We weren't expecting a typical candidate interview. After all, Geoffrey Fieger is anything but a typical candidate. The wannabe governor's renegade campaign is slashing mercilessly at his incumbent opponent while trying to generate voter support with virtually no help from what remains of the state's Democratic power structure.
But even we weren't prepared for the oddity of the interview in our offices on St. Antoine in Greektown. He arrives 30 minutes late, alone. Not that we were expecting an entourage, but even Don Quixote had Sancho Panza assisting as he tilted at windmills. Not so on this day with Fieger, who arrives sans handlers or even a driver, but apparently in need of a drink. We offer pop or coffee, but he suggests we step downstairs to the bar that occupies the first floor of Metro Times world headquarters. "I'd really like a glass of wine," says the millionaire attorney. "I'll buy."
As tempting as the offer is, we worry that bar noise will overwhelm our Radio Shack tape recorder. Fieger swallows his disappointment, warns that he doesn't have much time, and suggests we get right to it.
Five minutes later his cellular phone rings. He apologizes, flicks the phone open, and goes ape-shit. We can only speculate, but it sounds like it might be his wife, calling at the behest of someone else to cajole the candidate into making an appearance. His face reddens as Fieger shouts into the tiny mouthpiece, then clicks off, dials, and launches into another tirade as we sit watching, partly embarrassed by the scene, partly stupefied that a candidate would allow himself to come unhinged while meeting with a group of journalists trying to decide whether their paper should endorse him.
He calms immediately when the phone conversation ends, but the remainder of the interview is infused with a weird energy. Fieger remains so cranked he appears to almost vibrate. This is clearly a man with little patience. Questions don't even fully emerge from our mouths before he is answering. Challenged on an issue, he spits out combative replies.
When the candidate leaves, we follow behind, curious. There is no surprise when he steps into the aforementioned bar for a few minutes before rushing off to the next stop on his oddly winding campaign trail.
This does not appear to be the same Geoffrey Fieger who seemed to sail through his primary election like a schoolboy on a lark, tossing verbal grenades at his opponents and taking glee at shaking up the status quo.
It is an observation that prompts our first question.
METRO TIMES: When you talked to our reporter Jennifer Bagwell back during the primary campaign, one of the quotes was "I want it to be interesting, and I want to have fun." Has it been interesting and fun?
GEOFFREY FIEGER: It's been interesting and it's fun, but the free pass Engler's given in the press is disconcerting. I mean, he's the crookedest governor we have ever had, the most corrupt, the dirtiest campaigner. He is held to absolutely no objective standard. He is put under no scrutiny.
MT: Don't you think that speaking in such broad strokes and failing to narrow it is part of the problem why ...
FIEGER: I could narrow it down. Closure of virtually every mental hospital in this state, and redefining those in need of mental health care as homeless, I think that's obscene. At the same time, the building of hundreds of millions of dollars in more prison cells to house an entire generation of young African-American men, I think that's obscene. ... I think that failing to provide for adequate day care or transportation for mothers is obscene in this so-called war on welfare. I think his actions vis-à-vis the environment are obscene. Gutting polluter- pay laws, gutting the Department of Natural Resources, gutting the definition of wetlands. I think what he's done for the infrastructure is obscene. The abandonment of the roads, the diversion of funds. I think the abandonment of the city of Detroit and the implicit racism associated therewith is obscene. I think his silence in the face of the killing of Edward Swans, the young, mentally ill African American who was killed in a Lansing city lockup in 1996 by eight white officers who had been adjudged by a unanimous jury in Kalamazoo to have violated his civil rights and killed him, the silence of Engler is obscene. Is that more significant, specific? And that doesn't even address the corruption in terms of finances and the money going out the back door. The privatization, the war on state employees, the privatization of traditional social services, is obscene. The giving of $3 billion in privatized contracts is obscene. The giving away of the Liquor Control Commission to his cronies is obscene. The payment of $90 million to the Republicans' biggest campaign contributors in that Nordhouse Dunes (takings case) is obscene. I could go on and on and on.
MT: What is the vision you want to get across to people?
FIEGER: I come out of the biggest obstacle anybody ever faced. I had the entire array of special interests, the powers that be within the Democratic Party, plus every elected official within the Democratic Party, except Kay Everett, against me, and I became the first candidate for governor ever in the history of the state to not be anointed in advance, buck the power structure, go right to the people and say I'm going to be a citizen's patriot.
I'm going to take back government for the people and from the special interests and career politicians and create government of, by and for the people.
I'm also a person who's distinguished himself in life. So I'm not some sycophant who's coming out who wants to be a politician to satisfy some insecurity in myself or, worse yet, to line the pockets of special interests. I gain nothing from this. It just so happens that it's possible that somebody comes out from the ranks of the citizens and says, look, I'm going to try to do something right for all the people ...
MT: What do you think are the progressive issues?
FIEGER: I've mentioned virtually all the issues to you. ... The attack on working men and women in the state, the attack on collective bargaining, the evisceration of collective bargaining rights for schoolteachers. (Engler's) attempts to make this a right-to-work state. His allowance of attacks on legal picketers at the News and Free Press. His war on state unions that are employees. His attacks on public schools, attempting to defund public school education with freedom schools. That appears to be the product of a deranged mind.
MT: As someone with those strong, progressive beliefs, how could you have considered Ronna Romney as ...
FIEGER: I never did. What, do you believe what you read in the papers?
MT: So you never approached her about being lieutenant governor?
FIEGER: No. If you read the Detroit News, shame on you. ... I've only got about 10 more minutes.
MT: OK. Here's one question. Everybody's worried about the economy going into the tank now. If you were governor of Michigan, and that happened, what would you do?
FIEGER: Well, there's nothing I can do right now because I think it's imminent. I think that we've got to have a policy based on creating a prosperity that uncouples us from that one industry so that we don't become a one-trick pony, a one-horse town. And we create a prosperity that's based upon a broad-based business base. The way you attract business, it seems to me, is you create great community and business will follow. We've got this anachronistic view that you bribe businesses to come into communities, and then they have no allegiance. You bribe them by tax abatements or tax incentives, which ultimately results in no allegiance. And it's been very ineffective anyway ... we've got no employers coming to this town or in this state as a result of that. I mean, there may be individual instances but not a great deal of success in that regard.
So, realistically, if you look at the areas that withstand economic downturn, they're diversified areas that are great places to live. You create good infrastructure, good schools, pleasant environment, a good, trained workforce, you invest in culture, and businesses will follow.
MT: If there is a series of economic troubles ... you're not going to rebuild your community ...
FIEGER: You certainly are not. There's going to be an inevitable downturn, and the fact of the matter is ... we are in a precarious position right now.
(Engler) points to low unemployment ... which is primarily the result of people who have lost their jobs leaving this state. Period. Flint's been depopulated, from 200,000 to 130,000 in a decade; they've lost 50,000 manufacturing jobs. So the fact of the matter is, the other 49 states have generated our economic engine, which is one product, and they're buying it. So the people who are still here have full employment.
But if you look at the other economic indicators of this state, we are 47th out of 50 states in economic momentum; 48th out of 50 states in real wage growth. We had a record number of bankruptcies last year. We had a record number of foreclosures, 53,000. And in a time where most other states in this unparalleled time of economic boom have paid off their debt and are in a surplus, we have gone from a $70 per capita debt to over $450. It's a disguised deficit, because we float bonds ... so we don't show it as a deficit.
MT: Are you working at all within the Democratic infrastructure?
FIEGER: There is no Democratic infrastructure. I'm telling you, I'm the Democratic candidate for governor. It's an illusion. It doesn't exist, by and large. I mean, I can point to you little pockets, but to suggest to you there is one, it doesn't exist.
MT: Why do you think that is?
FIEGER: Well, they gutted -- partly the reason is, is there's no money there.
The Engler administration has made campaign contributions by unions almost impossible, by this law that requires the permission of the members to deduct the 1 percent per PAC ... it's gutted. They have no money. No money whatsoever. It's primarily ... and then there's disarray because their chosen boy didn't win and they picked up their marbles and went home.
MT: Why do you want to be governor?
FIEGER: So I can do something good for all the people. So I can take government away from career politicians and special interests, and have an effect. You know how few people have an opportunity to have a good effect, to do something right for all the people? To simply to stand up and say, "Look, nobody owns me, nobody controls me, nobody pulls my strings. You can't make a deal with me in a back room. I simply want to do what's best for all the people." I want to be an honest broker. You know how unusual that is?
MT: What's been going on between you and Archer?
FIEGER: I don't know anything that's going on. I think he's a politician and he does his thing. I have no antipathy for him. I have only had a good relationship with him over 20 years. You'd have to ask him. I'm serious. I think he's a politician. I see him appearing in ads in an election year with Engler.
MT: What message does that send?
FIEGER: That's obvious. You don't have to ask me that question. And if he doesn't know it, that's naive or even worse. OK? But I didn't need him to win the primary, and he campaigned actively against me, and I won the city of Detroit huge. So if there's a thought that I need him to win the city of Detroit, to go out there and actively campaign for me, I think that's already been shown. I don't know what his problem is. Let him be. I don't have any answer for it.
MT: How are you reaching out to voters outside of the southeast Michigan area?
FIEGER: I'm across the state constantly. I'm like a Mexican jumping bean. I go from one side of the state to the other. I speak constantly. ... I can't even tell you all the places. And we reach out, we do that, and the crowds have been enthusiastic ... and then you also do your radio and television ads, and you hope that they're effective.
MT: The conventional wisdom seems to be "What can Geoffrey Fieger do to turn this around?" You're saying that you're on a path to win already.
FIEGER: What I kept saying was the conventional wisdom was I was going to lose the primary -- up until the day I won ... I'm not doing this to lose. I don't do things to lose. I don't turn the other cheek. I don't bend over. And I don't lose. OK? I appreciate it. Thanks ...
An interview you won't read anywhere else.
We wanted the governor. Wanted him badly. But his people were being coy. They're not stupid, after all. Sending their man into the Metro Times for a candidate interview would be something akin to dropping fresh meat into a tank of hungry piranha. It wasn't likely to ever happen, but still we hoped. And fantasized.
What would it be like, we wondered, if the governor really did come and we were able to slip a shot of sodium pentothal into the Diet Pepsi he'd surely accept to quench the thirst generated by that long drive from Lansing in his trusty Oldsmobile.
We were giddy with the thought of the guv high on truth serum, revealing to our rolling tape recorder his innermost desires and secret fears.
Then reality came crashing down. Though they immediately balked at a face-to-face, the governor's handlers seemed responsive to some fax-to-fax interaction. We zipped them a list of questions, then waited for the answers. And waited. Then called, and called, and called, and waited.
With the election and our deadline upon us, and still no response, we faced a dilemma. Do we run the Fieger interview solo, or do we devise an alternative? It is at that point we revisited the Diet Pepsi with a truth serum Mickey fantasy.
What if the governor really did come in, and what if he really did drop the boilerplate rhetoric and tell us what he truly thought?
We let our imaginations run wild.
METRO TIMES: When you first ran for office, you pledged to serve no more than two terms as governor. You've now reneged on that promise. What did you fail to accomplish during your first two terms that you would like to see done if re-elected again?
GOV. ENGLER: Look around you. There is much unfinished business. Take state mental hospitals. There's at least one or two I haven't shut yet. And wetlands--there're plenty remaining that need to be drained so that my good friends over at the Homebuilders Association can turn more useless wildlife habitat into lovely condos and mini-marts. The public school system has yet to be dismantled. And last time I looked, there were lots of menacing young black men still roaming free on the streets of Detroit, just waiting to be put to work making furniture in a newly privatized, for-profit prison. And welfare -- don't even get me started. As long as a single welfare mom and her brood of illegitimate children continue to suck even a drop off the public teat, I will not sleep easy.
MT: In a recent Metro Times story examining your environmental record, all the environmentalists we interviewed gave your administration failing grades for its environmental policies while pro-business groups gave you high environmental marks. Why do you think there is such a strong perception among many involved in the issue that your policies have favored business at the expense of the environment.
ENGLER: Are you all idiots? Do you know why that perception exists? Because it's 100 percent true, that's why. Look at those anonymous comments made by employees at all levels at the Department of Environmental Quality. They didn't hesitate to tell that group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility how my boy Russ Harding has them folding, spindling and mutilating every regulation they can in order to let violators off the hook. Look, you folks have to face political reality. Only about 7 percent of the voters will make a decision based on environmental issues. As long as I have that PAC money from chemical manufacturers, the oil and gas industry, the Big Three and every other polluter in this great state rolling in by the truckload, I can screw the environmentalists anytime I want. Plus, when I can polish my national image by coming up with a con job like the Clean Michigan campaign, well, heh-heh-heh, it just makes me realize what a wonderful thing politics can be.
MT: Do you think the limited role for government that has been a hallmark of your administration would have to be reassessed if our economy goes into a deep recession?
ENGLER: Hell no. I realize you commies there at the Metro Times will never accept this, but we live in a capitalist society. So we have a few more homeless bums turn into Popsicles this winter. Tough toenails. And maybe crime does go up as people start robbing more to feed themselves -- all the more opportunity to pump up that thriving prison-industrial complex I envision. And when the bodies start falling through all those social safety nets I've ripped to shreds -- well, my advice is to step lively and keep your heads up or else you're going to get squished right along with all the other losers.
MT: The perception that you have neglected Detroit persists. Would you do anything to change that?
ENGLER: Well, that one really does concern me. Not that I give a lickety-shit about Detroit, but because if I'm ever going to get myself a spot on the national GOP ticket I'm going to have to prove to the big boys in D.C. that I can turn out the urban vote. Which is why, two weeks before the election, I announced that the state will move into the old General Motors headquarters. Matter of fact, I just this morning faxed Newt that front page photo of me and my boy Dennis Archer laughing like a couple of good ol' homeboys. Newt's gonna eat that shit up.
MT: When progressives look at eight years of Englerism, we see a state government that is leaner, but in many ways also meaner. Do you think that is a fair characterization?
ENGLER: Stop, you're killin' me. I mean it. You ask me these questions as if I really care. Look: The bottom line is the only line. As long as I can keep my fat cat contributors rolling in tax breaks and juicy government contracts cut in backroom deals, it won't matter how many little kids go hungry, how many crazy people walk the streets talking to their invisible friends, how many rivers go uncleaned, how many drug addicts go untreated, how many unions get busted. Are you getting it, or do you want me to get some crayons and draw you morons a picture. I could make a nice drawing of me kicking a cute little puppy dog for you to hang on your wall here, heh-heh-heh.
MT: What to you think the Engler legacy will be?
ENGLER: Billionaires and body bags. Some of the former, a lot of the latter. I'm just hoping I'm out of here by the time the riots start. Although mobilizing the National Guard to go in and really clean up in Detroit could be some really kick-ass fun.
MT: If re-elected, are you promising voters that you will serve the full term, or would you consider leaving to seek a national office during the next four years?
ENGLER: You people really are dense, aren't you.