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Restaurateur Has a Friend Running for President

Times Staff Writer

Most Americans never get any closer to a President than their television screen. But, if Michael Dukakis is elected in November, San Diego restaurateur and businessman John Saridakis will be able to say that the President is “someone I know as Mike and who calls me John.”

“That would be something special--to actually know the President,” said Saridakis, a Greek-American who has known Dukakis about 15 years and has been active, primarily in fund-raising, in his presidential campaign. “Being Greek, there would be a special pride. That would show that there truly are no limits to what you can do in America.”

A native of Greece who moved to Cleveland with his family when he was a teen-ager, Saridakis first met Dukakis in the early 1970s at Greek-American social and political events in Ohio and elsewhere. After moving to San Diego in the mid-1970s, Saridakis kept in touch with the Massachusetts governor, forming a relationship that, although casual, had assumed a first-name basis by the time Dukakis entered the presidential race.

“It’s a pretty close community,” the 34-year-old Saridakis said of Greek-Americans. “As a governor, Mike was someone we obviously knew very well. When I got to know him better, I began to realize that this was someone who deserved to go very, very far in this country.”

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Photos of Dukakis

At Greek Town, the downtown restaurant owned by Saridakis, the wall next to the cash register is covered with photos of Dukakis: Saridakis with his arm around the candidate, Saridakis’ daughter with Dukakis’ daughters, and various other combinations of the two families. Next January, Saridakis hopes to add another photo to the collection, one that shows him playing his bouzouki at Dukakis’ inauguration.

“I already feel lucky to know him,” Saridakis said, gesturing toward the photos. “But, if someday I can say, ‘That’s me with the President,’ that would be fantastic.”

Saridakis insists that his support for Dukakis stems from more than their common cultural heritage. As a businessman whose holdings include restaurants, an architectural and design firm, a construction company and other investments, Saridakis concedes that “I probably would be better off as a Republican and voting for Bush.”

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“The main reason I’m doing this is not just because he’s Greek,” Saridakis said. “I own five corporations, and I know if a Republican wins, I’d pay less taxes. But I don’t look only at what’s good for me. I worry about what’s good for the country, too. Last time, I voted for Reagan, and now I feel sorry that I did because I haven’t seen any improvements.

“The Republicans talk about interest rates going down. That’s true, but what has that done for the middle class and lower classes? All I know is, when I leave my restaurant at night, I see more and more people lined up (at downtown shelters) for free coffee, more people on the streets, more people asking for money. Things seem to be getting worse. I think the Democrats are the only ones who can change that, and I want to do what I can to help change that. We don’t need a continuation of the Reagan Administration.”

Over the past year, Saridakis estimates that he has helped raise $50,000 for Dukakis’ campaign. When Dukakis appears in Southern California, Saridakis usually is in the audience with a group he has taken along either to lend their vocal support or, more often, their checkbooks to the campaign.

Although a presidential race affords precious little time for small talk with casual friends--even one who helps raise $50,000--Saridakis has had brief private meetings with Dukakis during several of his campaign swings. During a rally at Horton Plaza last spring, Saridakis’ 7-year-old daughter also had the privilege of presenting flowers to Dukakis.

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Warm and Sensitive

“Some people say he’s cold, but he’s actually a very warm and sensitive person,” Saridakis said of Dukakis. “He’ll see me and joke, ‘What, you again, John?’ He talks about his family and asks about mine, and sometimes mentions some of the things he’d like to do, like improve the health (insurance) system in this country. . . It’s very casual, but, when you think that this is the man who could be President, it makes you proud.”

Describing Dukakis as “a combination of Truman and Kennedy,” Saridakis said he believes the Democratic nominee’s Greek heritage, combined with his policies, would help elevate American prestige abroad. During a four-month trip to Europe this year, Saridakis said, he was saddened to see how far this country’s reputation had declined since his days as a youth.

“When I was a little kid in Greece, we used to call Americans ‘our people,’ ” Saridakis said. “When President Kennedy was assassinated, the whole country was shut down and people were quiet, sad for a week.

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“Now, that close relationship is gone, not only in Greece but all of Europe. A lot of that respect for America that used to be there is gone. But I think Mike Dukakis can change that, just like he can improve things in this country. If I can help make that happen, I’ll feel very good.”


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