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Thanedar spends $439K in Detroit state House primary, while Whitsett fights revolt

An Indian-American millionaire and a first-term incumbent under fire from her party for praising President Donald Trump are among the high-profile Democrats battling in the Aug. 4 primary election for more than a dozen contested Wayne County state House seats. 

In House District 3, former gubernatorial hopeful Shri Thanedar is trying to cash in on his high name familiarity after he moved from Ann Arbor to Detroit after losing the 2018 gubernatorial primary.  His campaign two years ago featured a heavy dose of "Shri for We" television ads.

In House District 9, Democratic Party leaders are challenging state Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, in part for her occasional votes with House Republican lawmakers and are backing Detroit Action housing organizer Roslyn Ogburn.

Thanedar, the scientist and businessman, has raised a record-breaking $438,620, primarily from his own wealth, in the state House primary against six other opponents. He spent almost $10 million of his own fortune to finish third behind Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El Sayed in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, but he won the most votes in Detroit.

State representative candidate Shri Thanedar uses a bull horn at Seven Mile and Mound road to reach voters on Friday, July 24, 2020.

Among Thanedar's primary adversaries are union-backed Al Williams and student China Cochran — who finished second against term-limited Democratic state Rep. Wendell Byrd in 2016 and 2018, respectively. A criminal justice reform advocate, teacher and Lyft driver also are running. 

The district covers a slice of northern Detroit that borders Eight Mile and runs over to the east side.

Thanedar and Williams appear to be the leading candidates in the race based on the millionaire's money and the union-backed hopeful's traditional background, said Joe DiSano, a Democratic consultant at Lansing-based DiSano Strategies. 

Thanedar's spending already exceeds that of the most expensive state House primary in 2014 — $333,000 spent in a two-candidate Macomb County state House district centered around Shelby Township. 

"The sheer spectacle of that is something to be in awe of," DiSano said, adding that he expects Williams or Thanedar to win. "...When all things are being equal, I'm taking the cold hard cash that translates into action on the street as opposed to connections that may or may not translate into votes."

Williams' strong union ties "could be a threat," said longtime Michigan political observer Bill Ballenger, a Republican former lawmaker. Even so, "none of these people running in that race are successful political figures so far," he added. 

How fight shapes up

Thanedar, 65, moved to Detroit last July and filed paperwork for the office in August. Around the same time, he reached an undisclosed settlement in a federal business fraud lawsuit alleging he inflated the value of a company he sold in 2016.

Thanedar told The Detroit News that he began campaigning last fall prior to the pandemic and has spent time during the outbreak passing out masks, hand sanitizer and door knockers. 

Thanedar wants to tackle a long list of challenges plaguing his district, including blight, water shutoffs, foreclosures, crime and unemployment. 

"I'm seeing people have no hope. Conditions are really bad and nothing has changed in years. People are disenfranchised," he said. 

"I've slept and ate on the floor, with no running water," Thanedar said, referring to his upbringing in India. "I understand the pain of poverty."

Al Williams, who finished second against term-limited state Rep. Wendell Byrd in 2016, is vying to represent Michigan's 3rd District in the state House.

Williams, 40, has spent two decades working in the district and held roles including statewide membership director for the Michigan Democratic Party and as an organizer for the Detroit branch of the NAACP. 

He also has worked as a chief of staff to former state Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, and community liaison and legislative aide for the Wayne County Commission. Williams also touts support and guidance from the late state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, who represented state House District 4. 

"I've earned my stripes. I've marched. I've organized," said Williams, who lives in the city's University District. "Right now, we need more than just legislators in Lansing. We need leaders from Detroit."

Other contenders include John Cromer, a 54-year-old convicted felon who formerly sought a vacated seat on Detroit's City Council. He has built his campaign around criminal justice reform and fair hiring practices for returning citizens. 

John Cromer, a convicted felon who formerly sought a vacated seat on Detroit's City Council, is in the Democratic race for Michigan's 3rd District

Cromer served 13 years in prison on a retail fraud conviction after stealing a pair of gym shoes and set of bed sheets, he said. 

"People are denied employment and housing based on their criminal records," he said. "I'm closest to social and economic injustices. I live them and can articulate them."

China Cochran, 41, is a Detroit native who resides in the University District and is pursuing a doctoral degree in urban education at Eastern Michigan University. She has reported raising $25,456, including $1,000 from Emily's List, an influential political action committee that supports Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights. The remaining candidates have yet to file a fundraising report. 

Cochran is running on a platform of service to the people, chiefly women and children. Her goals include ensuring that Detroiters have access to clean drinking water, affordable health care and pandemic recovery benefits. 

China Cochran, 41, is running for the 3rd District seat for the second time after incumbent state Rep. Wendell Byrd defeated her in the 2018 Democratic primary.

“Our neighborhoods are crumbling, our schools are failing, and it's time for someone to step up and bring attention to those issues and work hard to solve those issues," Cochran said. 

Political newcomers Keith McMurtry, a high school social studies teacher for the Detroit school district, and Art Tyus, a part-time computer repair technician and Lyft driver, are also vying for the seat. 

McMurtry, 52, said one of his main goals is to “change how we fund and treat our students here in Michigan,” basing it off their needs instead of their zip code, he said.

Tyus, 56, is focused on quality water and improving the city's homicide closure rate. He said he was motivated to run because "a lot of mistreatment was happening to the residents of Detroit." 

Art Tyus, 56, is among the Democrats running to represent Michigan's 3rd District  in the state House

Democrats Steven Lett and Donavan McKinney could not be reached for comment. 

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Anita Vinson of Detroit in the fall election. 

District 9 donnybrook

In District 9, Whitsett has upset Democrats by praising Trump for promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine in battling the coronavirus. She was invited to the White House in mid-April, where she talked about how her doctor's prescription for the anti-malaria drug helped her recover from being infected by the virus.  

The 13th Congressional District Democratic Party has since censured her and backed Detroit Action housing organizer Roslyn Ogburn. 

Rep. Karen Whitsett

Ogburn also boasts endorsements from former presidential hopefuls U.S. Sens Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as well as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit. But the endorsements, DiSano warned, "don't equal votes."

The party controversy may help Whitsett, DiSano said.  

"It's made her more attractive to voters," he said. "People like a little bit of flash and controversy in their candidates."

Whitsett declined to talk with The News, saying "I have a tight door-knocking schedule, so I don't have time."

Whitsett met with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence during an April 14 meeting of COVID-19 survivors, where she credited hydroxychloroquine for saving her life. The Detroit Democratic lawmakers thanked the Republican president "for everything that you have done." 

Whitsett's actions mean that she has "chosen to be a stand-alone Democrat with the goals of a Republican," 13th Congressional District Democratic Party leader Jonathan Kinloch said. Whitsett told The News at the time she would not engage in "pettiness politics" because she is busy working for the district which covers a portion of Detroit and Dearborn.  

Ogburn, a longtime community organizer and block club president, said there's been a lack of action by Whitsett. She argued that "economic strains, restrictions and barriers" are the top issues preventing families in the district from thriving. 

The 43-year-old fourth-generation Detroiter and mother of five said her experience sets her apart and she wants to elevate the fight for affordable water, green infrastructure and housing stability. 

Detroit Action housing organizer Roslyn Ogburn challenging incumbent Karen Whitsett in the race to represent the state's 9th House District

"My whole thing is to make sure we have the things we need as residents to have a hopeful future," said Ogburn, who argues Whitsett has "not supported her district."

Democratic hopefuls Marc Cummings and Nicole Elcock could not be reached for comment.

James Stephens, 72, is running unopposed as a Republican in the primary. He has sought office every election year since 2012, only taking about 5% of the vote in the 2018 race. He says he’s “running only to do a favor to the Republican party.”

In other Wayne County state House races, Ballenger said, there are open seats with multiple candidates. They all are held by Democrats.

"When you get right down to it, the Democrats are in the minority now" in the state House, he said. "They might win the majority in November and things might change."

2nd House District: Taylor Harrell of Detroit, a nonprofit political director is challenging state Rep. Joe Tate, D-Detroit, in a district that includes part of Detroit’s lower east side, Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe City and Grosse Pointe Farms.

4th House District: Thirteen Democrats are running to fill the seat of state Rep. Isaac Robinson, the 44-year-old Democratic Detroiter who died in March. One election is to decide who will serve the rest of his term following the November election and who will potentially serve a two-year term starting in January. Three of the more well-known candidates are Abraham Aiyash, who ran for 2nd District state senator and narrowly lost in 2018; Michele Oberholtzer, who got 16% of the vote in the state House Democratic primary in 2018; and Delorean Holmes, who’s received financial support from the Detroit Regional Chamber and former state Sen. Ian Conyers. The district includes Hamtramck and parts of Detroit.

7th House District: Seven Democrats are running to fill the seat of term-limited state Rep. LaTanya Garrett, D-Detroit. The hopefuls include Elene Robinson, who ran against Garrett in the 2018 primary and received 7% of the vote. Other contenders are: Nyda Bentley, Helena Scott, Anistia Thomas, Bernard Thompson, Cynthia L. Thornton and Lee Yancy. The district encompasses a portion of northwest Detroit and the city of Highland Park.

10th House District: There are eight Democrats competing to succeed state Rep. Leslie Love, the Detroit Democrat who is serving her final term. The candidates are Mary Cavanagh, Marcus A. Cummings, Kevin Lamont Harris, Brenda Hill, Steele P. Hughes, Tyson Kelley, Diajah Ruffin and Valli Smith. Kelley ran in 2018 race and received 4% of the vote. The district covers Redford Charter Township and a portion of northwest Detroit.

• 21st House District: Two Democratic candidates and five Republicans are seeking to fill the seat of term-limited Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton. Pagan has endorsed Democrat Ranjeev Puri of Canton, who works in business development for Fiat Chrysler. Ethan Petzold, a community organizer who also lives in Canton, is the other Democrat. The Republican candidates are Laurel Hess and Jim Nangle, both of Canton, as well as Harold Bullock, James Champman and Jessica Sohoza — all of Van Buren Township. 

cferretti@detroitnews.com