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Ethnic Group Flexes Political Muscle : Dukakis Mobilizes Greeks to Organize, Finance Drive

April 08, 1988|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The 12 burly men solemnly twirled and twisted, arms held high, dancing the tsamiko in a circle to the plinking bouzouki music of the Markogiannakis Orchestra. Cheering onlookers showered dollar bills on the sweating dancers in traditional Greek applause.

Suddenly, as the guest of honor arrived, the music at Nikos Restaurant stopped. Then came thundering cheers: "Yasu leventi mou!"--Hail, my little brave one! And over and over: "Duu-kaa-kees! Duu-kaa-kees!"

Up on stage, Michael S. Dukakis beamed. At one side stood the bearded, black-robed bishop of Chicago's Greek Orthodox Church. Nearby stood Dukakis' campaign manager, his closest aide and his state campaign director--Greek-Americans all. Before him, about 2,000 Greek-Americans cheered, many hoisting wide-eyed children to their shoulders to see the first Greek-American to run for President.

Dukakis did not disappoint. His only worry, he told the throng, was where "to plant my tomatoes" in the White House garden. And, next March 25, Greek Independence Day, "the East Room will be a very nice place to dance the hasapiko, " he said with a grin. Then he repeated it in Greek.

If Dukakis played up his Hellenic heritage at the fund-raiser in this Chicago suburb last month, he had good reason, for the 54-year-old son of Greek immigrants owes special thanks to his Greek connections. To a remarkable degree, he has mobilized an army of Greek-Americans, one of the wealthiest--and usually one of the most Republican--ethnic groups in the nation, to help organize and finance his presidential bid.

As he heads toward the New York primary on April 19, Dukakis' schedule is laden with events intended to tap those roots, especially in the New York City borough of Queens, which has the nation's largest concentration of Greeks.

After decades of quiet assimilation, the nation's 1 million Greek-Americans are exerting political power this election year as never before. It is a new chapter in America's melting-pot story: The people whose ancestors invented democracy now are a critical base of support for a leading contender for the Democratic nomination.

Tried to Hide Background

"It's a coming of age in some ways," according to former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, who said he tried to hide his Greek background in his 1978 Senate race. "I was paranoid about keeping it undercover."

Greeks are undercover no more. At least one fifth of Dukakis' $22-million campaign war chest has come from Greek-Americans, campaign treasurer Bob Farmer said. Much of it came in the earliest days, when it was most needed. And parties in the restaurants, nightclubs and homes of Greek-Americans raised millions more from non-Greek supporters.

Moreover, Greek-Americans offered critical core support when the little-known Massachusetts governor was hardly a household word. "When I got to Iowa last year, they were the first people we called," Dukakis aide Mark Gearan recalled. The campaign even organized sessions in Greek to explain the intricacies of Iowa's caucus system.

'Hell of a Network'

"It's meant people power, phone banks, dollars, staff people, emotion and moral support early on," said Nick Mitropoulos, a Dukakis senior adviser. "It's a hell of a network."

The network began long ago. When growing up in suburban Brookline, Mass., Dukakis attended Sunday school for eight years at Boston's Greek Evangelismos Cathedral. Although he attends church only on special holidays now, his early training had an unexpected benefit: His then parish priest is now His Eminence Iakovos, archbishop of North and South America, the Greek Orthodox Church's most powerful figure outside Greece. "He is very close," says Dukakis, who meets with the archbishop regularly.

In addition, Dukakis serves on the board of the church's only U.S. seminary, the Brookline-based Holy Cross School of Theology. Greeks respect those religious ties, said Andrew A. Athens, a Chicago industrialist who holds the highest lay position in the church and is one of Dukakis' most successful fund-raisers. "It's one reason he's held in such high esteem."

Another reason is that Dukakis is no stranger. Greek newspapers in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and other cities have featured Dukakis' dark, bushy-browed visage and lauded his political career for more than a decade.

List of 20,000 Donors

"There was no learning curve," said Peter Bassett, a Boston lawyer who coordinates Dukakis' Greek fund-raising efforts and who helped compile a donor list of 20,000 wealthy Greek-Americans early on. "He was known. That's critical."

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