POLITICS
07/31/2018 05:27 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2018

A Wealthy Opportunist Is Playing Michigan Progressives For Fools

The only thing more absurd than Shri Thanedar’s run for governor is that some people are buying it.
HuffPost Illustration/Associated Press

DETROIT ― The play, at least, was not a farce. Earnest, maybe. Amateurish, sure. But definitely not a farce. And that’s the best thing that can be said about Shri Thanedar, a 63-year-old chemical testing entrepreneur and nominal Democrat running for governor of Michigan: The play about his life was nothing close to the buffoonish sham of his campaign.

“The Blue Suitcase,” an adaptation of Thanedar’s 2008 memoir of the same name, premiered July 13 at the old Senate Theater here on the far west side of Michigan Avenue. A crowd of about 40 people, at least half a dozen of them reporters, assembled for the 5 p.m. show. The theater, big enough to seat hundreds, was mostly empty.

Written, directed and narrated by a Detroiter named Jack King, “The Blue Suitcase” is a more-than-two-hour-long homage to Thanedar, depicting his rise from poverty in India as the quintessential immigrant success story. Given the source material, you can forgive King for leaving out some of the revelations that have dogged Thanedar during his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination: running a chemical testing company that allowed amphetamines and viagra into over-the-counter dietary supplements; stranding dogs and monkeys in a shuttered lab; donating to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); cozying up to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and even considering a run for governor as a Republican.

But King’s affection for his subject seems genuine. A garage door installer who moonlights in local theater, the 29-year-old was so taken with Thanedar’s story that he went $1,400 in debt to finance the play’s production. (A $1,200 contribution from Thanedar only partly offset the costs.)

What the play may lack in dramatic craft it more than makes up for in sincerity. “Enough was never enough” for Thanedar, King recalled with amazement. “The book represented courage, risk-taking and the pursuit of the American dream. That’s everybody’s goal.”

Although King is supporting Thanedar in the Aug. 7 primary, he said he would have staged the play even if the businessman were not running for governor. Whatever his intentions, the premiere had all the trappings of a promotional event. A giant life-sized poster of Thanedar greeted attendees as they walked into the door. A table offered glossy campaign pamphlets. Staffers in red “Shri for governor” T-shirts milled around taking photos and managing logistics. The campaign’s Facebook page live-streamed video of much of the play, though the feed died midway through the performance.

“The Blue Suitcase” concludes with Thanedar’s decision to seek the governor’s chair. It’s here, in the final scene, that the play strays notably beyond the source material, which predates Thanedar’s gubernatorial bid by about nine years. Thanedar had a comfortable life as a wealthy businessman, the play suggests, but his thirst for greatness kept him searching for more ― eventually leading him to consider public office at the suggestion of his wife, Shashi.

“I want to bring change in people’s life,” the actor playing Thanedar says in the play. “I want to make their lives better. I think ― I think I want to serve them.”

(The actress playing Shashi): “Serve them? Like a public servant? Like, governor?”

Thanedar, speaking slowly, as if in the dawning light of an epiphany: “Yeah. Governor Thanedar. Governor Thanedar. That has a ring to it!”

Lights. Applause.

It turns out that this wasn’t quite what the text of the play had called for. Thanedar had seen a dress rehearsal of the final scene and asked King to tweak a line, the playwright told HuffPost.

Originally, King had Thanedar considering a run for a local office before his wife persuaded him to think bigger.

“I was thinking of something where I could make change in other people’s lives,  like mayor or city council,” Thanedar tells Shashi in the original line.

“Mayor? City council? Since when have I known you to set the bar low? Why not governor or president?” Shashi replies.

But Thanedar wanted the play’s version of him to sound more decisive about his political ambitions according to King. The scene was rewritten to have Shashi suggest the run for governor and Thanedar to embrace the idea right away.

“It got changed from ‘should I do this?’ to ‘I will do this,’” King recalled.

That little tweak to the script summed up Thanedar’s quest in a way the night’s dramaturgy did not: The candidate rewrote his own story to make himself sound better.

C-Span footage captured Shri Thanedar posing for a photo with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) ahead of the 2016 Republican presiden
C-Span
C-Span footage captured Shri Thanedar posing for a photo with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) ahead of the 2016 Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa.

Stranded Test Animals, Shady Drugs And Marco Rubio

Thanedar is locked in a tight battle for the Democratic nomination with former state Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed, a former Detroit health director who has staked out a more authentic claim to the progressive mantle.

Thanedar has touted himself as a “fiscally savvy” version of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the “most progressive” Democrat in the primary field.

If there is a liberal box to be checked, Thanedar checks it. Like El-Sayed, he rejects money from corporate political action committees and professes his support for single-payer health care; like Whitmer, he has made a folksy ad about fixing the state’s pothole-ridden roads.

Where Thanedar tries to one-up his competitors is in his personal story. He never misses an opportunity to remind voters that he left poverty in India to become a job-creating entrepreneur in Michigan, that he is a chemist uniquely capable of addressing climate change.

“My colleagues here would do a much better job speaking. But this time, I believe Michigan needs someone who thinks like me,” Thanedar said during a televised primary debate on July 19. “I’m the only gubernatorial candidate that has created jobs in America.”

But Thanedar is not the wholesome businessman-turned-public-servant he wants Michiganders to think he is. His entrepreneurial undertakings, which made him wealthy enough to elicit a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”-style local news segment years ago about one of his former homes, have involved the same corporate malfeasance he claims he would fight as governor.

Thanedar’s story begins innocently enough. He immigrated to the United States in 1979 at age 23 to get his Ph.D. in chemistry. He did post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan and in 1990 borrowed $75,000 to buy a small, St. Louis area-based chemical testing company, Chemir.

Under Thanedar’s stewardship, Chemir expanded rapidly, winning testing contracts with baby food makers and auto parts suppliers, which needed to ensure the safety of the chemicals they were using.

Even as the business flourished, however, Thanedar’s family came apart in 1996, when his first wife ― and the mother of his two sons ― took her own life. She had been suffering from depression, but it nonetheless took Thanedar by surprise, and he wrote in his memoir about the guilt he experienced.

“How could I not know she was mentally ill? I managed a suicide hotline... for God’s sake,” he wrote. “Why wasn’t I paying attention?”

He moved on from those feelings with the help of a therapist, he wrote. 

He married Shashi in 1999 and dove headlong into his business. By 2006, Chemir was making $16 million a year in revenue.

But like many business owners, he found himself over-extended in the late 2000s. Thanedar had borrowed $24 million to expand his business, but when demand dried, he was underwater with some creditors, according to a Politico Magazine profile.

Shri Thanedar (left) debates Democratic competitors Abdul El-Sayed and Gretchen Whitmer on July 19.
WDIV
Shri Thanedar (left) debates Democratic competitors Abdul El-Sayed and Gretchen Whitmer on July 19.

That period of financial trouble sowed the seeds of Thanedar’s most notorious scandal. In 2010, Bank of America repossessed Chemir’s AniClin Preclinical Services, a New Jersey-based facility, when Thanedar was unable to meet his obligations to the mega-bank.

The lab tested some of its chemicals on over 100 beagles and monkeys. And the closure was so sudden that, as HuffPost reported in April, no contingency plan existed to take care of the animals. The lab’s workers had to climb the facility’s locked fences to feed and care for the animals, according to a USA Today account at the time.

Animal shelters that caught wind of the case tried to adopt the animals. Weeks later, they succeeded ― despite Thanedar’s best efforts to thwart them. In an attempt to recoup as much money from the bankruptcy as possible, he pushed for the animals’ sale to other testing facilities.

Regrouping after the bankruptcy, Thanedar moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he started a second chemical testing company, Avomeen. That company experienced similarly rapid growth. It has also faced charges of negligence.

In October 2013, a study conducted by the Harvard Medical School and other experts found that Craze, an over-the-counter sports supplement that Avomeen had tested for the market, contained a methamphetamine-like stimulant never before studied in humans. Avomeen claimed not to have found the compound in the supplement when it tested it and certified the product’s compliance with federal regulatory guidelines.

And in 2014, Avomeen ignored the reports of an employee who found traces of Viagra in S.W.A.G. ― or “Sex With A Grudge” ― an over-the-counter male enhancement supplement. In March, the ex-employee revealed that he quit the firm after his entreaties to report the finding to the Food and Drug Administration were ignored. Thanedar responded that the firm was obligated to give a “truthful answer” to its clients, but not to report the issue to the federal government.

Following those troubles, the Chicago private equity firm that bought a majority stake in Avomeen from Thanedar for $33.6 million in November 2016 sued him the following year for fraud, arguing that he had artificially inflated the company’s value prior to its sale.

If this seems like a curious pedigree for someone styling himself as a progressive populist, consider his recent political past, as well. Yes, he has given tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to Democratic candidates over the years, including $15,000 to re-elect then-President Barack Obama in 2012 and a combined $2,550 to Hillary Clinton in 2007 and 2016. But what about that $2,300 donation to McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign?

“I got to talk to him, got to ask him questions,” Thanedar told HuffPost in an interview after the play, portraying the donation as a one-off aimed at getting an audience with a politician whose story he admired. (In the Politico Magazine profile, Thanedar said he wanted to ask McCain about immigration policy.)

And then in January 2016, ahead of the Iowa caucuses, a spellbound Thanedar attended a rally for Rubio, who was then seeking the GOP presidential nomination. After the rally, Thanedar requested a photo with Rubio, The Intercept reported in May.

When pressed by HuffPost on the Rubio appearance, Thanedar cited the senator’s inspiring story as the son of a working-class Cuban immigrant and then launched into a speech about the virtues of bipartisanship that would make the Washington-based centrist group No Labels proud.

“I don’t see anything wrong in seeing the good in people,” Thanedar said. “I don’t see anything wrong in John McCain, who has risked his life for the safety and the peace of our nation.”

He added: “Do I agree with everything he says? Maybe not. Do I agree with everything [House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi says? Maybe not.”

Previously, Thanedar also donated $75 to conservative Republican Jim Talent’s 2000 gubernatorial run in Missouri and $250 to Republican Bobby Jindal’s 2003 gubernatorial run in Louisiana.

Asked about those two contributions, Thanedar replied in an email, “In the last 10 years, I have given approximately 93 percent of my donations to Democrats.”

Do I agree with everything [John McCain] says? Maybe not. Do I agree with everything [House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi says? Maybe not. Shri Thanedar

That’s not all, though. Thanedar accepted the advice of at least two Republican consultants when he was deciding whether to launch his gubernatorial bid. Five different consultants told The Intercept he’d cast himself as open to running as a Republican.

“We asked him what party he wanted to run from and he said he didn’t care,” Adrian Hemond, CEO of the bipartisan consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, told The Intercept.

Hemond is a Democrat, but he brought two Republican colleagues to a strategy lunch with Thanedar.

“He said whichever side we thought he had the best chance to win on. Which we thought was interesting,” Hemond recalled.

Thanedar told Politico he was taken aback when Hemond brought GOP strategists to their meeting. But Politico obtained email correspondence showing that Hemond informed Thanedar that the Republicans would be attending, and that Thanedar replied with links to stories about his business success.

Thanedar has also told media outlets that he simply wanted to keep his partisan affiliation a secret until he formally decided to run. “You don’t let the cat out of the bag until you actually make an announcement,” he told The Detroit Free Press in May.

According to a copy of Thanedar’s voter file obtained by HuffPost, Thanedar voted in Michigan’s presidential primary in February 2012. That means he must have voted in the Republican race, since there was no primary on the Democratic side.

In an email exchange, Thanedar told HuffPost he took advantage of Michigan’s open primary system to place a “protest vote” for Rick Santorum in an effort to undermine frontrunner Mitt Romney. This is plausible; prominent Michigan Democrats encouraged such a crossover vote at the time.

Thanedar also pointed to the total of $15,000 ― through contributions to the campaign and the Democratic National Committee ― that he donated in May 2012 toward Obama’s re-election bid.

El-Sayed has been especially peeved by the traction Thanedar has gained with some liberal voters, and he has been at pains to draw attention to his rival’s past ties to Republicans. At the July 19 debate, El-Sayed, who is endorsed by Sanders and the progressive groups Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, called Thanedar a “Republican running as a Democrat” and mocked him for taking a “giddy selfie with Marco Rubio.”

Outside the premiere of “The Blue Suitcase” play, a group of four college-aged protesters, including one dressed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, held placards denouncing Thanedar with slogans like “Shri = Republican” and “Wake up Shri-ple.” The demonstrators would not provide any information about their identities, raising the prospect that they had been sent there by a rival campaign.

Teflon Thanedar

Despite the questions about his allegiances, in the jaded and money-lined world of Democratic politics in 2018 Thanedar has mounted a competitive bid.

He has spent millions of dollars from his personal fortune blanketing the airwaves with TV ads introducing himself as a scientist and making light of his unusual name. (Thanedar had contributed $6 million to his campaign as of the beginning of the year; as of Friday, that number had jumped to nearly $11.5 million.)

Although public polling in the race has been relatively sparse, the available surveys had Thanedar leading the polls as recently as April. He began to fall off as Whitmer and El-Sayed stepped up their TV presence and his own personal baggage came to light. In response to the string of revelations about Thanedar, the Grosse Point Democratic Club in June issued an “anti-endorsement,” calling him “exceptionally unfit to serve as governor of Michigan due to moral and ethical reasons.”

Whitmer, the establishment favorite, has since overtaken him in the polling. In a mid-July NBC News survey of likely Democratic voters, she led the race with 35 percent, followed by Thanedar with 25 percent and El-Sayed with 22 percent. (The race was tighter when the broader universe of all potential primary voters is surveyed.)

At the premiere of the play about him, Thanedar’s fans typically explained their support by citing his status as a political outsider with experience in the business world.

“It’s awesome what he did with building those two companies and it would be great to have a guy who brings that mindset to solving all our problems,” said Pat Race, a Sanders campaign activist and software company owner who traveled to Detroit from Bay City, Michigan, to see the play.

The same business acumen that draws supporters like Race to Thanedar allows them to dismiss out of hand any criticism of his ties to Republicans.

“That’s business!” said Collette Ramsey, a nonprofit executive from Highland Park, when asked about Thanedar’s past support for McCain and attendance at the Rubio rally. “He’s an entrepreneur so you don’t want to be held down to one candidate or another.”

Shri Thanedar stands with supporters at a campaign event in April. He calls himself the "most progressive" Democrat in Michig
Shri Thanedar for Governor
Shri Thanedar stands with supporters at a campaign event in April. He calls himself the "most progressive" Democrat in Michigan's gubernatorial race, but those credentials are dubious.

“I Take My Orders From The Lord!”

Mainstream Michigan media outlets and politicians who, with a few notable exceptions, have treated Thanedar with kid gloves, surely deserve some of the blame for his success. A July 12 profile in MLive entitled, “Shri Thanedar uses business background and optimism in governor race,” devoted all of one sentence to the scandal around the treatment of animals at his shuttered lab.

When asked about Thanedar, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), declined to criticize him and proclaimed her interest in attending the play about his life.

Thanedar has also invested heavily in building support in parts of Detroit’s working-class and low-income black communities. The work appears to have paid off: The mid-July NBC News poll showed him with a 25-percentage-point lead among African-American voters.

To win that backing, Thanedar has at times relied on questionable tactics. In May, Detroit pastor and activist David Alexander Bullock left his job as a volunteer host on a local radio station after it emerged that he had interviewed Thanedar on the program without disclosing that the candidate was paying for his advice. Thanedar subsequently hired Bullock as his campaign manager.

Thanedar has also retained Horace Sheffield, pastor of New Destiny Baptist Church and host of a two-hour talk radio show every Saturday, as a campaign adviser, Thanedar’s campaign confirmed. (How much Thanedar is paying Sheffield ― or any other staff ― is a mystery, since the campaign vastly under-reported its campaign expenditures. Thanedar claims the misreporting was an error.)

On several occasions, Thanedar has engaged in stereotype-inspired pandering to black voters. That reached its comic apex when Thanedar publicized a meal at the Louisiana-themed fast-food franchise Popeye’s on his way to a candidate debate hosted by the Michigan Democratic Party’s Black Caucus in April.

Other manifestations of Thanedar’s contrived solicitations to black voters have received less attention.

In a speech to a predominantly black audience at the Wolverine State Baptist Convention in May, the Hindu-raised Thanedar opened with a declaration that he takes his “directions from the Lord.” He went on to impart important lessons he learned from his “mama.”

“She told me to have confidence, trust in God and work hard and never give up,” he said to cries of affirmation from some attendees.

He used a similar exhortation in remarks about stopping gun violence before a different black audience at the end of May. “I take my orders from the Lord!” he said, taking on a preacherly bellow in response to shouts of affirmation from the crowd. Sensing he had touched a nerve, he repeated himself.

He was less eager to talk about his religious convictions in detail in an interview with HuffPost. Thanedar would not say whether he believes in Jesus Christ.

“I do believe in higher powers. I do believe in God,” Thanedar said. “I think I want to leave it at that.”

When asked to respond to bigoted accusations about the Muslim faith of El-Sayed, Thanedar has also been curiously silent. In an interview with Vice News, Thanedar declined to condemn claims by state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a GOP gubernatorial candidate, that El-Sayed is a Muslim Brotherhood agent.

After the third ask, Thanedar replied, “I gotta go, because I have a thing and then we have a meeting.”

Despite the seeming thinness of the act, Thanedar seems to have struck a chord among some black voters. Steve Hood, a popular African-American local TV host in Detroit and veteran political consultant, points to Thanedar’s willingness to criticize President Donald Trump’s as racist.

Hood recalled a gym locker room conversation with a friend who told him, “The only guy to mention racism in this campaign is Shri Thanedar.” 

Thanedar has also impressed Hood with his willingness to set up a campaign office in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood ― far outside of the gentrifying downtown. 

For all of this, however, Hood backs Whitmer because he sees her as the contender most likely to win the general election for the open governor’s seat.

Hood, a seasoned Detroit politico, attributed some of Thanedar’s inroads among black voters to the money he has to spread his message ― in the mail, on TV and through prominent black surrogates.

“He bought off some loud and high-profile preachers,” said Hood, who also expressed doubts about Thanedar’s sincerity.

“He’s a fake,” Hood said. “When you talk to him. He just doesn’t feel genuine.”

“I Really Didn’t Have The Heart To Stop Him”

At the end of the premiere of “The Blue Suitcase,” the guest of honor mounted the stage to speak. Mainly, he wanted to marvel about how effectively King and his cast of community actors had executed the difficult task of depicting his long and remarkable life.

“This is an impossible task. It’s an ambitious task,” Thanedar declared, smiling. “Many people have tried to tell the story and it’s not easy trying to cover a span of 63 years in a couple hours.”

Afterward, between performances, Thanedar spoke with me and a local reporter. He was smiling and a little sweaty in his blue button-down shirt and red tie, with that heightened air about him of an actor after the show.

“Did you truly cry?” the reporter asked.

“I did,” Thanedar replied. “I did and my wife did. It brought in some memories of my mother. My mother... is my hero [for] the way she raised us in difficult times. And seeing her [depicted in the play] brought those memories back.”

“Any particular scenes get to you emotionally?” the reporter followed up.

“All of them!” Thanedar said. “Leaving my family, worrying about their well-being, just the ups and downs and the death of my first wife. There were all of these memories and these events came back alive for me.”

I asked Thanedar whether the saddest part of “The Blue Suitcase” ― the scene portraying his reaction to the suicide of his first wife, Shamal ― was hard to watch. “It is. It is,” he responded.

After he reflected on that moment, he quickly pivoted to a discussion of how the idea for the play developed.

“You know, when [playwright King] came to me... I really didn’t have the heart to stop him, because he said, ‘I’m inspired by your book,’” Thanedar said. “I wasn’t sure if he could complete something like this. This is a difficult task.”

As our conversation drifted toward policy matters, Thanedar turned defensive. He rejected the implication of an article in The Intercept suggesting that he was not serious about plans to bring single-payer health care to Michigan. Unlike El-Sayed, whose detailed “MichCare” single-payer plan has elicited acclaim from normally skeptical center-left experts, Thanedar does not have a formal single-payer proposal on his website.

In the interview, Thanedar did little to clarify his position, seemingly confusing his support for universal health care coverage with single-payer ― a public insurance plan that provides free coverage at the point of service.

“Every Michigander must be covered under a health insurance plan,” he said. “I am 100 percent committed to making that happen.”

About 15 minutes into our conversation, Thanedar started to realize I was the author of the article about the dogs and monkeys stranded in his shuttered chemical testing lab in 2010.

Suddenly, he took a step away and began pointing his finger in my direction as he spoke. The post-play euphoria had worn off, and now his face was red and his voice was rising. He demanded to know why I had claimed that the animals were “abandoned.”

I reminded him that I had removed the word “abandoned” from the headline after he had complained. (The body of the story continued to use it; frankly, I changed the headline to get him off my back.)

Everything that you wrote is true. Those animals were abandoned in there. Anna Wilson, animal rights activist

Thanedar was not assuaged. “You did great damage by lying about what actually happened. It was a great disservice to the profession of journalism, to the ethics of journalism,” he told me.

A crowd gathered around us in the theater as Thanedar grew more heated in his defense of how the animals were treated. They had come to watch a play, but now they were spoiling for a fight.

Thanedar was practically spitting out accusations against me, cutting in again and again as I tried to interject. An older supporter of his positioned herself in between us as a self-appointed referee. “Let him finish,” she admonished me.

DaVonne Darby, a spokeswoman for Thanedar’s campaign, and other Thanedar campaign staffers grew concerned. They stood behind him to obstruct the view of Brittany Huckabee, a documentary filmmaker working on a movie about the primary race.

While Thanedar had previously maintained that he had no knowledge of how the animals were treated after the bank re-possessed them, he insisted in his rant that Bank of America had spent $160,000 taking care of them, including by retaining six workers to staff the facility. (It’s a defense Thanedar later posted on his website.)

I asked why, then, had USA Today reported at the time that workers from the facility had been scaling the fences to feed and care for the animals? I could’ve also mentioned to Thanedar that the United States Department of Agriculture had cited the facility for violating animal treatment rules long before the lab had closed.

Thanedar claimed that the contemporary reports were mistaken: Neighbors living near the shelter “started throwing food and water over a fence” when the animal shelter trucks arrived, but no workers, he claimed, ever had to sneak into the facility.

I wanted to ask him why, if he was so concerned about the animals, he had tried to have the bank sell them off during his company’s bankruptcy proceedings. Those efforts contradicted Thanedar’s claims in the media that he had fought the bank to have the animals diverted to sanctuaries.

I didn’t get the chance to press him for an answer. Darby, who had been trying to get Thanedar’s attention for the length of the conversation, finally got a word in. “Shri,” she said firmly. “Shri, we can send him the information later.”

She managed to insert herself between us and slowly drag him away.

HuffPost spoke about the animal rescue with Anna Wilson, a former employee of Best Friends Animal Society, who coordinated the test animals’ adoption.

Wilson agreed that the animals were well fed when they received them, which indicated they received regular care. But she maintains that for at least some of the time after the lab shuttered, former employees were climbing the fences to take care of the animals.

“Everything that you wrote is true. Those animals were abandoned in there,” Wilson said. “They closed the lab without any plan to take care of the animals.”

Two days after the premiere of “The Blue Suitcase,” fresh signs emerged that Michigan Democrats were getting wise to Thanedar’s act.

He drew a cool reception at the Michigan Democratic Party’s summer picnic in Milford.

“I am the only gubernatorial candidate who knows what it feels like to go to bed hungry. And I’ll make sure no child, no Michigander ever goes hungry in Michigan,” he declared.

The crowd was silent. Before his next pronouncement, Thanedar asked for their support.

“You can clap if you want to,” he said. The audience laughed.

HuffPost

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