A2 to Lansing?
Democrat Shri Thanedar aims to be the second Ann Arborite in a row elected governor.
From the April, 2018 issue
Like current Republican governor Rick Snyder, Thanedar is a businessman with no previous government experience. And, like Snyder, he's prepared to spend $6 million of his own money on his campaign.
"That's where the similarities end," says Thanedar, sitting in his sparsely furnished storefront office in a strip mall on South State. "The $6 million Snyder put in was pocket change for him. For me it was a significant part of my net worth and a significant part of my retirement savings."
From a poor family in India, Thanedar went to college there then came to America and earned a doctorate in chemistry. He became a citizen in 1988, and joined a small chemical services company in 1990 that he later purchased.
A reporter observes that he made a lot of money--twice. "Yes," he agrees happily, "but I only lost it once!"
"I was a full-service drug development arm for people developing new medicine," he explains. "The bulk of my customers were small companies. And the mistake that I did was I did not diversify: eighty percent of my business came from little companies." In the Great Recession, "my revenues crashed when those little companies went belly up.
"I had borrowed $24 million from the bank, and everything was collateralized," he continues ruefully. "Before they took my home in St. Louis, my wife and I took our personal belongings, put them in a Budget rental truck, and started [the] ten-hour drive to Ann Arbor," where he'd done a postdoc in the 1980s.
"We rented a small apartment and found a little commercial space that had been a lab and gone out of business in the recession. We rented the space and started a [chemical testing] business, and [in] six years it grew from one employee to about fifty employees. Revenues went to about twelve million.
"I was fifty-five years old when I came to Ann Arbor," says Thanedar. He's now sixty-two, and looks much younger. "The business is now
worth thirty million," he says. "I can keep going, but what is the point? I achieved my American dream, and I wanted to give back.
"So I sold sixty percent of the business to a private equity [firm] and took $1.5 million and gave it to my fifty employees, and I took another six million and put it into this campaign." Last year he declared his candidacy.
He's happier with the sale than the buyer, High Street Capital--they're suing him, charging that he inflated the company's value. He says High Street panicked during a temporary slump, "and I was the scapegoat." He predicts that he'll prevail when the case goes to trial next year--"if they don't drop it before that."
Like Snyder, Thanedar built name recognition early with TV ads. A February EPIC-MRA poll he commissioned showed him trailing the presumptive favorite, former state senator Gretchen Whitmer, 24 percent to 34 percent. Whitmer held steady in a March MIRS News-Target Insyght poll while he slipped to 20 percent, but he still frames it as "a two-person race between Whitmer and me. And we couldn't be more different ... She got a lot of money from companies. I'm not going to take a single penny from corporations."
He's counting on his proposals on education and infrastructure to win over Democratic voters: he wants to invest $500 million "of new revenue into career and technical education and job-training programs." Asked where the money would come from, he says: "Our corporations and our ultra-rich are not paying their fair share ... I want to go from the flat [state income] tax of 4.25 percent to a graduated tax based on people's income. The graduated tax will bring in somewhere around $800 million to $1.5 billion of additional revenue."
He'd also go to the voters, asking for "a bond of up to one billion to pay for roads, bridges, transit, and infrastructure repair," including rural broadband service. He'd move to "ban for-profit charter school operators statewide." And he'd support legalizing recreational use of marijuana--he figures that would be good for another $125 million in new revenue that he'd split fifty-fifty into infrastructure and education.
How would he get such progressive programs through the Republican-controlled legislature? "If I win by ten points, then there's a good chance the Democrats will win the House," he says. "And with the House on my side, I can negotiate--and I'm a good negotiator."
[Originally published in April, 2018.]
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