When he finished in last place in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Shri Thanedar said it likely wouldn’t be the last voters heard from him. He said he could potentially seek their support again, in either a federal or local race.
Nine months later, Thanedar has zeroed in on one possible office: Mayor of Detroit.
Though the 65-year-old chemist and businessman says he’s only begun mulling a potential bid for the top job in Michigan’s largest city, he’s already hitting the familiar notes of a campaign to counter incumbent Mayor Mike Duggan.
“One glaring thing we see is what looks like two Detroits. We have an affluent Detroit, and we have a poor and neglected Detroit,” Thanedar said in a Monday phone call with Deadline Detroit. “I understand [Detroiters’] struggle. I have been in their shoes.”
The Indian immigrant-turned-millionaire has never held elective office, but relied heavily on his rags-to-riches story as evidence he could helm a state — and now, apparently, a city.
His riches, incidentally, are also the reason he’s become a household name: He spent $10.6 million of his own money on his campaign, plastering his face on billboards and carpet-bombing radio and television airwaves throughout the state last fall.
But the money only bought name recognition. Thanedar was bested by former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed and now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
He did, however, narrowly win Detroit. And he may soon attempt to leverage that success to fulfill his stated goal of “giving back” in a country that has given him many opportunities.
“When I travel to parts of Detroit, some areas, it felt like worse than Third World countries,” he said. “I’m happy to see the prosperity in downtown but that needs to spread and we need to give hope and opportunity for all — improving the quality of life for the average Detroiter in terms of health care, jobs, skills training … there is a lot that can be done, needs to be done.”
How Thanedar, a self-styled insurgent candidate described by Politico as a “bizarro-world Donald Trump,” managed to connect with black voters who traditionally tend to vote for black or establishment candidates remains a mystery. It may have had something to do with the money; listeners of hip-hop stations were certainly inundated with campaign ads that didn’t rely on Shri’s voice, but those of other black people. An appointee of Duggan's said some people in fact believed Shri was black, perhaps due to his dark skin and advertising that featured only his first name.
Thanedar’s take? They connected over their common struggle.
“It is my life. When I was growing up there were times where I didnt know where my next meal was going to come from.”
But although he grew up poor, Thanedar today lives nothing like the average resident of a city with a per-capita income of about $17,000.
He’s spent the last nine months globe-trotting and writing. His travels have taken him to Thailand, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, among other places.
They’ve also taken him to Holland (the one in Michigan) and Traverse City, where he’s been greeted like a celebrity — the face of memorable and comical ads, including a Super Bowl spot that played on Michiganders’ tendency to mispronounce foreign names.
“People stop to take pictures with me, sometimes people are just curious. Sometimes they say, ‘Hey I was inspired by you so don’t give up,’” he says. “Some of them make it a point to tell me they know how to say Shri Thanedar.”
Thanedar says he frequently visits Detroit, usually for the same reasons most people from outside the area come to the city. He likes to catch baseball games at Comerica Park, hockey games at Little Caesars Arena, dine at nice restaurants, and walk the Riverfront with his wife.
Thanedar says he would move to the city if he runs for office — as the charter requires mayoral candidates to do — but has not yet identified a neighborhood he’d like to live in.
When asked what he thinks he could do for the city that Duggan hasn’t, Thanedar is vague, saying more “can be done,” but that he’s currently in a listening and learning phase. The most detail we get out of him is on auto insurance, (“redlining” is a key problem) but even that involves a dodge and platitudes about compromise.
“I don’t want to preempt the current work that’s been done in Lansing but the governor and the legislative body needs to put their heads together and hammer out the best possible deal for the people of Detroit,” he said.
It’s early, but the lack of specifics won’t help fend off criticism that he’s seeking a position of power just because he can. During the primary, he ran to the left of Whitmer, but it was revealed that he had met with strategists to decide whether he should run as a Democrat or Republican. He also didn’t seem to understand the concept of single-payer health care, even though it was a key component of his campaign.
Thanedar will need a clear message to run — and a substantial amount of money to go up against Duggan, should he try for a third term. Duggan, a formidable fundraiser, reportedly raised $4.2 million before his last mayoral bid, for a race that wasn’t even close. Thanedar, who reportedly had about $30 million in assets as of 2016, said that if he decides to challenge, he would rely on a mix of his own money and campaign contributions.