“Hello, it’s Shri.”
The Indian American immigrant, scientist, multi-millionaire, Democratic state representative and, as of Wednesday, likely heir to John Conyers Jr.’s longtime seat in Congress answered his phone on the second ring. It was hours after Shri Thanedar was declared the winner of a crowded primary for Michigan’s 13th District, and his phone had been chirping all day.
Thanedar, 67, beat out eight Black candidates and secured victory with 28% of the vote. He won by just 4 percentage points, a narrow margin that could have changed dramatically had fewer candidates siphoned votes away from Thanedar’s top competition. Thanedar also spent $4 million of his own money on the campaign, which far outpaced his opponents, even those backed by national political groups that poured millions into snipping Thanedar’s candidacy.
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The outcome has sent shockwaves through Detroit’s Democratic political world for one key reason: For the first time since 1955, the majority Black city will no longer be represented in Congress by a Black person. Republican Martell Bivings will face Thanedar in the November general election, but the overwhelmingly Democratic 13th District is essentially guaranteed to go to Thanedar.
While Democratic officials begin to point fingers and panic about the loss of Black representation, Thanedar says the people have nothing to worry about. He said his personal experience growing up poor in India gives him an understanding of the issues facing Detroit’s poorest residents.
“I have grown up in abject poverty,” Thanedar said. “Does that make me a better candidate? I don’t know. It all ultimately depends on the compassion. I’m very service-oriented. This is my job. I’ve been chosen by the people to do this. They have entrusted this responsibility and I knowingly enter into public service. I will deliver to the people of my district.”
Still, Thanedar acknowledges Black representation is vitally important to residents in Detroit, who have long faced barriers to obtaining political power and influence. Thanedar agreed to speak with BridgeDetroit for over an hour Friday about the dynamics of racial identity, his policy platform and how he aims to build trust after a divisive primary election.
The following transcript includes minor edits for readability. Some questions do not appear in the order they were asked.
BRIDGEDETROIT: How did you think of this issue of Black representation in Detroit? Once it was announced that U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence would be stepping down, there was immediate concern that Michigan would lose its only Black representative in Congress. How did this come up during the campaign?
SHRI THANEDAR: I understand the sentiment behind the question, and I do believe that there should be proper proportional representation, not just in Congress but in the Senate and all walks of life, including corporate CEOs and every area. Race should not be a factor, and when race is not a factor and things are done in a fair manner we would expect appropriate proportional representation.
Having said that, I feel that this seat is owned by the people of the district. The people have the freedom – they must have it, that’s part of our democracy – to choose a representative they want, and that’s what they did. That’s how I see it, I think it’s the people’s decision. Right from the beginning, I felt this should be left to the people to decide.
BD: Black Detroiters who we’ve spoken with are reeling from this outcome, this loss of Black representation. Do you understand why that’s concerning and emotional for them?
ST: Yes, like I said, it’s important that we have proportional representation on a national basis in every walk of life. I have met literally hundreds and thousands of people over the last six months … Nobody’s talked about my race. Nobody talked about what the race of the congressional candidate ought to be.
They talk to me about crumbling sidewalks, about not having transportation to go to their doctor. They talked about gas prices. They talked about a gallon of milk and how expensive it is. They talked about landlords discriminating and harassing. They talked about blight. They talked about police chases in their neighborhood and helicopters going out over those chases. They talked about public safety. They talked about guns. They talked about drugs, about marijuana facilities in that neighborhood.
People talked about all kinds of things but never mentioned anything about my race. The media is just going crazy. ‘Oh, (it’s a) Black seat, Detroit is about to lose one.’ So I said, maybe I should ask people. They just (want someone) to fix these problems. You know, $600 million was overcharged in (Detroit) property taxes, fix that. Fix the water shutoffs. ‘I can’t afford my electricity, my bill is going so much higher.’ A ton of problems, but this is not a problem they are talking about.
BD: To put a fine point on it, it sounds like you’re saying being Black is not essential to adequately serve the interests of the Black community. You can deliver that representation without being African American. Is that right?
ST: No, not really. It’s very important that the representative understands – and I will never claim I understand the experience of being an African American person and the historic discrimination (they face). I had a tough life, but nothing compared to what many people in the African American community. I would not say it’s not important. It is important. It’s a factor. It certainly is helpful to have that background, that knowledge, that legacy. I want to do my best to learn that, and that’s why I’m open to talking with anybody. I’m a PhD scientist. I love information.
Service is important. Being able to take care of people’s issues is important. It’s very important that the leader is accessible to the people. I will continue to walk through, talk to people and be available, whether it is Detroit or Downriver.
This is all about the service. It’s all about communicating. It’s all about transparency. That’s who I am. I’m open to the community. I’m not too proud to feel that I know everything. I don’t have all the answers and this is not something that I can do alone.
BD: We’ve heard from a lot of people who feel that you’ve bought this seat in Congress. You have put some $6 million of your own money into this race. What do you say to that?
ST: I want to address campaign finance reform. I support public financing of our elections. I think we need to repeal Citizens United and get away from the influence of dark money in politics. When I’m in Congress, I’ll work with like-minded lawmakers to address that.
BD: Your money isn’t dark money. We know exactly where it came from. You put it in yourself. But we’ve heard people express distaste with the idea that someone could self-fund their campaign and people equate it to buying a seat. I’d like you to address that part of it.
ST: I think the cost of just running for public office is extraordinary. Money should not be such a big factor in other elections. It really should be interactions and transparency and communication. I think public financing, and not having the dark money or corporate money in politics, that’s where we need to go. That’s where I will work.
The media focuses so much on self-funders. Often they forget to say I’m a state rep, but they never forget to say I’m a self-funder. There is that feeling that a rich person is buying (a seat). But elections cost money and the money must come from somewhere. It should not cost that much money, that’s my point, but currently it does.
We’ve got to look at the source of where Senator (Adam) Hollier’s money came from. I don’t understand this concern about self-funding but such a lack of concern about the special interests. They spent $2.1 million in the last week. The media doesn’t talk about it. We’ve almost gotten immune to this kind of corporate spending but we are heightened and so concerned about self-funding. That money is tainted. My money was hard-earned.
BD: John Conyers Jr. used to hold this seat. Would you support his work to establish a commission to study reparations for the descendants of African American slaves?
ST: Yes, absolutely. Conyers introduced H.R. 40 in every session of Congress. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, is passionate about that. One of the first things I want to do is work with Sheila Jackson and other like-minded congresspeople. By the way, I sponsored reparations bills in the Michigan House.
BD: I’m sure you’re aware the City of Detroit has put together a task force to look at this question too. Why do you think that’s important?
ST: Every other community has – Japanese Americans got their (reparations after internment during WWII), American Indians got their reparations. This is something that needs to be handled in a fair way. I support what the City of Detroit is doing. I support the proposition that was passed with a large majority. I’ll work with the City Council and the mayor and the governor. This needs to be addressed at the local, state and federal level. I’m already active in this area and I’ll continue to be an active participant to address this issue.
BD: There’s been conversations about codifying abortion rights at the federal level. Are you supportive of that, and is that possible?
ST: Look at the Kansas decision. I don’t think the Republican Party has the pulse of the people. They’re on the wrong side of this issue. A majority of the Republicans even support (abortion rights). The other party needs to align themselves with where the people are, and if they do, then we should be able to get something done. I’m 100% supportive of codifying this into the U.S. Constitution. Republicans need to be a people’s party. They’ve gone into an extremism that is not in line with their own members of their party.
Note: A majority of voters in Kansas rejected a proposed constitutional amendment Tuesday to end the right to abortion in their state.
BD: You’ve talked a lot about the impact of education on helping lift you out of poverty and access better economic opportunity. How do we improve education for kids in this district, and in Detroit, where schools are facing challenging circumstances?
ST: Early childhood education is something that I have been fighting for. We need to have, across the board, quality education. The schools in the City of Detroit may not have the same access to facilities and quality learning as Bloomfield Hills may have or Saline may have. I think every child, no matter where he or she lives, must have a good quality of education.
We need to focus on resources, we need to look at the testing that we do. We look at how we evaluate our teachers and look at how we pay our teachers.
BD: Do you support free universal pre-Kindergarten? Parts of Detroit are considered a childcare desert in terms of people being able to access affordable childcare in their area. Without this, parents are kept out of the workforce and kids don’t get that headstart they need to succeed in school.
ST: Oh absolutely. I’m absolutely in favor of universal pre-K. All education should be – you know, people should not be coming out of colleges with $70,000 in loans. We need to make an investment in the people.
BD: In Congress, are you interested in seeking a position on the House Appropriations Committee to help direct federal dollars to Detroit and be part of discussions on budget allocations?
ST: Yes. I currently serve on the general appropriations in the state House. I am a member of the Health and Human Services appropriation. I’m also on the committee of school aid and the Department of Education and I’m also on the school committee for Great Lakes, Energy and Environment.
That’s the thing I chose, even as a freshman. And I understand freshmen Congressman may not get that, but I’m going to fight for that and make a case to the leaders. I come with a business background, a financial background and I also come with appropriations experience.
BD: Detroit is trying to redevelop old commercial sites and get them put into better use, things like General Motors’ Factory Zero facility. Do you plan to be a partner with these efforts in Congress? People see Detroit as possibly being a capital city for electric vehicles. Is that a goal of yours, to build on that momentum?
ST: Absolutely. I understand starting business and growing business, that’s what I’ve done all my life. Many members (of Congress) never created a job, other than their own. I understand starting from nothing and building a business that had 500 employees. At the same time, having worked as a janitor, I never got paid enough and there were times that I slept in a car. I understand the struggles of the working class. Corporations need to pay their own fair share of taxes. They can’t get these breaks from taxpayer dollars. They need to treat their employees well. Their employees need a right to organize.
While we’re growing manufacturing, creating (opportunity) for corporations, people need to be taken care of. The working class needs to be supported and there needs to be fairness and proper compensation. I understand both sides. We want to make sure that we have laws in place that inhibit or prohibit corporations from taking advantage of the working class.
BD: Where do you stand on Mayor Duggan’s challenge of the 2020 census figures? Certainly it could help to have advocates in Washington. What do you make of his feeling that the census count was inaccurate?
ST: I will work with the mayor on that issue. Our community needs to be properly represented, because a lot of federal dollars depend on counting (Detroit’s population) appropriately.
BD: What are you proud of getting accomplished during your short time in the state Legislature?
ST: One of my bills which passed in both houses and signed by the governor into law was about additional money for contamination cleanup. I continued that fight when the so-called ‘bottle bill,’ the question was whether that extra money from bottle returns would have gone for environmental cleanup. There was large support to give that money to distributors, and I objected to that. We have 24,000 contaminated sites and as a scientist, as a chemist, I understand the danger to our drinking water.
Not a lot of lawmakers can say this, but I did not miss a single vote. I did not miss a single committee meeting, not a single House session. My work ethic is I go there and show up. I’m there, protecting people. I’m accessible to my community and my constituents.
BD: People in Detroit are worried about pollution from abandoned industrial sites. What do you think needs to happen at the federal level? Can you bring in more resources from the EPA to clean up these sites?
ST: We need to hold the polluters accountable. We can’t let them go. These sites need to be clean. The question is who pays for it? I would like the polluters held responsible. The cumulative effect of all that exposure needs to be considered. Often they’re located in low-income areas and in Southwest Detroit people have suffered, children have suffered. We have higher cases of ill effects on health. That environmental racism needs to be addressed.
BD: What other policy priorities do you have?
ST: Health care. We are the only developed nation leaving millions of people out of health care coverage. I believe healthcare is a fundamental human right.
No one should be worried that a major medical crisis will put them in bankruptcy. We pay more for prescription medicine than anybody else in the world and that needs to be addressed. The profiteering by pharmaceutical companies needs to be addressed.