Ahead of Michigan's 2018 gubernatorial election, the Metro Times editorial staff will interview the race's top contenders. First up is businessman Shri Thanedar.
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar has suffered privation and knows scarcity from his childhood in India. He has stories to tell of not having enough to eat as a kid, of sleeping in a conference room at work during college, of having to move his family into an apartment as an adult.
And though he went through a bankruptcy just a few years ago and lost his home, he is now rich, he admits, though "not Rick Snyder rich."
He has enough tales of his rags-to-riches story to have filled his 2008 memoir, The Blue Suitcase: Tragedy and Triumph in an Immigrant's Life. And he enjoys telling those tales, so much so they sometimes became an obstacle to our interview in which we sought to learn what a Thanedar governorship might look like.
What we found amid the bio are progressive ideas that appeal to the editorial board of an alt-weekly, including outlawing for-profit charter schools, raising minimum wage to $15 per hour, repealing the emergency financial manager law, legalizing recreational marijuana, creating a universal health care system, eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy, shifting the tax burden from the middle class to the wealthy, fighting back against money's influence in politics, fighting against right-to-work, reforming the state's bloated prison system, passing a constitutional amendment to institute a graduated state income tax, and even bringing Nestlé's water takings to a halt.
The diminutive man with the Indian accent may not be the candidate Joe Six-Pack wants to have a beer with, but his positions have him out in front of more established politicians in some polls. Still, some seem to wonder — how much of this platform comes from his own well of convictions, and how much from his background in professional marketing?
We sat down with Thanedar for a wide-ranging discussion on his policies and priorities. Here's what we found.
Thanedar estimates it will cost about $60 billion to fix Michigan's infrastructure, and he proposes raising revenue to do so through multiple channels. First, he says, he would legalize marijuana, tax its sales, and use the money for roads. He also wants to find new revenue by taxing the wealthy and corporations by scrapping the 4.25-percent tax rate and introducing a graduated rate, as well as ending corporate tax subsidies.
"Right now, most of the tax burden falls on middle class, lower-middle class, and the working poor as opposed to the corporations and the ultra-rich," he says. "We have a flat tax of 4.25 percent, so I want to change that to make it more of a graduated tax, because the corporations use our roads, especially the auto industry. They carry heavy loads that damage our roads."
Lastly, he says he would free up revenue by reducing Michigan's prison population. Prisons account for 25 percent of the state's budget, and that money could better be spent on roads and the state's other needs, he says.
Eliminating tax incentives for corporations
Thanedar proposes eliminating or reining in the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which gives away billions in tax incentives to corporations but doesn't track job creation tied to the incentives.
"When they take that incentive, the politicians get a photo op and the [corporation's] shop gets set up, and they create some jobs," he says. "But over time ... these businesses close shop, and now the politicians don't talk about that part."
"So if you look at the net gain of jobs, it's essentially zero," he says. "The big corporations take the incentives, but there's not a good way to hold them accountable when the incentives are given. A lot of the incentives are given by the MEDC in a back office, under secrecy, so we really don't have good transparency or know about how these incentives are given. Who gets them? How is it given? How do they decide that? How do they hold them accountable? And we're currently still paying for tax incentives from the Granholm era — there's about $800 million from the Granholm era that are still out there. We have about $1.2 billion from the Snyder tax breaks and tax incentives, so very soon we have that liability."
But won't eliminating tax incentives drive away businesses?
"We need to have a vision for a greater Michigan," he says. "If we keep doing this Band-Aid approach because we are afraid that corporations — look, corporations aren't coming in anyway. We lost a huge corporation to Wisconsin — FoxConn — then we lost Amazon, so this giving away of money isn't working. Google doesn't need our money ... none of these big corporations need these incentives. I'd rather give them a state that has good infrastructure, I'd rather give them a state that has a good, skilled workforce, and that's a sustainability thing. So my vision is, five years down the road, 10 years down the road, how does Michigan look, and what do we need to do to get there? And the politicians are focused more on just feel-good, Band-Aid solutions that aren't working."
Shifting the tax burden to the wealthy
Thanedar proposes eliminating the flat 4.25 percent business tax and introducing a graduated tax rate.
"This differs from Republicans who would even try to get rid of that 4.25 percent, and that's going in the wrong direction," he says. "We absolutely cannot afford to get rid of the state income tax and [the Republican proposal] is totally irresponsible. That is something we should not do — we need to raise a little more money because we cannot run a state like this."
"I believe that neither health care nor education should be a privilege," he says. "It should be a fundamental right of every Michigander. And I will make that happen. I want to fix our tax structure. The rich, the ultra-rich, and the corporations aren't paying their fair share."
Thanedar says he is a proponent of the ballot proposal to legalize recreational marijuana. "And once that passes, anybody in the prisons [on a marijuana-related charge] should be released," he says. "We need to seal their records. We need to expunge their records. We need to create opportunities for them to be able to be a part of society again."
Universal pre-K, banning charter schools, and free college tuition
Thanedar says he wants to make community college and state universities free, and fund universal prekindergarten.
"We are kind of bottom in the nation on third grade reading or fourth grade math, or any of these areas," he says. "We have to start this early. We have to get parents involved in teaching their children, you have to have access for the children at an early age, more of a universal pre-K. Moving on to grade schools, we got to put more money into it. The money that we're putting into K-12 isn't enough."
Thanedar adds that the idea of giving teachers guns to deter school shootings is a "ridiculous idea." He also proposes banning charter schools.
"The charter schools have really hurt our public schools," he says. "Basically, I just don't want someone like a Betsy DeVos or the corporations running schools. She owns, or other people own, schools to profit from public school dollars. So I would like to see zero for-profit charter schools."
"Now, how do we outlaw them? That's a good question," he says. "We have to figure that out and we got to make that happen, and it can be done. But, the way I see myself — I am the leader of this state. My job is to look at the problems and find elegant solutions. My job is to have a vision for this state. I look at the state as a $56 billion corporation — a not-for-profit corporation. My job is to take care of ten million people."
Thanedar says he supports a Medicare-for-all system.
"U.S. health care is the most expensive in the world, yet it's not the best in the world," he says. "We are seventh in the world in terms of quality of health care, but we are number one in terms of cost of health care. Look at the insurance companies and look at the big bite they take out of health care dollars. Look at the pharmaceutical companies. Prescription medicine is more expensive here than anywhere else. So, again, if you look at it on a larger scale, look at it from a bird's-eye view, it can be fixed and we can actually have a less expensive system that will cover more people."
"We can do something similar at the state level, but it will be more effective if we can do it at the national level," he says. "That means I will use my position to pressure Congress to work on that. But if that fails, I want to look at a statewide option. Maybe we start covering children until they're 18 with Medicare, giving them a choice, and giving certain selected people the chance to buy into Medicare, but we need to do something. This current system is not working. This whole thing is for the benefit of the rich and the corporations."
"We spend $2.5 billion on prisons," Thanedar says. "And we're locking people up, even for a small possession charge ... and we're not able to pay the cost. There's a lot of nonviolent offenders who are locked up. We're spending some $40,000 per prisoner, whereas we're spending about $9,000 per student in K-12. Which, that math — it just doesn't make any sense to me."
On being a 'disrupter,' and his opponent Gretchen Whitmer
Thanedar notes that he doesn't take any corporate campaign cash, and questioned whether Whitmer is beholden to corporations and also questioned her record.
"Michigan can't have a career politician who is just going to say the right things and grandstand," he says. "If you look at Whitmer's record [as senator] — her heart is in the right place, but it's all about talk. None of her talk has changed anything. And when she talks about her No. 1 accomplishment, she talks Medicaid expansion, which was something the Republican governor broke from the pack and championed and made happen. She may have participated in some discussion, but this didn't happen because of her."
"So here is a leader who can't even think of an accomplishment to talk about after 15 years of serving," Thanedar says. "So is that the choice we want? Is that the person that's going to fix Michigan and take Michigan to the next level? Or will we have Bill Schuette?"
On his political donations, including one to John McCain
Thanedar notes (and Metro Times confirmed) that he has given about $33,000 to political campaigns, and one $2,300 donation went to a Republican — Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential run. Did McCain have any policies that Thanedar supported?
"You know how these things work — politicians call people who have some wealth and ask them to come to a fundraiser," Thanedar says. "So it's not like I went and said, 'Oh, let me give some money to McCain.' Basically, McCain's fundraiser knew me and he asked me, 'Shri, would you come?' And to come in, the price of the ticket was $2,300 because they only let 30 people or 40 people in that exclusive meeting. ... So I went up to Sen. McCain and talked about immigration. I was concerned about immigration issues, and how we need to make immigration business-friendly. And you know, that's the price you pay to get in there."
"So it's not like I'm a big supporter of Sen. McCain," Thanedar adds. "I just did it because I wanted to get a picture with him and talk to him."
On reports that one of his companies abandoned more than 100 dogs and monkeys
"Let me be clear — there was no mistreatment or abandonment of animals at any time while I ran the companies in question," he says. "Nearly 10 years ago, I owned several chemical companies that did research and development of life-saving medicine and as a very small part of their work, were required by the FDA to perform mandatory testing on animals prior to human clinical testing. This process is far from an ideal situation, but the testing is a necessary part of the process that brings medical breakthroughs from the conception to reality in order to save public lives. At no time while I was in control of those companies were animals mistreated in any way. In fact, we went above and beyond protocols outlined by the FDA to ensure the animals were never harmed. When Bank of America took over complete ownership of the companies, I notified them that animals were inside the facility and pushed for assurances that all of the animals were being attended to before I left the company. It's important to remember that all of the animals were saved, cared for and taken to animal shelters thanks to the tireless efforts of animal care organizations, activists and others involved. As a business owner and candidate for governor, I know that the ultimate responsibility for any organization — whether it's running a business or leading a state government — begins and ends with me, and I take that responsibility seriously and hope people will see the truth is that I've been open, honest and fully engaged in helping bring a safe resolution to this situation."
On claims that he considered running as a Republican
"It's utterly absurd to infer that in meetings with Democratic consultants I considered anything but running as a Democrat," he says. "As an immigrant who grew up in poverty and who still often faces the degrading insults and challenges of discrimination, I could never even consider being a part of a Republican Party that under Trump has adopted a hateful anti-immigrant agenda and that right here in Michigan has widened the income inequality gap. We need to stop taking our eye off the real goal, which is empowering communities of color and all communities that have gone far too long without a progressive voice in Lansing, and I pledge to be that leader."
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