How immigrant businessman-turned-politician Shri Thanedar turned a gubernatorial loss into a Michigan House win

click to enlarge Shri Thanedar at the Metro Times office. - TOM PERKINS
Tom Perkins
Shri Thanedar at the Metro Times office.

Multimillionaire Indian-American businessman Shri Thanedar may have lost the 2018 race for governor, coming in third behind Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed, but he did carve out a somewhat surprising victory: he wound up getting more votes than Whitmer in Detroit.

So Thanedar decided to dust himself off and try again, putting his opulent Ann Arbor mansion up for sale and moving to Detroit's Palmer Woods neighborhood, and launched a campaign for the Michigan State House in District 3.

On Wednesday, he declared victory in Tuesday's primary, earning 35% of the vote, beating out top rivals Donovan McKinney and China Cochran. Since it's a Democratic district, he's expected to win in the general election in November.

"I think my story, my life story, resonated well with Detroit," Thanedar tells Metro Times by phone. "You know, Detroit has a lots of ups and downs, lots of successes and failures and comebacks, and my life is no different."

Thanedar's rags-to-riches story, as told in his self-published 2008 memoir "The Blue Suitcase: Tragedy and Triumph in an Immigrant's Life," recounts how he grew up impoverished in India and eventually built up two pharmaceutical companies, one that went bankrupt, and one that he sold in 2016.

At that time, Thanedar says he decided to leave the private sector once and for all and try to spend the rest of his life as a public servant. He chose District 3 because he wanted to enter a race with no incumbent Democrat.

"I'm 65 years old," he says. "I may have another 15 years productive life. And how do I want to spend it? Do I want to spend that creating another multimillion-dollar corporation, or do I want to go do something for others?"

Thanedar says he will be fully devoted to his new job as a State Representative and says he will be a "24/7" servant for his district.

"This is like a second career for me," he says. "I almost feel like a 25 year old who just got the job of his dreams. ... I've learned lifetime skills in terms of my education, my business skills, my people skills, that all to good use to make my district better, to make people's lives better. And that's my mission now."

Critics have accused him of buying his way into politics, earning him the nickname of "Shrump," a cheeky comparison to President Donald Trump. Thanedar spent a staggering $10 million of his own wealth in 2018, including a charming ad that ran during the Super Bowl, poking fun at his Indian name. This time, Thanedar spent a relatively modest sum of a little more than $300,000 of his own money, and while that's a lot for a House race, Thanedar says the bulk of it was spent to pay his volunteers, which at its peak included about three dozen.

"We made a decision because of COVID-19," he says. "We made a decision that we will not allow any volunteer to work free off our campaign. So we paid every volunteer. ... So a lot of our money was spent on salaries and creating essentially employment in the community. Many of our people were hired straight from our district, our nearby districts."

click to enlarge Instead of a splashy TV campaign, this time Thanedar focused on printing out and distributing 20,000 door-hangers with information about COVID-19. - COURTESY OF SHRI THANEDAR
Courtesy of Shri Thanedar
Instead of a splashy TV campaign, this time Thanedar focused on printing out and distributing 20,000 door-hangers with information about COVID-19.
Instead of a splashy TV campaign, this time Thanedar focused on printing out and distributing 20,000 door-hangers with information about COVID-19.

"We could have spent a fraction of this money and still won," he says, based on his name recognition from 2018. "But our focus was to do the right thing and communicate about COVID-19."

Plus, he says, he views his wealth as an asset — it means he's not beholden to donors or corporations.

"It gives me a fierce independence that many people can don't have," he says. "So the flip side of that money is that it gives me tremendous independence. I'm going to use my independence to go to Lansing and go to bat for my city and my district."

District 3 is bounded by Eight Mile Road on the north and McNichols Road on the south, and Livernois Avenue on the west and Gratiot Avenue on the east. It's a district that includes some of Detroit's most prosperous neighborhoods, including Palmer Woods, the University District, Greenacres, and Sherwood Forest, but also the 48205 area code — what Thanedar says is "perhaps the poorest district in the United States."

"These are people with no future, and the people who lost trust in the political system who have given up on our political system," he says. "When I walk through Detroit, I feel that we have prosperity in downtown, but that has not spread into the neighborhoods."

Thanedar says a focus of his will be improving educational opportunities in his district. "The literacy case showed us that Detroit's children don't get the same level of quality education as children in Northern Michigan, Bloomfield Hills, or Ann Arbor get," he says. "Every child deserves the same level of education."

Thanader credits his success to the educational opportunities afforded to him through India's public schools; since his family was impoverished, he did not have to pay for college. Making higher education affordable is another focus of his.

In the meantime, with the COVID-19 crisis looming over the coming school year, Thanedar is calling for closing Detroit's schools for in-person learning. "A lot of the people in my district live in close quarters, in multi-generational homes" he says. "The kids will be bringing home this deadly infection. We've got to protect the elderly, the immunocompromised, from this. This is a once in a hundred years pandemic, and we can afford to wait a little bit." Thanedar says he advocates for improving internet access for Detroiters so all students can learn from home. Nearly half of the city's population lacks sufficient digital access.

"Detroit suffered from COVID disproportionately," he says. "My community, the African American community, suffered disproportionately. It would be cruel to send these students back into school and continue the impact of this deadly virus on my community." Aside from that, Thanedar says he wants to bring more businesses in the city and lower the city's homicides.

Another difference between Thanedar and Trump: Thanedar pledges to educate himself about his new job, as opposed to Trump's shoot-from-the-hip style and eschewing of experts.

"I'm a scientist," he says. "I'm a researcher, basically. So I will go into Lansing on January 1st and I will hit the ground running because for the next five months I will have studied and prepared. I'll be as knowledgeable as any freshmen could be."

He adds, "One of the things I get criticized that I'm not from here, but the advantage of that is that I have an open mind and I'm curious. I ask people, what are the problems? What are the issues we need to work on? How can I make your life better?"

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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