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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Shri Thanedar Explains His Candidacy for Governor

August 4, 2017

ANN ARBOR, MI – In some ways, this candidate’s life sounds like the classic Michigan story. He was born in poverty, but worked hard and managed to get a good education.  In fact, he earned a doctorate in chemistry. He immigrated to this country and started a business which made millions before he tragically lost his wife to illness in his early 40s. Then, the business failed in the Great Recession.  He lost everything, including his house.

But instead of giving up, our candidate moved to Michigan and started a new business, Avomeen Chemical Services, which put together teams of scientists to help solve problems for industry.  Soon, he was a millionaire again. But as he looked around, he couldn’t believe what was happening in Michigan.  “Our infrastructure is falling apart, and nobody is willing to fix it,” he told me. “Education is a disaster. Both (political) parties are inflexible and not willing to work together.”

Looking at this, he, like venture capitalist Rick Snyder before him, decided he could do better, and decided to run for the Democratic nomination for governor of the State of Michigan. This is hardly unique. Nearly every election cycle, some businessman or lawyer collects some signatures, gets on a primary ballot, and collects a few thousand votes.

Yet this case is different, for two reasons: This time, the candidate is Shri Thanedar, a 62-year-old native of India who speaks English with a very pronounced accent. That may, he knows, be a problem. “It might be,” enough to lose him some votes, he admitted in an interview.   “So be it,” said Thanedar (pronounced tan-a-dar) who became a citizen in 1988. “I am as American as anyone else.”

Perhaps, in a way, more so. For last week, Thanedar, who sold a majority stake on Avomeen to make the race, pumped $3.3 million of his own money into his campaign.That’s considerably more than the combined war chests of his two “frontrunning” rivals for the Democratic nomination, Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed. It’s also more than either of the undeclared-but-obviously-running GOP candidates, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lieutenant Gov. Brian Calley.

Suddenly, everyone had to sit up and take notice. “Michigan needs a truly progressive candidate who has a record of building success from the ground up,” Thanedar said.  “Look,” he told me cheerfully. “Everyone tells me I should do something else with it. Like what? Give it to a charity where 95 percent will go for administration?”  ‘This is a sign I am serious.” To be sure, his ideas, as laid out on his campaign website (“2018 Shri: Smarter, Stronger Michigan”) seem sensible if not yet sharply focused.

They combine traditional Democratic Party values of standing “strong against the discrimination and violence faced by racial and religious minorities … and against bigotry and religious intolerance,” with pledges to make this a more entrepreneur-friendly state, in part by repairing the infrastructure, something Snyder has failed to do.

Yet Shri Thanedar shares one big drawback with Rick Snyder: Neither had any prior state government experience.  That clearly made Snyder less effective. Much the same was true of Democrat Jennifer Granholm, who served only a single term as attorney general before eight largely ineffectual years as Michigan governor.  Neither did especially well at working with the legislature. Why should voters think another neophyte could do better?

“Well, part of the reason is that they had grand illusions about themselves and a high sense of ego, not the ability to live and work with people,” Thanedar said.

“They saw the legislature as employees and subordinates.  I am different. I have the ability to listen to people. You can put me at a table with the most right-wing guy, and I can find something we have in common and we can work from there.”

Well, while his criticism of Michigan’s last two governors has more than a little truth, his idea that he can reason with right-wing hardliners in the legislature seems hopelessly naïve. There’s also another more painful question: Will voters consider someone who doesn’t look like them, was raised Hindu and speaks in a pronounced accent?  The evidence is not encouraging.  Immigrants from the Indian subcontinent have been increasing markedly in recent decades, and they now make up the largest (41,000 as of 2014) group of immigrants in Metro Detroit. Most are highly educated, fluent in English, and make more and pay more in taxes than other Americans.  \\But they’ve mostly failed politically. Dr. Syed Taj worked hard to get elected to Congress in 2012, and won the endorsement of both Detroit newspapers. However, he lost to Kerry Bentivolio, an erratic Republican who lasted a single term. Another Indian doctor, Anil Kumar, spent millions to try to win the same seat in two straight elections, but failed to come close each time.  To add insult, Taj then ran for mayor of the Wayne County city of Canton last year. Democrats swept Canton, and all their candidates won—except Taj and another Indian, Dhavai Vaishnav.

It’s called racism,” Taj said afterwards.

Shri Thanedar thinks society is changing, and that he offers a better choice than his rivals. He calls El Sayed “talented, but too young and inexperienced.”  He says Whitmer is “a very nice lady,” but says her legislative record is nonexistent.  But so are the number of experts who think Thanedar has much chance. Susan Demas, the publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, thinks he may be milked by unscrupulous political consultants who will see him as a cash cow.

But it is a free country; Thanedar loves it, thinks he can make a difference, and has every right to run.  Somehow, there’s something at least slightly noble about that.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

August 3, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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