Greek-Americans shell out for Dukakis. Ethnic pride proves stronger than party ties or policy stands
At a fund-raiser for presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in Sioux Falls, S.D., earlier this year, Peter Stavrianos noticed a group of men, 40 or so, standing in a corner. He had never seen any of them at a Democratic event before. A number of them were Republicans. They were, like the candidate, Greek-Americans. And they all gave generously. ``They were so proud of Dukakis they were practically bursting,'' recalls Mr. Stavrianos, top aide to South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat.
Mr. Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, may have taken his lumps from the press over his staff's role in upending the campaign of a Democratic rival, Sen. Joseph Biden. But one group whose loyalty remains unshaken is his fellow Greek-Americans, who have been supporting his campaign to a degree opponents can only envy.
``I've never seen this before,'' says Peter Papas, editor of the Greek American, of the excitement level among Greek-Americans.
As it happened, the Biden episode tested this loyalty, because the Delaware senator had been a champion of Greek causes in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
``It hit us right between the eyes,'' says Sam Nakis, a St. Louis businessman and former head of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, of the Dukakis staff's role in the Biden downfall. But Mr. Nakis, like many other Greek-Americans, is forgiving. ``You analyze it, and [Dukakis] wasn't involved,'' he says.
``There are no hard feelings whatsoever,'' adds Dean Loomis of the American Hellenic Institute. He was a fund-raiser for Biden but has since joined the Dukakis camp.
The question is whether this Greek-American support will influence a Dukakis presidency. Greek-Americans, like American Jews, have specific foreign policy concerns. Foremost is the plight of Greeks on the island of Cyprus, which was seized by Turkey, Greece's traditional foe, in 1974. More broadly, there is concern over generous United States military assistance to Turkey, through payments for US military bases there.
Next year, the US has to negotiate a new military-base agreement with Greece. This might put the Cyprus issue in the news. There are separate moves in Congress to stop Turkey from using US military aid to bolster its forces on Cyprus.
To date Dukakis has paid little attention to these matters. One small Greek-American paper even accused his chief foreign policy adviser, Madeline Albright of Georgetown University, of having pro-Turkish sympathies. Greek-Americans say the whole question reminds them of concerns in 1960 that candidate John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would be taking secret instructions from the Vatican.
``Foreign policy is extraneous,'' says Peter Marudis, a top aide to Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) of Maryland, a leading Greek-American politician.
Greek-Americans are not a large voting block, numbering something over a million. But in education level and overall prosperity, they rival their Jewish counterparts; and their readiness to contribute to candidates of their own extraction is near legendary. While Dukakis will not have a monopoly on Greek money, he will easily get the lion's share.
Roughly 15 percent of Dukakis's $9.2 million campaign cache to date has come from Greek-Americans, says Peter Bassett of the candidate's finance committee. Organizers say $5 million in Greek-American contributions is a reasonable expectation should the governor go the distance.
``The Greek community is being mobilized in a way it has never been mobilized before,'' says Marty Franks, a Democratic fund-raiser formerly with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who has tried without much success to generate Greek support for Democrats.
Though small in number, Greek voting support cannot be entirely dismissed. Activists say Greeks, unhappy over President Ford's inaction on Cyprus, may well have tipped the balance for Jimmy Carter in crucial states such as Ohio in 1976.
Cyprus activated Greek-Americans for the first time and serves as a rallying point today. Yet ``the average Greek-American just doesn't get all riled up about issues important to Greece,'' says Paul Glastris, a free-lance writer in Washington who has written on American-Greek relations.
One reason is that Greek-Americans are embarrassed by the Yankee-baiting of Greek Premier Andreas Papandreou. Another is a conservative outlook that looks ``not for a better world, but for a better life,'' as Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University, put it in his book, ``The Greek Americans.''
Certainly, Greek-Americans would expect Dukakis to be basically sympathetic on Cyprus and related issues. But they say their support for him rests primarily on ethnic pride.
Massachusetts political observers chuckle a bit over the rather sudden appearance of Dukakis's Greek family in his campaign speeches. No one doubts, however, that his Greek roots are genuine. His father came to America at age 15, speaking no English and with $25 in his pocket, a victim of the ``Asia Minor catastrophe'' in which the Turks displaced 1.5 million Greeks. He worked in textile mills and restaurants, went to school at night, and eventually became the first Greek-speaking doctor in the Boston area. (Of the some 3,000 Greek babies he delivered, many are now the governor's constituents.)
Dukakis's mother, meanwhile, was the first Greek woman in Haverhill, Mass., to go to college, ultimately becoming a schoolteacher.
``This guy's a Greek. He's identified as a Greek. He speaks Greek,'' Moskos says. ``That's enough.''
Ethnic pride is especially important because of what former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts calls the ``Agnew factor.'' Greek-Americans ``really were hurt and ashamed'' by former Vice-President Spiro Agnew's ignominious fall, Mr. Tsongas says. The day after Mr. Agnew resigned in 1973, Tsongas was eating in a Greek restaurant, the owner of which had been a fan of the vice-president. The owner sat down next to the senator and said softly, ``Paul, did you know that Agnew's mother was an Episcopalian?''
Andrew Manatos, a Washington consultant and assistant secretary of commerce under President Carter, calls Dukakis ``a Greek-American who is bright, scrupulously honest, Harvard law ... the man everyone wants their son to grow up to be like.''
Then, too, Dukakis's economic policies in Massachusetts are attractive to people who themselves tend to be successful professionals and entrepreneurs. Yet in the past, conservative Greeks have readily set aside ideology to support a liberal candidate who is a ``good Greek boy'' such as Sarbanes and Tsongas.
Tsongas recalls that when he first decided to run for the Senate in 1978, he spent a day fund-raising at Greek restaurants. One owner promptly wrote out a check for $1,000, no questions asked. Didn't he want to know Tsongas's stands on the issues?
``If I hear what your stands on the issues are, I'll take my money back,'' the restaurant owner replied.
``He has the best of both worlds,'' says Moskos of Dukakis's Greek-American support. ``They aren't asking any chits.''