Meet Michigan’s Democratic Answer to Trump

Meet Michigan’s Democratic Answer to Trump

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar during a debate on June 20, 2018, in Grand Raids, Michigan.

SourceMichael Buck/Wood-TV8 via AP

Why you should care

Self-made millionaire Shri Thanedar bought his way to the top of the governor’s race. Whether he can stay there is another story.

OZY partners with McClatchy to bring you premium political analysis.OZY and McClatchy are teaming up to deliver in-depth coverage of this year's most pivotal political campaigns in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections.

Shri Thanedar’s gubernatorial campaign headquarters peek out between a nail salon and a Coney Island hot dog joint in a low-slung strip mall on Ann Arbor’s far south side, a world away from the University of Michigan’s stately downtown campus. An oversize “We for Shri” banner announces the candidate’s presence. Inside, the air conditioner works overtime on an unseasonably warm summer day, muffling elusive staffers’ conversations in a half-filled space.

The setting is low-key for a businessman given to unapologetic shows of wealth. Ahead of the Aug. 7 primary election, Thanedar has backed his bid with at least $11.4 million of his own money — including an unusually large $2 million on TV ads. In his 2008 autobiography, Thanedar boasted of his 18,000-square-foot custom mansion in the St. Louis suburbs, where he ran Chemir, a chemical testing business that employed hundreds of employees at its pre-recession peak. At one point, he drove a Ferrari. The bills came due when the economy faltered; though he escaped total ruin, Thanedar offloaded his Chemir stake in a fire sale and traded his foreclosed Missouri estate for a Florida condo.

I’m not Trump rich; [$11.4] million is a big chunk of my retirement savings.

Shri Thanedar

Thanedar, 63, insists he’s the same working-class kid who put himself through school in India, fought for months to earn a U.S. student visa for doctoral studies at the University of Akron, became a proud U.S. citizen and scraped together $75,000 to buy the tiny shop that would become Chemir. “Success didn’t change me,” he says. Thanedar did the up-by-the-bootstraps thing twice, actually — though his bootstraps were much stronger the second time. After losing control of Chemir, he spent time in Florida, then relocated to Ann Arbor and launched Avomeen Analytical Services, another testing lab. Early on, Thanedar’s sole employee was his son Neil. “I was back to vacuuming the lab myself for the first time in 15 years,” he recalls. Thanedar sold a 60 percent Avomeen stake in 2016 for about $20 million. He knows personal ups and downs too: HIs first wife killed herself in 1996 when their two sons were still young. Thanedar later remarried, but the tragedy haunts him. “To this day, I wonder what I could have done differently,” he says.

Thanedar plays the humility card for a good reason. Self-effacing technocrats tend to do well in Michigan. “Nerds get results,” proclaimed self-made tech multimillionaire and current Republican governor Rick Snyder in an early ad. But of-the-people cred is especially important for Thanedar, who’s running as a progressive Democrat despite an eight-digit net worth that earns comparisons to Snyder. Thanedar’s entry scrambled a Democratic primary contest expected to pit establishment favorite and former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer against Abdul el-Sayed, a former Detroit health commissioner and committed Berniecrat whose lengthy endorsement list includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Bernie Sanders–inspired Our Revolution.

Instead, Thanedar used his personal war chest to boost his name ID and overwhelm el-Sayed’s detailed messaging. “The [Thanedar campaign] took a popular agenda and pumped money into it, put a face on it,” says Joe DiSano, a longtime Michigan Democratic political consultant who has not officially endorsed a candidate. Public polls are sparse, but they show Thanedar in contention. Even if he falls short on Aug. 7, Thanedar could split the left-wing vote and guarantee Whitmer’s victory.

The stakes are heightened by reports that Thanedar considered running for governor as a Republican. Donations to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and an appearance at a Marco Rubio rally bolstered those charges. El-Sayed and others hammer Thanedar as ideologically inauthentic, but Thanedar insists he’s a lefty at heart. He cites immigration advocacy for his dalliance with mainstream GOPers and points to disclosures showing far more contributions to Dems than Republicans.

“His motivation is pure from the perspective that he wants adulation,” says DiSano. For his part, Thanedar touts the criticism that he’s buying his way into the race as evidence of his commitment: “I’m not Trump rich; [$11.4] million is a big chunk of my retirement savings.” Thanedar’s deep-rooted desire to “fight corruption and bureaucracy” swamps any doubts about enduring the “brutal” primary, he adds. And his personal war chest makes it easier for him to reject contributions from special interest groups, which he uses as a contrast with Whitmer.

Thanedar isn’t just usurping el-Sayed’s progressive credit and technocratic bona fides. He’s also encroaching on el-Sayed’s adopted home turf: Detroit, with its vast pool of on-again, off-again Democratic voters. “Low turnout in Detroit was an important factor in President Trump’s statewide victory,” says Aaron Kall, University of Michigan debate director and a Michigan politics expert. Thanedar and el-Sayed both know a strong ground game in Detroit and other industrial cities could counter Whitmer’s likely strength among center-left suburban and rural voters.

Thanedar’s campaign manager, David Bullock, is a well-known Detroit pastor, activist and radio host who waves away el-Sayed’s considerable achievements as health commissioner: “I didn’t even know he was in Detroit when he was here,” Bullock says. Thanedar has three campaign offices in the city, more than either rival, and an aggressive campaigning schedule that includes “daily” visits to senior centers, churches and community events around the city. But el-Sayed isn’t ceding any ground. Reached for comment, el-Sayed communications director Adam Joseph expresses confidence in his campaign’s visibility. “We’re on the ground in Detroit right now,” he says, then politely ends the conversation to continue campaigning.

It’s not clear if Thanedar has thought past the campaigning part. Unlike the wonky el-Sayed, Thanedar seems unfamiliar with basic political and bureaucratic realities — at times echoing the overweening self-confidence of another businessman-turned-politician, President Trump. Consider this assessment from our interview: “It won’t be that hard to fundamentally change education — I’ll get all the stakeholders at the table to find the best solutions and use the power of my office.” In a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” earlier this year, Thanedar nonanswered questions like, “What steps would you take to improve mass transit in [southeast] Michigan?” (Thanedar: “We must invest in mass transit in SE Michigan to help businesses grow and help people acquire and keep good-paying jobs.”)

Even Thanedar skeptics are hedging their bets amid white-hot progressive energy and a dearth of reliable polling. “Just look at what happened in New York,” says Kall, referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise Democratic primary win over longtime U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley.

Thanedar certainly believes he’s going the distance. As our interview wraps up, he can’t resist a parting shot at his opponents. “Remember, depending on your poll, we’re either in first or second place,” he says, grinning widely behind his desk, enjoying the latest twist in his life’s wild ride.

+
By Brian Martucci

OZY partners with McClatchy to bring you premium political analysis.

OZYPolitics & Power

Welcome to a new era in politics around the world, from innovators at the local level to federal disrupters like the Trump administration in America's capital.