Dem rivals spar over eligibility in gov’s race

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Growing tension between Democratic gubernatorial rivals Shri Thanedar and Abdul El-Sayed came to a head Tuesday as each filed official challenges that could potentially keep the other off the ballot.

Thanedar, an Ann Arbor businessman who has poured millions of his own dollars into his campaign, asked the Michigan Bureau of Elections to determine whether El-Sayed is eligible to run for governor. Questions have been raised about his voter registration history in New York that the state of Michigan has so far declined to answer.

El-Sayed requested the Board of State Canvassers investigate hundreds of nominating petitions and signatures filed by Thanedar, alleging collection errors, signature issues and questions over the validity and genuineness of specific circulator certificates.

Thanedar told The Detroit News his challenge is not a personal attack against El-Sayed, with whom he has sparred in recent weeks, but argued a candidate with legal standing must “step up” to resolve lingering uncertainty over whether the former Detroit health department director is eligible for the election.

“I’m not trying to attack him personally, or I’m not attacking his candidacy as such,” Thanedar said. “All I want is justice. All I want is this issue to be resolved, whatever way it’s resolved. If he’s eligible, that’s fine. We need to know that.”

The eligibility challenge comes on the heels of a late January report from Bridge Magazine showing El-Sayed was registered to vote in New York from October 2012 through at least March 2015.

The Michigan Constitution requires any candidate for governor to be a registered elector in the state at least four years prior to the election. State records show El-Sayed, a Michigan native and former Detroit health department director, was continually registered to vote here since 2003 but had been placed on “cancellation countdown status” because of his New York registration.

El-Sayed campaign spokesman Adam Joseph said Tuesday that “Abdul is 100 percent eligible to be governor,” as he has long held. Joseph accused Thanedar of “using this manufactured controversy as a smokescreen” for “hapless and cruel abuses of both people and animals,” referring to recent reports that more than 100 dogs and monkeys were rescued in 2010 from a pharmaceutical testing lab Thanedar had owned prior to a court-ordered receivership.

Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, who entered the gubernatorial race as an early favorite for the Democratic nomination, has kept her distance from the eligibility debate and is not supporting the Thanedar challenge.

“Gretchen has been proud to share a debate stage with Abdul and believes this race should be decided by the voters of Michigan,” spokesman Zack Pohl said Tuesday.

Simmering dispute

El-Sayed in March asked a judge to compel the state to declare him an eligible candidate after Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon recommended he seek a determination to avoid Republican scrutiny should he advance to the general election. A Democratic Party spokesman on Tuesday declined comment on Thanedar’s challenge.

Attorneys for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson last month asked the Court of Claims to dismiss the El-Sayed eligibility case because no one had challenged his ballot status, calling any controversy “the creation of the media and the Michigan Democratic Party.”

In his challenge, Thanedar demanded a “thorough investigation” by the Bureau of Elections and asked for a swift determination. He requested that the review include El-Sayed’s residency status as listed in his Michigan tax returns from 2010 through 2015.

El-Sayed’s challenge to Thanedar signatures questions the validity of specific petition forms, including some with circulators whose signatures allegedly differed significantly across multiple forms.

Thanedar last week announced he had submitted 30,000 signatures to the state, twice the number required. But the El-Sayed campaign, which spent nearly a week reviewing his filing, said Thanedar filed closer to 26,000 signatures.

Of the 24,302 signatures reviewed by the campaign, “a majority contained one or more potentially disqualifying errors,” Joseph said. “Based on this, we are requesting the secretary of state to review whether Mr. Thanedar has successfully met the filing requirements to be on the ballot as dictated by Michigan election law.”

Thanedar also allegedly submitted at least one petition sheet for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sandy Pensler. GOP governor hopeful Brian Calley also filed Pensler petitions last month, a mistake a consultant attributed to a paid circulator who was collecting signatures for multiple candidates.

Thanedar said Tuesday evening he had not read the El-Sayed challenge, filed shortly before the state’s 5 p.m. deadline, but is “confident we have thousands more than the required 15,000” signatures.

Dispute heads to board

The Bureau of Elections will review any challenges and recommend action to the Board of State Canvassers, which is expected to meet this month to certify the official candidate list for the Aug. 7 primary election, said spokesman Fred Woodhams.

Johnson was represented in the El-Sayed eligibility case by lawyers from the office of Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican candidate for governor. The attorneys called El-Sayed’s request “premature” and said there is “no actual controversy” because the state has not taken any action to reject his candidacy filing.

“I’m saying, ‘Hey, Schuette’s lawyers, to the extent you need a controversy to do your job, here is my letter. If this is not controversy enough, then I don’t know what is,’ ” Thanedar said, suggesting Schuette could use the issue against El-Sayed if both manage to win their party primaries.

“There appears to be an effort to keep this thing hanging over Democrats’ head by not resolving this one way or another,” he said. “We all need closure in this situation, including the candidate.”

Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said the Department of Attorney General “erected an isolation wall” around assistant lawyers representing the secretary of state when El-Sayed first requested court intervention. “That means that those attorneys are working only for Ruth Johnson, and the attorney general is not supervising them on this case,” she said.

El-Sayed attorneys have said he maintained continuous residence in Michigan while studying and working as a professor at Columbia University in New York. He and his wife purchased an Ann Arbor condominium in 2008 and kept personal property there, along with a storage space at his in-law’s home in Shelby Township, according to a court filing.

El-Sayed rented apartments in New York from 2011 to 2015, his attorneys said, indicating he registered and voted in the 2012 presidential election in New York and paid income taxes in both states. He returned to Michigan full time the fall of 2015 after landing a job in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration.

Multiple challengers

Thanedar is one of four challengers asking the state to review El-Sayed’s eligibility. The three other challengers each describe themselves as interested voters.

DeWitt resident Pamela Nelson first asked the state to review El-Sayed’s eligibility on April 24. She supports Whitmer for governor but said Whitmer’s campaign asked her to withdraw her challenge because it could be “divisive.”

Nelson did not withdraw, saying Tuesday she wants to “find the truth.” But in her original filing, Nelson expressed hope that someone “with better standing” than her would step forward and ask for a similar review of El-Sayed’s eligibility.

“Shri was certainly not what I had in mind,” Nelson said, adding that she is concerned by reports that animals were “abandoned” at Thanedar’s old testing lab. “But I guess it may help move things along, because I can see how easily the people at the Secretary of State Office could discount me as just some little old lady in orthopedic shoes out in DeWitt.”

Thanedar has downplayed recent Huffington Post reports that he delayed the rescue of more than 100 animals at the facility he owned but had lost control of during receivership.

The millionaire entrepreneur founded a small business empire when he lived in Missouri but was forced to sell or shutter several businesses in and around 2010 before moving back to Michigan and finding new success.

Court records show Thanedar’s attorney initially objected to a proposal that the animals be relocated to animal “sanctuaries,” arguing they could be worth as much as $445,000 if sold.

“Essentially it is all a misreporting just to smear me,” Thanedar said Tuesday. “The bank proposed these animals be given away. My lawyer was saying fine, but there is a value. That was my lawyer’s attempt to get value for my other hard assets, the building and the business.”

Thanedar said El-Sayed’s campaign later used the Huffington Post stories in fundraising appeals to supporters, calling it “all a smear campaign by a distant third-place opponent” in the Democratic primary.

El-Sayed’s campaign has taken to calling Thanedar a “fake progressive” after political consultants told The Intercept he had privately discussed running for governor as an independent or Republican.

“My positions are no less progressive than anybody else, but I’ve lived a progressive life,” Thanedar said Tuesday. “When I talk about income inequality, I have experienced that. I came to this country with $20 in my pocket.”