Rep. Shri Thanedar wins Democratic primary in 13th District race for Congress

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

State Rep. Shri Thanedar won the Democratic primary for the open seat representing most of Detroit, where the issue has been raised of what kind of minority candidate should represent the predominantly Black city.

In the 13th Congressional District, Thanedar was leading with 28%, followed by state Sen. Adam Hollier with 24% and Focus: HOPE CEO and attorney Portia Roberson with 17%, with 99% of votes counted. The Associated Press called the race shortly before 11 a.m.

John Conyers III, son of the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., followed with 8.6% and former state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo with 8.2%.

The other candidates include Detroit lawyer and educator Michael Griffie, former Detroit City Council member Sharon McPhail, community activist Sam Riddle, and businesswoman Lorrie Rutledge.

Thanedar, an Indian immigrant and the only non-Black candidate on the ballot, committed over $5 million of his wealth to his campaign. Thanedar declared victory early Wednesday.

"This race was not about me. Michigan's 13th Congressional district is one of the poorest in the country, and I will fight for economic and racial justice in Congress," Thanedar said in a Wednesday statement.

"We must continue the fight against the special interests that seek to divide us and prevent us from achieving the basic rights that we all deserve. We have a lot of work in front of us, and you can count on me to continue fighting for our communities."

The 13th District seat is open because Michigan's only African American in Congress, Democratic U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, is retiring at the end of her term. The Democratic stronghold in the 13th is viewed as the best opportunity to elect another Black representative.

The district covers most of Detroit, Hamtramck, the Grosse Pointes and Downriver communities.

The winner of Tuesday's primary effectively wins the seat since the Republican challenger rarely has a chance in Detroit and surrounding suburbs.

Thanedar said Hollier called and congratulated him.

"I gave this race everything I had, and we all worked hard for the causes we believe in – all gas and no brakes since launching our campaign in January," Hollier said in a statement.

"I have met some amazing people out on the campaign trail — and look forward to making positive change in Metro Detroit for years to come. Today it really hurts, but now we must come together and make sure Democrats win up and down the ballot in November."

Thanedar has been inundating the TV airwaves with ads. Thanedar spent part of his personal fortune to win the congressional seat, just as he did in 2018, when he finished third statewide in the Democratic race for governor, though he got the most votes in Detroit. 

The Wayne County district is currently represented by Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib. However, after Michigan's political maps were redrawn, Tlaib opted to run in the 12th District after Lawrence announced her retirement.

Detroit residents are concerned there may not be an African American representative in Congress from Michigan and view the 13th District as the best opportunity to make it happen, said Greg Bowens, a Metro Detroit political consultant.

But the large field of candidate could divide the Black vote and allow Thanedar to win by a slim margin, Bowens said. 

"To see a train coming towards you and to stay on the tracks instead of getting out of the way invites disaster," Bowens said about the crowded field. "It's a sticky wicket. The more folks we have in the race, the more it's going to be split up, and I think a lot of people are surprised that more haven't dropped out."

In Detroit's northeast side Tuesday, Rose Golden said she voted for Hollier because she was impressed with his previous work in the Legislature.

“The new redistricting was a concern and we need someone to represent all of us," said Golden, 64, from Detroit’s Osborn neighborhood. "I heard him speak at an event and at Fellowship Church and even wanted to volunteer with his campaign."

Edyth Friley, who serves as president of the downtown Town Square Cooperative, volunteered Monday at the ATF Center to campaign for Roberson, who she watched grow up across the street.

“To see that young girl from across the street become the CEO of Focus HOPE was like fate coming to fruition,” said Friley, 75, a retired Detroit teacher of 32 years. “I’ve voted in every election all of my life and I know excellence when I see it. I know her background and the other candidates. There’s no one else that can help the foolishness of my country that’s happening today and save Democracy. There is no other choice.”

Influx of funds

Spending by outside groups in the 13th District primary has topped $6.5 million and focused on boosting Hollier and criticizing Thanedar, with $4.17 million coming from a super PAC tied to the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, $1 million from Protect Our Future PAC, $759,600 from the veterans group VoteVets and $411,880 from Web3 Forward, which represents interests of the cryptocurrency.

AIPAC’s super PAC, United Democracy Project, told Jewish Insider that Thanedar had sponsored “very odious” legislation in the state Legislature. One resolution he co-sponsored last year referred to Israel as an “apartheid” state and called on Congress to end funding for the Israeli military.

Protect Our Future, which is largely funded by leaders of the crypto exchange FTX, said this week that it’s supporting Hollier and other candidates around the country because they think they will be “champions” for pandemic prevention in the next Congress.

“Adam Hollier is committed to safeguarding our nation from future pandemics so that we never again face the devastation that Covid has wrought in communities across the U.S. Michigan's 13th District was among the hardest-hit early in the pandemic, and Adam Hollier has promised to ensure that resources are available for medical professionals and that free testing and vaccinations remain available to all,” PAC spokesman Mike Levine said by email.

The second-highest fundraiser last quarter was Roberson, with about $170,840 in receipts and $141,612 in cash reserves.

But the financial advantage still lies with Thanedar, who gave his campaign $3 million more in June for a total $5.17 million he’s put into the race. Thanedar went into July with $2.18 million cash on hand.

Candidates experience

Hollier, first elected in 2018, is in his first term in the Legislature, where he serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee. His entire Senate district lies within the new 13th District.

Hollier, 36, has held governmental staff roles for state senators, shepherded the creation of Detroit's Public Lighting Authority and served as a volunteer firefighter before enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserve.

"I’m fighting to get every family access to fair mortgages and appraisals, regardless of race. We must also provide rental assistance to families who need it, while ensuring housing is safe," said Hollier, who lives in Detroit's North End neighborhood. "When I get to Congress, I will work to make sure that everyone who wants to buy a home can do just that."

His priorities are also affordable health and child care, voting rights and improving infrastructure, including transportation. Hollier said he's committed to ensuring continued access to abortions and "ensuring that my 4-year-old daughter does not grow up with less rights and body agency than her mother or grandmother." More on his website.

Hollier was endorsed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the Detroit Regional Chamber, state Sen. Erika Geiss of Taylor, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and multiple unions including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 25; United Food and Commercial Workers; Service Employees International Union; and Unite Here! Local 24.

Critics attacked in TV ads Hollier's stance on Line 5 in which he voted to construct a tunnel to contain the oil pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinacit, arguing he was opposing the position of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

Hollier led the field in fundraising in the first quarter of the year and says he's raised over $900,000 total when including second-quarter receipts through June 30, which is believed to be a record fundraising haul for a first-time candidate running to represent Detroit. 

Roberson, 52, is the CEO of Focus: HOPE, a nonprofit civil and human rights organization and is also chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. She formerly served as a Wayne County assistant prosecutor. In 2009, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the office of intergovernmental and public liaison for the U.S. Department of Justice. She later returned to Detroit to lead the White House initiative Strong Cities, Strong Communities, where she partnered with municipal leaders to secure millions in federal funding. 

In 2013, then-Mayor Dave Bing appointed Roberson to serve as corporation counsel, the city's top lawyer. Bing has endorsed her.

Roberson supports universal health care, criminal justice reform, a ban on assault rifles, elimination of policies that shield police officers who violate their oath from prosecution, and gender equity for women for equal pay and reproductive rights.

Roberson has been endorsed by Lawrence, EMILY's List, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and the American Federation of Teachers.

On Monday, Roberson was writing final thank you cards and making last-minute phone calls to her supporters out of her campaign site at the AFT Center on Jefferson Ave. Overall, she said she’s not as nervous as she should be.

“Representation matters, especially for Black women. There are only 25 of us in Congress out of 535 in the House and Senate,” she said. “There are important issues that are going to impact all people, women in particular that are on the table right now and I hope people think about that when they go to vote.”

Thanedar, who represents Michigan's 3rd District across northeast Detroit, said he's running for Congress because he knows what it's like to struggle growing up in poverty. 

The entrepreneur and chemist grew up in Belgaum, India, and worked odd jobs to support his family of eight. He immigrated to the United States in 1979 to pursue a doctorate at the University of Akron and became a citizen in 1988.

Thanedar's chemical laboratory companies made him a millionaire before he made an unsuccessful run for governor of Michigan in 2018, pledging not to accept any corporate political action committee donations. So far, he's contributed more than $5 million toward his congressional campaign.

As a state representative, he touts bringing in funding for Detroit public schools, literacy programs and co-sponsoring a $1.5 billion Racial Equality and Reparations Fund Act.

Thanedar, 67, believes his science background will allow him to craft legislation on climate change. Education funding is the key to fighting poverty, he said, adding that he supports making community colleges and early education tuition-free.

Thanedar said bankrolling his candidacy gives him independence. He's calling for campaign finance reform because "money is corrupting our politics." 

As the only non-Black candidate in the race, Thanedar said he agrees there should be proper representation for the district. "But I do believe that this congressional seat belongs to the people of the district, and the people who should decide who they want."

Griffie is a civil rights lawyer, a former Detroit principal and a former legislative lobbyist. In Congress, he'd like to focus on reducing classroom sizes by hiring more teachers, expanding funding for historically Black colleges and universities, expanding access to trade schools, apprenticeships and college loan forgiveness for working in the public sector.

Griffie, 39, has been endorsed by state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit; the Rev. Horace Sheffield; former State Supreme Court Justice Kurt Wilder; and Robert Bury, former CEO of Detroit Historical Society. 

Gay-Dagnogo, 55, is an at-large member of the Detroit school board who got her start in public service as a legislative aide for several council members. Gay-Dagnogo's top priorities are reproductive rights, inflation, gun violence, jobs, Medicare and Social Security. She said voters should choose her because she can be trusted to represent the priorities of her constituents.

McPhail, 74, has experience as chief administrative officer of Detroit Community Schools, charter schools on the city's west side. She previously served as an at-large City Council member and general counsel under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.  McPhail said in online advertisements she's running because "I'm tired of excuses," from politicians.

Conyers III, a son of the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., is running for his father's old seat for a second time. He was endorsed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. He said he backs police reform legislation in Congress, including a bill to end no-knock warrants by police. More on his website.

Riddle, 75, is political director of the Michigan National Action Network.

Rutledge, 62, is a businesswoman from Detroit's northwest side.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_