I have to admit that it sounded kind of crazy when I first heard the news that George Gigicos, one of US President Donald Trump’s key campaign staffers in the runup to the 2016 elections, was in Greece helping New Democracy candidate Sofia Nikolaou in her campaign for a seat in Parliament in general elections later this year. There is very little information about him online, as I learned when researching a story about the US elections three years ago, but there he was just a few days ago, strolling around a farmers’ market in the Athens suburb of Galatsi.
Dressed in a suit with a purple pocket square and well-polished shoes, he could have come across as out of place in such surroundings, but, no, he seemed right at home, waving to people and greeting them in American-accented Greek as he watched his candidate work the crowd with satisfaction. We had met earlier at Nikolaou’s office in downtown Amerikis Street. He had been holding a soda in a plastic cup in one hand and a bunch of papers in the other with handwritten notes on the topics he wanted us to cover. “I have always tried to fly under the radar,” he said, smiling, when I confessed the difficulty I had in digging for information about him.
A second-generation Greek American whose father was an Alabama preacher, Gigicos became interested in politics while studying at Birmingham-Southern College in his native Alabama and took his first career step by applying to be a driver in President George H.W. Bush’s motorcade. That gave him the opportunity to meet certain members of the president’s team and by the time he dropped them off at the airport, he had been offered an internship in Washington. After graduating in 1990, he got his first job in the Bush administration, and since then has worked on the election campaign teams of every Republican presidential nominee that followed.
Gigicos met Trump in spring 2015. “They didn’t tell me that he was announcing his candidacy; they said he was going to have a press conference. So we went up and that’s when we found out.” On July 15, he had the whole scene for the event set up at Trump Tower in New York. “I wanted him to come down in the elevator and make a surprise entrance, and he said: ‘Absolutely not. I’m coming down the escalator,’” Gigicos remembers. “Mr Trump wins; Mr Trump wins every time.”
The announcement of Trump’s candidacy may have seemed like a joke to many at the time, but with years of experience in American elections and the behavior of US voters, Gigicos had a feeling within the first month of making the real estate magnate’s acquaintance that he would make it to the White House. “On August 21 – two and a half months later – we had a rally in Alabama that drew 40,000 people. It’s unheard of and that was the night I realized that this guy is going to win. There were 17 other candidates and we had been polling at 3 percent.”
The Trump team at first consisted of Gigicos and another four people. The Greek American was the “advance man,” responsible for preparing everything to do with his candidate’s appearances and speeches, from transportation and equipment to lighting and music. “But Mr Trump always chose the music and I had better make sure that it was loud and in the right order.”
The team grew as the months went by, but Gigicos remained in the hard core, working long days and traveling all over the United States with his candidate. He recounts one incident where a campaign appearance coincided with an important event at his daughters’ school. Trump found out and asked him to hand over his phone, switching on the camera: “Girls, your father really loves you. We’re running for president. If it’s OK with you, I’ll steal your father for the day. He’s a very talented guy and I need him. Thank you, girls,” Trump said in a video message.
“He’s a good man. And I often say that Donald Trump could cure cancer and the media would report that he put researchers out of work,” says Gigicos, who despite having resigned soon after the electoral victory still has a good relationship with the American president.
The Greek-American consultant went on to establish his own communications strategy firm, Dynamis Advisors, but stresses that his main project right now is to get Nikolaou into Parliament.
Gigicos and Nikolaou met last year on the sidelines of the Delphi Economic Forum. They were introduced by a common friend and had a chat over coffee. Nikolaou, a career lawyer, was seriously considering running for Parliament, but had not made up her mind. She met Gigicos again during a trip to the US a few weeks later, and he invited her to the White House for the celebration of Greek Independence Day. That’s when he put her through his all-important “test.”
“It was important to see that her heart was in the right place. At the end of the day, so many politicians run for the wrong reasons. I asked her: ‘Why do you want to run? What are your priorities if you do this and how?…’ Those are tough questions,” says Gigicos.
By the end of her trip he told her that if she decided to run, he would come to Greece and help her. Indeed, he has spent the past few months involved with every aspect of her campaign. His strategy for her is focused, at least now in the early days, on hitting the streets. They choose a new neighborhood every week and spend three or four hours going door-to-door, getting to know the residents. Back at the office, Gigicos highlights each walk in magic marker on a big map. He has also implemented an open-door policy so that once a week voters are welcome to come in and discuss the issues that are of greatest concern to them. The first session saw just two or three people, the next double that; now the office is full every time.
At one point, Gigicos admitted that it was Nikolaou’s own story that had intrigued him. “Sofia came from a village of 100 people in Evia and her parents were farmers. Just through grit and hard work she managed to leave that village and educate herself, coming to the city and paying her way through school and law school. And you see the results. And in not a very long time, she was running a very successful law firm.”
Nikolaou’s story may have reminded him of that of other Greeks with whom he grew up or even his own grandparents who left Greece for a better life in America. “I remember, three years ago, we were flying from Israel to Rome and our flight path took us right over Greece. I looked out the window, thinking, ‘My pappou left here,’ down there on a boat, and came to America, and here is his grandson with the president of the United States on an air force jet looking out of the window as I’m flying over.”
His love for Greece is certainly another reason why he’s here now. “Many people in the diaspora talk about ‘Oh, we need to help Greece, do this for Greece.’ I’m not just helping a friend I admire. If I can do something to help Greece with the talents and experience that I have, I prefer to come over here and help her get elected, because at the end of the day getting her elected is good for Greece. So that’s my contribution, that’s my part,” he says.
As word gets around that a Trump consultant is in town, other politicians – also from other parties – have approached Gigicos and asked for advice or help. For his part, he feels like he has taken a dive into the deep end of Greek politics – and he loves it. He’s making contacts, watching the public opinion polls and gauging the competition, but what matters to him most – the deciding factor – is the people he meets in neighborhoods and on open days.
“I keep hearing stories about people leaving for abroad or being forced to look for other work. People are sick and tired of being sick and tired. This can’t be happening in the most beautiful country in the world,” laments Gigicos.
He believes there are a lot of differences between the Greece and the US, but if they have one thing in common, it is that the US is like a simmering pot – just as Greece is right now. “And Donald Trump came in and stirred the pot. Right now Greece is a big pot that needs to be stirred and you need bold, dynamic and new leadership – somebody got to stir the pot,” he says.
And that is the slogan he has chosen for Nikolaou’s campaign.