It’s a 92-degree July afternoon and with Election Day approaching, Shri Thanedar is stumping for votes in Northeast Detroit. Armed with a bull horn, a lawn sign, and sporting a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, he’s holding court on the corner of East Seven Mile Road at Van Dyke.
“I need your vote,” Thanedar says to a motorist who honks her horn in response. “I want to represent you in Lansing.”
The driver rolls down her window and Zapp’s “Dance Floor” rings out of her silver Jeep Grand Cherokee. She can be heard shouting “Shri!” over the track’s funky bass line. Some drivers gaze at him with slight interest; others appear to ignore him.
The street-corner stump campaign strategy is one that Thanedar has been carrying out for weeks as he campaigns for state representative before the Aug. 4 Democratic primary. That’s a much lower-profile gig than what the millionaire businessman ran for two years ago as one of three Democrats competing in the open gubernatorial primary.
After spending more than $10 million of his personal fortune, Thanedar still ended up coming in third behind former Detroit health chief Abdul El-Sayed and now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. But that still bought nonstop ads with his “Shri for We” slogan and a top-notch field operation, which helped him notch a narrow win for the Detroit vote — something that, no doubt, inspired him to move from the Ann Arbor area to the Motor City and seek the 3rd District House seat this year.
Thanedar’s deep pockets and unconventional profile also helped land him an invite on WKAR’s statewide public affairs show, “Off the Record” — an unusual feat for a nonincumbent legislative candidate.
Thanedar said on the show that he has been actively campaigning for the seat since last October, but isn’t planning to spend nearly as much as he did in ‘18 — probably just “a few hundred thousand dollars” for this go-around.
His most recent fundraising report shows he loaned about $437,000 to his campaign. As of Sunday, Thanedar spent more than $300,000, making this one of the most expensive self-funding legislative races in history. A state House member earns $71,685 annually.
There are eight candidates running on the Democratic side of the ledger. The leading contenders are Thanedar; Al Williams, a veteran political operative; China Cochran, who has been involved in politics for more than a decade as a staffer; and Keith McMurtry, a social studies teacher at Cass Technical High School. Other Democrats vying for the seat are John Cromer, Steven Lett, Donavan McKinney, and Art Tyus.
Anita Vinson is running on the GOP side. The winner of the Democratic primary, however, is expected to be the next state representative, as it’s a heavily Democratic seat.
Thanader’s name identification, wealth and strategy of seeking votes in working-class neighborhoods gives him a significant advantage, longtime Detroit political analysts say. They also note that Thanedar, who immigrated from India decades ago, benefits from a crowded field with several African-American candidates — something that’s fairly common in Motor City elections.
“The Black candidates will split the vote,” said veteran political consultant Adolph Mongo. “Shri will probably win.”
But Democratic strategist Greg Bowens said that 2020 is not a traditional campaign season because of limitations in public contact due to the coronavirus crisis, which has disproportionately affected the state’s Black community. In addition, the Black Lives Matter protests may cause African-American and non-Black voters to opt to have someone Black to represent them in the state House.
“It’s pandemic politics,” Bowens said. “Everything is in chaos. What has seemed to be conventional is not anymore. If Black Lives Matter, having a Black in the seat could matter, too.”
From rags to riches
After growing up in India, Thanedar emigrated to the United States in 1979 and earned a doctorate in polymers and organometallic chemistry from the University of Akron in 1982. He has lived in Michigan since 2010.
“The core of me understands the pain of poverty,” Thanedar said on “Off the Record” this week. “I understand the life: The difficulties of raising a family and taking care of your parents; health care needs. My struggles then are not different from Detroit constituent struggles now.”
Last year, he moved from Pittsfield Township near Ann Arbor to the exclusive Palmer Woods section of Detroit with the intent of running for an open state House seat. The neighborhood features many spacious homes, lots of them Tudor Revival style, and was the community where George Romney lived before being elected Michigan governor in 1962.
In 2017, he became embroiled in a legal battle. High Street Capital, a Chicago-based private equity firm, argued that Thanedar inflated the value of Ann Arbor-based Avomeen Analytical Services, which sold for $20 million in 2016. Thanedar maintained a minority stake in the company, a chemical testing lab. He challenged the claim and filed a counter suit.
The case was settled last year four days before trial and terms were not disclosed publicly.
When asked about it, Thanedar played down the issue. “I’m currently one of the directors of the business and I’m helping the business to grow,” he said last week.
Who backs whom
Candidates for the seat left open by term-limited state Rep. Wendell Byrd (D-Detroit) have been scooping up endorsements.
The 3rd House District includes upper middle-class neighborhoods like Palmer Woods and communities in Northeast Detroit where many households fall below the federal poverty guidelines.
Thanedar’s primary focus appears to be directed toward economically challenged communities within the district, which has about 60,000 residents, 94% of whom are African American. It covers a portion of the city’s northwest and northeast sides. Thanedar, who was born 8,000 miles away in India, fared well in the northeast side neighborhoods during this 2018 campaign for Michigan governor.
Thanedar has secured the influential Wayne County Democratic Black Caucus endorsement and has Virgil Smith III, a former state House and Senate member from the area, as a paid advisor to the campaign.
Smith served nearly nine months in jail for allegedly shooting an assault rifle at his ex-wife, Anistia Thomas, during a dispute in May 2015. He had represented much of the current 3rd House District from 2003 to 2016 before he resigned amid legal woes.
His father, Virgil Smith Jr., represented the area between 1977 and 2000. And his grandfather, Virgil Smith, was a well-respected business leader in the Conant Gardens community. Smith III told the Advance that he does not want a job if Thanedar wins the seat and he does not view him as a carpetbagger.
“He’s an immigrant,” Smith said. “He doesn’t have a base.”
Cochran has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, a powerful Washington, D.C.-based organization that backs pro-choice women for elected office throughout the country. She also received the nod from the influential Black Slate and Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee. Virgie Rollins, the chair of the Democratic National Committee Black Caucus who lives in the district, also backs Cochran. So does Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, a former Michigan House, Wayne County Commission and Detroit City Council member.
Williams has the backing of Bishop Edgar Vann II, a powerful clergy member in Michigan whose church is located in the district. Vann is a former member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Williams also has a supporter Orlin Jones, a well-respected member of the Conant Gardens community, which is also located in the district.
When it comes to issues, there’s not a lot of sharp differences between the candidates.
Thanedar said he wants to help strengthen economic development opportunities for district residents and help education institutions such as the Detroit Public Schools Community District and charter schools to secure more funding.
“Detroit does not get the respect it deserves, and Detroit doesn’t get the funding that it deserves, even though Detroit makes a lot of money for the state revenue,” Thanedar said. “It puts a lot of money into the state, but I don’t think Detroit gets its fair share. And I want to be an advocate for the city of Detroit and the people of Detroit.”
Williams also wants to help secure more funding for public schools in Detroit, provide seniors with more economic resources, and assist veterans in the twilight of their lives.
“I want to change the way we fund our schools to make sure it’s equitable throughout the state of Michigan,” Williams said.
Cochran wants to be a strong voice for women and children in the district and pledges to do that through pursuing efforts to increase school funding and job training.
“Children are not going to get the attention they need and children are going to struggle in school,” Cochran said. “And so, my thing is that we need to have a strong mom agenda, a strong child agenda in our community and I’m running to be that voice.”
McMurtry is a career educator and a social studies teacher at Cass Technical High School. He has lived in the district since he was a toddler. Among his priorities are to increase funding for public schools and bolster the minimum wage for workers, which is $9.45 per hour.
“Being the lone teacher in a crowded field, I’m the one with experience in the classroom, working in schools and students in this district,” McMurtry said.
While the race may not have attracted the same attention as higher-profile races for Congress or president in Michigan, it has gotten heated in Detroit.
Both Williams and Cochran believe that Thanedar is exploiting the district.
“He’s taking advantage of poor people,” Williams said. “He’s offering money. He’s offering chicken dinners, hot dogs and pizza, and he’s trying to buy his way into the election through poor, disadvantaged individuals. He’s trying to use his fame and his money to get people excited to vote for him.”
Thanedar also has run Facebook and Instagram ads that include a small sweepstakes: “Two $100 Giveaways from SHRI! Tell us the most important issue that you have in Detroit and why that is your top choice and what you would like changed!”
Cochran said she is “disappointed” in Thanedar.
“It will be a different story if this person with all his money came into our city, into our community and transformed our community,” Cochran said. “But instead he’s exploiting our people and some of the people that really need support.”
When asked about the criticism of being described as an opportunist and carpetbagger, Thanedar shrugged and referred to Detroit as his “second home.”
“Well, I am not from Ann Arbor,” Thanedar said. “I was not born in Ann Arbor. I did not go to school in Ann Arbor. I did some post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan back in the 1980s. I’m an immigrant. I came to the United States with $20 in my pocket to get a Ph.D. at University of Akron. And I, if you look at it, I’ve lived all over the United States. And when I campaigned for governor, I spent a lot of time in Detroit.”
Thanedar said that he is committed to serving Detroit residents in Lansing and has sold his Ann Arbor area home as a way to prove his allegiance to the Motor City.
He is not the first political candidate to move into Detroit and run for office, of course. Now-Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan did the same thing while running for office in 2013. He moved from Livonia to the same Palmer Woods neighborhood that Thanedar resides in today.
Former Detroit Piston Dave Bing, who lived in Franklin, ran for Detroit mayor in 2009. After winning the campaign, Bing moved into the Manoogian Mansion, the city’s official residence for the mayor.
The Rev. Horace Sheffield III resides in the House district and he actively campaigned for Thanedar during his gubernatorial run. The Ecumenical Ministries Alliance, which Sheffield chairs, carried out phone banking for Thanedar. Sheffield, however, has not endorsed a candidate in the House race. He does, however, believe that the race Thanedar’s to win.
“He’s going to be tough to beat,” Sheffield said, “and the fact that you have four or five African Americans in the race is going to bode well for him.”