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Lansing — Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar said Thursday it is not “a crime” to be a “political junkie” after 2016 footage surfaced of him attending a campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

The video footage even showed him clapping and seeking out a photo with the U.S. senator from Florida.

The Ann Arbor businessman said he attended over a dozen political rallies during the last presidential cycle, and his campaign released an image of Thanedar on stage at a separate rally for Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won Michigan’s Democratic primary.

The Intercept, an "adversarial" online news outlet, first published a story about Thanedar’s appearance at the Rubio rally on Thursday morning, linking it to ongoing questions over his claim to be the most “progressive” candidate in the Democratic primary.

Two Michigan political consultants previously told the Intercept that Thanedar did not know if he would run as a Democrat or Republican when he first approached them about organizing a campaign.

“While the Intercept and campaigns peddling this trash want to spend their time disparaging an immigrant Democrat, we're going to keep talking about the issues that actually matter to working families,” Thanedar said in a statement.

“Like a lot of other people — Democrat, Republican and Independent — I'm an immigrant who came to this country with nothing and worked hard to become a scientist and start a successful business. I'm used to being attacked, marginalized and looked down on like a lot of other Michiganders.”

Thanedar makes at least three brief appearances in C-SPAN footage of Rubio’s rally in Ames, Iowa, on Jan. 30 -- two days before the state’s presidential caucuses.

In one clip, Thanedar is seen clapping after Rubio told the crowd that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was “not qualified” to be president and “cannot be the commander in chief of the United States.”

In another, Thanedar is seen approaching Rubio after his stump speech and asking for a picture with the candidate.

“I’m an immigrant like your father,” Thanedar, who is a native of India, told Rubio. “I started my own business and created many jobs.”

Rubio, the son and grandson of Cuban immigrants, shared his family story during his Iowa campaign rally. He Sanders, who Thanedar said he voted for in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary.

“If Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders wins, all the damage Barack Obama has one to America becomes permanent,” Rubio said at one point.

Democratic political consultant Joe DiSano called the video footage “vindicating” after online speculation over the veracity of his previous claim that Thanedar appeared to have been “enamored” by Rubio in 2016.

When Thanedar approached him about setting up a gubernatorial campaign in 2017, he had mentioned that… in 2016 his wife was in India for a month and that coincided with the Iowa caucuses, so he went and visited a bunch of rallies,” DiSano said Thursday. “He thought Marco Rubio was particularly impressive.”

DiSano and Adrian Hemond, a partner at Grassroots Midwest consulting firm, have both said Thanedar told them he was interested in a campaign but did not tell them whether he wanted to run for governor as a Democrat or Republican.

“I explained to him I was a Democrat and could only work with a Democratic candidate,” DiSano said. “He understood that but was still undecided.”

DiSano recalls giving Thanedar a list of roughly 60 questions that a candidate for governor would have to answer, which he said may have contributed to his decision to run as a Democrat.

The progressive depicted in Thanedar’s television ads “is the same person, and some of that Shri may have existed back in 2017,” DiSano said. “But I do think you saw someone who saw opportunity and tried to match the moment.”

As a political donor, state and federal records show Thanedar has primarily given to Democrats, including $15,000 to the Obama Victory Fund in 2012. But four years earlier, he donated $2,300 each to the primary campaigns of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Thanedar is competing for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, who has locked up endorsements from most major labor unions, and former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed of Shelby Township.

Thanedar was set to kick off a “No B.S. Listing Tour” Thursday in Saginaw and Flint, where he was expected to partner with local leaders to provide residents with 14,000 bottles of water.

Thanedar has pumped nearly $6 million of his own money into his campaign and is touting a progressive platform, which includes a ban on for-profit charter schools, universal health care and marijuana legalization.

But the Michigan Democratic Party Progressive Caucus has endorsed El-Sayed in the race.

“Shri can buy his own name recognition, and I think that is why there are some progressives that are getting behind him,” caucus chair Kelly Collison said Thursday. “But I think if anybody really looked deeper into the situation and the candidate, they’d realize that of all the candidates running, Shri is the least progressive.”

Recent public opinion polls show Thanedar running neck and neck with Whitmer, who has not yet spent any money on television ads but is expected to go on air ahead of the Aug. 7 primary.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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