As the August primaries and the November general election approach, Michigan is home to one of the hottest congressional races in the nation – in the 11th District of Wayne/Oakland counties – and the crowded field of candidates for the open seat presents some intriguing choices for voters.
On the Democratic side, the lineup includes three young success stories, first-time candidates who have returned to their home state of Michigan after achievements realized in areas ranging from the federal government in Washington to the Tech world of California’s Silicon Valley.
Haley Stevens, 34, served as chief of staff on President Obama’s Auto Task Force and most recently worked for a digital manufacturing institute. Fayrouz Saad, also 34, worked for the Department of Homeland Security and later as the first director of the Detroit Office of Immigrant Affairs. Saad, who is of Lebanese descent, is vying to become the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress. Suneel Gupta, 38, is an entrepreneur who worked at California Tech firms. He hopes to become the sixth Indian American to win election to Congress.
Stevens emerged as the perceived frontrunner months ago after incumbent Rep. Dave Trott, a Birmingham Republican, had announced his retirement. But Gupta’s connections to tech industries and venture capital firms have provided big bucks and momentum. In an April poll, he was in a statistical dead-heat with Stevens.
Yet, Gupta has demonstrated a habit on the campaign trail of mashing together his past jobs in a way that misleads voters – sometimes in a rather significant manner.
Candidate’s Resume Doesn’t Add Up
Gupta claims that he built three companies “from the ground up” and created “thousands of good-paying” jobs in the process. He refers to the first startup where he worked as Mozilla Firefox, the Internet web browser. But Mozilla was already well-established when Gupta arrived there in 2008.
The second company he mentions is Groupon, the online coupon company, where he was hired as Vice-President of product development in 2009. Groupon soon became known as the fastest-growing company in U.S. history, rising from 300 employees to 11,000 in about three years.
The candidate takes credit for many of those jobs and, when he says he has experience “balancing budgets,” that’s a reference to financial matters within the company’s product development division, according to a campaign spokesman. Groupon’s spectacular rise was followed by a sudden crash. By 2012, Groupon’s financial situation was shaky as its stock price plummeted by 84 percent and never recovered. Gupta left the company later that same year.
What’s more, Gupta tells voters that he is the only candidate in the 11th District race that has experience in the healthcare business. He claims that a startup he created, called Rise, linked patients with healthcare providers. In reality, Rise created a mobile application for smartphones that linked those seeking dieting advice with “nutrition coaches.”
Gupta emphasizes that he originally came up with the idea of a diet app along with his much better-known brother, Sanjay, the medical correspondent for CNN. But Sanjay Gupta was never listed as a Rise founder, partner or adviser. Several months after Rise was acquired by a healthcare firm, Suneel Gupta left the company.
In addition to Rise, two startups that Gupta clearly helped create from the ground up involved a mobile app for video games and a firm that created videos of Indian Americans recounting their family’s history. Both companies appear to have gone dormant several years ago.
To be fair, in the Tech world Gupta is known as a “rock star” among those who have worked with him. In his role as an adviser to companies and a guest speaker, he has received rave reviews for his technical skills and charismatic style. Still, there’s little evidence that he has experience in healthcare or business finances.
One of the Top Ten Races in the Country
In addition to Gupta, Stevens and Saad, two other Democrats in the 11th District race are state Rep. Tim Greimel and radio personality Nancy Skinner (a sixth candidate, Dan Haberman, failed to collect enough nominating signatures to win a spot on the ballot.)
The Republican field consists of former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, state Rep. Klint Kesto, state Sen. Mike Kowall, former state Rep. Rocky Raczkowski, Kristine Bonds and Lena Epstein.
The 11th District election has been rated by Time magazine as one of the top 10 House races in the nation. Roll Call included the 11th District in its list of the dozen House seats most likely to flip from Republican to Democrat in November
As is the case in many Michigan elections for congressional and state offices, Democrats are moving left and latching onto Sen. Bernie Sanders’ agenda. Skinner has been a left-winger for years while Greimel stands as the lone traditional, pro-labor Democrat in the 11th District contest.
Gupta was a fan of the Clintons and worked in the Bill Clinton White House as an 18-year-old intern – he says his duties included speech writing – and he donated $5,400 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in the 2016 general election. But he tells voters that his heart is with Sanders and the progressive, anti-corporate agenda.
At the same time, about one-third of the $931,000 his campaign has raised came from those associated with venture capital companies and private equity firms.
In a story published in February by Wired magazine, Gupta explained that he is dealing with a bit of culture shock since moving from San Francisco to suburban Detroit. He talks to voters about how his parents worked in the auto industry. He avoids details about his life as a “techie.”
“You have to be strategic about how you talk about yourself,” Gupta said at a fundraiser for his campaign held in Manhattan. “If I’d gone out there (to Michigan) and said, ‘Hey I’m this guy who understands tech, and I want to bring that here to the region,’ I don’t think I would win this election.”
A freelance writer from Macomb County, was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at [email protected]