Thanedar plots future political run in Detroit

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar acknowledges supporters during an informal get-together at the Horace L. Sheffield Jr. Center in Detroit, Michigan on August 4, 2018.

Detroit — Former gubernatorial hopeful Shri Thanedar is gearing up for his next political fight even as he continues to fight business fraud allegations in court.

The wealthy scientist and businessman recently announced he’s moving to Detroit “as he considers another political run” in the state's largest city, where he bested Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the 2018 Democratic primary she won statewide.

Thanedar’s pending move to the historic Palmer Woods neighborhood could set up a high-stakes — and high-cost — 2021 campaign against Mayor Mike Duggan, who cruised to re-election in 2017 by defeating then-state Sen. Coleman A. Young II.

But Thanedar told The Detroit News he is also considering a run for the state House or other local offices. He said he “is not hung up on big positions” despite his unsuccessful bid for governor as a political novice.

“I will try to help people in whatever position I can succeed,” the 64-year-old Ann Arbor area businessman said. “But the goal is to begin to work with the community and make a difference.”

Thanedar and his wife last month put their Pittsfield Township home up for sale at a list price of $1.15 million.  Local records show they purchased the five-bedroom, six-bathroom, 5,077-square-foot home for $804,115 in 2014.

They now have an offer on a Palmer Woods home and hope to close by the middle of July, Thanedar said.

"What comes to my mind is, how can we create opportunities here?" Thanedar said in a phone interview after pulling his car over near Gratiot and Seven Mile to take the call.

"There a lot of land. There's a lot of empty buildings, and as an entrepreneur and a business person, that makes me wonder, how we can bring businesses here? How can we bring people to this area so that businesses can flourish?"

The move will help Thanedar meet Detroit residency requirements for various political offices he might seek. 

But it will also bring him closer to the U.S. District Court in Detroit, where he is set to go to trial July 30 in a lawsuit alleging he inflated the value of his former business ahead of a 2016 sale that netted him roughly $20 million.

Legal battle

Avomeen Holdings sued Thanedar in 2017, alleging he made “fraudulent and misleading” claims about an Ann-Arbor based chemical testing company he sold a controlling stake of the prior year.

In recent filings, plaintiff attorneys contend he inflated the price of Avomeen Analytical Services to help finance his gubernatorial campaign, noting he ended up pumping more than $10 million of his own money into the race.

The campaign “would not have been possible absent the successful (and lucrative) closing of the Avomeen transaction that is in dispute in this litigation,” attorney Jon R. Buck argued.

Thanedar is asking federal Judge Gershwin Drain to exclude any evidence of his personal wealth from the trial, along with “unflattering” new stories published during his gubernatorial campaign.

Many of those news stories are “based on false rumor and innuendo all irrelevant to the case,” his attorney Marc L. Newsman argued in a recent filing.

Attorneys for the company that purchased Thanedar’s firm are fighting his motions to exclude evidence but acknowledge that some publicly available information about him is not relevant to the case.

“Plaintiff does not intend to present to the Jury, for example, the Human Society Legislative Fund’s condemnation of Shri Thanedar’s alleged neglect of animals in connection with one of his prior businesses,” they wrote.

But attorneys from the high-powered Perkins Coie law firm argued Thanedar’s attempt to exclude publicly available information about himself is “overbroad” and “inappropriate” because he “has held, and holds, himself out as a successful businessman.”

As The Detroit News reported in 2018, Thanedar’s business record was marked by triumphs and tribulations. He made and mostly lost his first fortune in Missouri before his 2010 move to Michigan, where he founded Avomeen and built it into a successful business.

Thanedar said Friday he is confident he’ll win the case and has “not done anything wrong.”

He described the lawsuit as a typical move by a private equity firm, suggesting companies often sue over sales to try to “get more money” out of the deal.

Eye on Detroit

Duggan has presided over economic gains and proven a strong campaigner, but Detroit political consultant Greg Bowens predicted the mayor may face serious challengers if he runs for re-election in 2021.  

Thanedar could tap into local frustrations over issues like a lack of contracts for minority-owned businesses, Bowens said, but he would have an easier path to election if he ran for a state House or City Council seat.

“The guy’s got some cojones in running for governor and spending money the way he did to make that happen,” Bowens said, noting Thanedar warmed up to the community last year by hiring prominent locals to work on his campaign.  

“We saw that he’s not afraid to go where the black folks are, and to shake hands and to be there," the consultant added. "So given his name recognition, his willingness to spend money and to go where you need to go to get the votes, he has probably a better than average chance for a state House seat.”

Thanedar spoke with The News after a lunch with state Rep. Wendell Byrd, a 3rd District Democrat who represents the Palmer Woods area and cannot seek re-election in 2020 under Michigan term limit rules.

“It was very helpful to sit down with him and understand the issues,” Thanedar said, noting a senior population in the area and concerns about safety, blight and access to recreation centers.

A native of India, Thanedar said he grew up poor and knows poverty, giving him a personal connection to voters in Detroit, which remains the poorest big city in the nation.

“I made a lot, and I had success, but it didn’t change who I am — I understand people’s struggles,” he said, noting his move will bring him into a city he is already visiting three or four times a week.

“I was really very moved and overwhelmed by the support I got in the city of Detroit (in the 2018 election), and I want to give back.”

Thanedar finished third in the Democratic gubernatorial primary with 18% of the statewide vote. But after blanketing the city with billboards and flooding the airwaves with ads, he won Detroit with 35,356 votes, topping Whitmer (33,068) and former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed (24,614).

By comparison, Duggan got 72,450 votes from Detroiters in 2017 as he won re-election with 72% of the vote.

twitter: @jonathanoosting