In 1988, a precocious Queens student named Michael Gianaris, a son of Greek immigrants, registered 10,000 Greek-American New Yorkers to vote for the Democratic Presidential campaign of then–Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
Last month, Mr. Dukakis—now a professor at Northeastern University—hosted a fund-raiser in Boston for that same precocious student, who is now a State Assemblyman and a candidate for State Attorney General next year. “One thing I hoped to do in 1988 is to inspire lots of young Greek-Americans,” Mr. Dukakis said in a telephone interview. Mr. Gianaris, he said, is “one of the best.” Call it Greek chic. Eighteen years after the ’88 election, New York politics is still feeling the reverberations of a Presidential campaign that galvanized an ethnic group that previously hadn’t felt its heft, and only recently got the Hollywood treatment of an iconic ethnic movie. “This community was turned upside-down in 1988,” said Mr. Gianaris, 35, sitting in his district office on the second floor of a low-slung building on a sunny corner in Astoria, describing the enthusiasm that gripped an immigrant community that had been “more concerned with politics in Greece than with politics in this country” before Mr. Dukakis’ bid. Twelve years later, he said, “we saw at the polls a lot of the people I had registered. All that effort culminated in my election” in 2000. Whether that ethnic pride can propel Mr. Gianaris to the much-coveted Democratic nomination for Attorney General remains to be seen, but it has provided him with a crucial leg up in the early days of the game. (Phil Angelides, the California state treasurer who is running for governor next year, is the other main beneficiary of this groundswell of political activism.) With $1.6 million in his campaign coffers, collected at fund-raisers among Greek-Americans in Houston, Sacramento, St. Petersburg, Princeton, Washington and New Orleans—where he was photographed in April by The New York Times—Mr. Gianaris until recently led the money race in a crowded field of seven candidates. He was recently overtaken by Andrew Cuomo, who had more than $1 million left over from his 2002 gubernatorial race and who now holds the advantage in the early-money race. The enthusiasm for Mr. Gianaris’ candidacy even crosses party lines: Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers and a top fund-raiser for President George W. Bush, ponied up $5,000 for his bid. It may help at the ballot box, too: Mr. Gianaris estimates that some 350,000 persons of Greek heritage live in the state. Mr. Gianaris, who graduated from Fordham University before going on to Harvard Law School, knows he’ll succeed or fail by how well he can sell his second-generation immigrant message to others with similar backgrounds. “My family story is a typical story in New York,” he said, explaining how his father suffered hardship and homelessness in Nazi-occupied Greece. He got into public service because “in the context of all my parents went through, I really wanted to do something with my life for people like them.” His is a New Democrat kind of message that plays well in this prosperous ethnic enclave, where the usual raft of small businesses jostle under the elevated train, Greek tchotchke stores and restaurants with names like Zygos Taverna and Lefkos Pyrgos. He’s betting it gets him a hearing in places like Washington Heights, Utica, Buffalo and Albany. A pleasant-looking, soft-spoken man, Mr. Gianaris talks about his work bringing polluters to heel, about his bill for a nonpartisan redistricting commission to redraw legislative boundaries, and about his homeland-security initiatives. Recently, in a move that garnered him national press, he called for regulating the satellite images available free on the Internet through services such as Google Earth. The pictures are so detailed, he said, that terrorists could use them to study sensitive facilities. He commended Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for his work investigating the sins of Wall Street and said he would pursue it vigorously, but added that he would turn the office toward some concerns he has addressed in the legislature, especially government reform. Mostly, however, noting that Democrats haven’t controlled the Governor’s mansion for 11 years and the New York Mayoralty for 12, Mr. Gianaris said it would behoove the party “to have some new faces.” “People are going to look for an alternative to the big names,” he said. “The important thing is who is going to be left standing with a real, credible chance to compete. That’s going to involve who is going to raise the resources to run a credible campaign. A statewide effort is very expensive.” A long-shot bid, perhaps, but think of it this way: Some extremely savvy Greek-Americans have laid money on it. Wasn’t the nation’s top oddsmaker a fella named Jimmy the Greek?