler, 49, a popular two-term Republican. But Fieger's victory ensures that the Michigan contest will be this fall's most colorful gubernatorial race.

"The whole thing is just unbelievable to me," scoffs political analyst Craig Ruff, who predicts that Fieger—who promises to protect access to abortion and assisted suicide and to revitalize city neighborhoods—could lead the Democrats to annihilation in the fall. "Geoff Fieger for governor, Hulk Hogan for President." But pollster Steve Mitchell points out that Fieger, with his longish hair and Hollywood-bright smile, "is the rarest of politicians: someone who people will line up to get an autograph from."

With Fieger running for the $127,000-a-year job, all traditional rules of political engagement are off. His antics in the courtroom, where he has earned a reputation as one of the nation's most effective plaintiffs' attorneys, are legendary. He once compared appeals court judges to "squirrels, mollusks and lizards." And in 1990, when a local hospital he had successfully sued for $3 million didn't pay up, he got a court order that the sheriff's department executed by removing the hospital's computers. "That got their attention," he says.

His tough tactics also got the attention of Kevorkian, who was just embarking on his suicide-assistance career. "Jack liked my style," says Fieger, who has won acquittals for Kevorkian in three trials resulting from his assisted suicides. (Kevorkian now rents one of Fieger's five homes.) Fieger half hopes Engler will try to use the Kevorkian connection against him. "If he tries to hit me with that, I'll hit him right back," he says. "The people are with me on this."

Standing up for sometimes unpopular causes comes naturally to Fieger, the oldest of three children raised in the Oak Park, Mich., home of Bernard Fieger, a labor and civil rights lawyer who died in 1988, and his wife, June, 74, a former organizer for the state teachers union. Geoffrey's bold ways showed up early. "He was pretty arrogant," recalls Harold Fineman, Fieger's principal at the Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School, "recognizably, blatantly cocky."

Fieger honed his theatrical flair by majoring in drama as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, where he also earned a master's degree in speech before attending the Detroit College of Law. He is well-known for delivering stunning summations, orating for hours with few notes. His law practice has made him rich, and last year he moved into a palatial house (listed at $2.9 million) in the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills with Keenie, his wife of 16 years, who has twice filed for divorce but changed her mind each time.

As a candidate, Fieger just might make up in cash what he lacks in political polish. He kicked in more than a million dollars of his own money for his primary and has already run political ads that say he's "ready to rumble." Yet Fieger's decision to enter politics still surprises even his brother Doug, 46, front man for the rock band the Knack (best known for the 1979 hit "My Sharona"). "Actually," says Doug, "I thought he would probably run for God before he ran for governor."

Bruce Frankel
Alan Paul in Detroit

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