Editor’s Note: The Michigan Daily does not officially endorse Shri Thanedar for governor. The Daily continues to reach out to other gubernatorial candidates for comments and interviews.
The Michigan Daily recently met with gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar to discuss his platform and goals for Michigan if elected as governor. An Indian-born entrepreneur, Thanedar is running against former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer and University of Michigan alum Abdul El-Sayed for the Democratic candidacy. The primary election is set to take place Aug. 7.
The Michigan Daily: Can you explain your platform a bit to us?
Thanedar: I am a very progressive candidate. I am not taking any money from corporate special-interest banks. My platform is fixing education, which is my number one goal. I want to be known as the education governor Michigan never had because education is important to me. These are not just talking points, I draw them from my experiences of life.
So when I talk about education and why education needs to be improved, education was the ladder for me to pull myself out of poverty. So when I talk about income inequalities and wanting to close that gap, I talk from experiences. I grew up in poverty. I didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from. When I came to the University of Akron, I wasn’t able to pay for my apartment so at times I slept in my car and I would sleep in a public building — a university public building.
Yeah, so when I talk about poverty, unlike the other candidates who have come from privilege, I talk from my own experiences. So that is who I am. Education is number one, (as well as) certainly infrastructure — improving the infrastructure. In this economy I want to make sure that we create a skilled workforce; my number one goal there is to create a skilled workforce. I also want to modify the tax structure. I am for a graduated income tax. One of the more unusual features of my tax structure is that I will have any family that makes $50,000 or less state income tax exempt; they will not pay income tax. I will raise the minimum wage to $15 and tie it to inflation.
In (regard to the) environment, I want to — and some of this may not be exactly in order — but, in environment, I want to make sure we shut down Enbridge Line 5. I want to stop corporations taking our water, especially Nestle that pays $200 a year and takes an unlimited amount of water. I want to stop that.
TMD: What would you say are the major differences between you and the other Democratic candidates? What sets you apart?
Thanedar: Look, anybody can have a platform and anybody can memorize a speech and some of us have better oratory skills than others. I am not a speaker; I’m a doer. I am a small-business owner. I’ve created jobs, so I am more of a person who executes things, who makes things happen.
So I think you could just look at every one of us and you could look at the three candidates that we have and you can look and see, “What’s Candidates One’s positions on health care” and “What’s Candidate Two’s?” and “What’s Candidate Three doing?” And what you find is that maybe 88 percent, maybe 90 percent of the positions are very similar, especially my position and the other progressive candidate, our positions are essentially identical, you know? So now what do we do as a voter? So my position — so maybe my position and (former state) Sen. Whitmer’s positions may be overlapping 80 percent of the time, so now the voters are saying, “How would you choose somebody?” Right?
You know I’m for single health care system, one of the other candidates is, but Sen. Whitmer is not. So that should be a single issue for a voter to decide, right? Corporate donations, you know, two of the three candidates would not take corporate donations. Sen. Whitmer does. That could be a deciding factor.
These are some of the differences, but in my mind there is more to it that often gets forgotten, and that is the person behind that, because anybody can memorize a speech and those who have good debating skills and oratory skills can deliver it. In fact, the two other candidates I think are better speakers than I am. I frankly think they have better oratory skills. But what I bring to the table — what I bring to this job, because this job is different, this job is not about three of us standing in a debate and just whoever wins, it’s not a debating contest. This is about a person we need who will transform this state. This is about transformation, this is about thinking out of the box, this is about finding solutions. This is about who has the courage and skills and leadership to break this pattern we have developed over time of pay for play. Who has that skill set to break that? Who has the skill set to lead? Who has a strong backbone to provide that leadership, that vision, putting together teams to make that happen?
That is where I think if you look at (the other candidates), if we have similarities on issues, we are night and day apart on who we are, what kind of people we are. What kind of life I have lived and what kind of life my opponents have lived; they both have come from privilege, they both don’t have the kind of accomplishments that I do.
I have to give you a quick example. You know, I came to the United States in 1979 as an immigrant. Sixteen dollars in my pocket – $20 but I had a couple of beers on the plane. So $16 in my pocket and I didn’t have anyone else here. I worked on my Ph.D at the University of Akron. I taught undergraduate labs and they gave me $300 per month as a teaching assistant and I would take $75 out of that and send it to home so my family could put food on the table. You know, 18 years of my life, I grew up in a home that had no running water. We had to go outside of our home to a municipal tap to collect drinking water.
So I have experiences that the others have not experienced. So when I go and walk in the neighborhoods in Detroit and when I see people living in poverty, I understand their life and it’s not just that I sympathize, I empathize with them because I’ve been in their shoes. That is where my compassion comes in. It’s hard to have that compassion living in a very comfortable home in Bloomfield Hills in a family income of what? $400,000? You never have to worry about college debt because your parents will pay for your education. It’s different thing.
I’m not criticizing, I’m glad that some of people have that kind of lifestyle and that privilege, but you have to live. I have lived this life and that’s where I come from, that’s where I come from and when I talk about progressive, it’s not because it’s fashionable to be progressive, I talk about progressive because I really want to overcome this inequality. I happen to be the only gubernatorial candidate — and this may be something that you do not know — that voted for Bernie Sanders. Did you know that? I am the only candidate! Sen. Whitmer was a big supporter of Hillary Clinton, which I am too; I like her. I voted for her in the general election. The other candidate did not vote for Bernie Sanders, he said the lines were too long. Just talking about progressive isn’t enough, you have to live a progressive life. You have to have the passion. So that’s who I am.
I got my Ph.D — and if you already know this I’m sorry to be repeating myself, I don’t mean to bore you — but they paid me for nine months as a teaching assistant and in the summer there are no labs to teach so they would just not pay us. How convenient, right? So then I had my car and I was paying $80 for my apartment and I had my rooming house. So I had a car that I had bought, no insurance, and in the summer I would sleep in that car. And when it got too hot, I had a key to the chemistry building because I was a teaching assistant so I had the key and I would go with my backpack and a sleeping bag so I would go upstairs in the seminar room and I would just sleep at night there. And then I got a little job at the cafeteria so would serve the tables and get free food. So that’s how I survived for three months during the summer. So that is kind of where I come from.
Then I got my Ph.D in ’82. I came to the University of Michigan at the Chemistry Building in the Diag and I was there as a post-doctoral scholar from ’82 to ’84. Then in ’84 I got a job outside of the state, in St. Louis. So I moved there and worked at chemistry for six years developing new products and then in 1990, I wanted to be on my own and I had no money. I had just bought a house for $99,000 so I had $10,000 that I had saved for the down payment. So once my young son Neil was two years old — my wife was a doctor, she was working in a residency program – and so I bought a little business for $75,000. You know, my dad didn’t give me millions of dollars. I started that business and I grew it from there.
TMD: How do you plan to work with others as a progressive candidate? Especially as a progressive candidate, how do you plan to work with others, specifically the Republican party, those who may not agree with you?
Thanedar: Good question. The other day when I was coming back from the debate in Grand Rapids, I was coming back and I met a person at a gas station. Eleven o’clock at night there’s a man standing by his car. I go introduce myself and I say, “I’m Shri, I’m a gubernatorial candidate,” and he says, “I don’t like your policies.” And of course I ask, “Why?” and he says, “I’m a free-marketer. I don’t like your socialist policies.” And I say, “What do you do?” and he says he gives talks and lectures and I say, “What do you talk about?” and he says, “I’m a victim. My wife died in 2017, hit by a drunk driver and I go and talk to victims of drunk driving.” And I told him about my story and about how my wife died and she had mental health issues and she died with a drug overdose. And I said, “Look, you are the kind of person I would like to sit across the table from and try to understand.”
Somebody who has completely opposite views from me, we start talking and I’m open to new ideas, that’s who I am. I have very thick skin. I don’t ever tweet at 3 a.m. in the morning. I can listen to different viewpoints. I have run small businesses. I have dealt with teams; I’ve worked with teams. I’m used to this kind of openness and bouncing off things and looking at both sides of the issue, so I think I’d work well. I think they would respect me because I’m not just talking when I talk about business, when I talk about finance, when I talk about jobs. I’ve come from experience and I think I will get the respect that the other candidates may not get because I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a business person. When I talk about finance, I understand finance. It’s not something I memorized from somewhere.
TMD: Something that is a hot topic right now is sexual assault, especially with the Nassar case, and you’ve talked a lot about transparency and sexual assault on campus to always be investigated by the police. How do you plan to address this issue, especially with instances like the Larry Nassar scandal, where many officials knew what had been going on but did not report?
Thanedar: We have to have some oversight over campus police. Campus police cannot just be reporting to the university because the universities then would have (complete control) – they’re almost acting like big corporation trying to protect their own interests and their interests. What appears to me in MSU’s case is that their interest is higher than that of the survivors’, which is absolutely wrong and then when they got in trouble they hired (MSU President John) Engler and I think the reason they hired him was because they can get some leverage. I never saw in MSU any kind of sincerity to address this issue. I saw no empathy there; all I saw was like a big corporation trying to protect its reputation. Our universities are more than a football program and they’re starting to act like corporations. Their role is to protect the students; their goal is to provide a good education to the students. They’ve become so institutionalized and that is the heart of this issue.
When the problems started happening they got ignored. No action was taken and then when some of this got out, the new prosecutor — the candidate for governor, Whitmer — she said, “Ah, when this news came out a few half of the people came out and complained about it,” as if it wasn’t a big deal, a very callous careless attitude was displayed and this is really present everywhere in institutions and something we really need to address.
Engler has to go. He was the wrong choice. It was totally insensitive. When Engler was governor and the sexual molestation of prison inmates was going on, Engler did not address that. So it was very, very insensitive of MSU to bring him on. This has to stop.
TMD: At U of M, we have struggled with preserving free speech and protecting students from harassment. The University is currently being sued for a Bias Response Team that potentially violates the Constitution. How do you protect students and provide equal opportunities while also preserving free speech?
Thanedar: I think our universities, like our government, needs to have a higher standard for openness and freedom of speech and I would lean more towards an openness than any kind of being protective. Again, I don’t know all the details about this particular case so I can’t really tell you my position on it, but in general we’ve got to be tolerant. That is what makes us great and when we try to protect and we try to shut down voices — even though we don’t like them and even though they may not be appropriate — I think our democracy and our freedom depends on us being open to all viewpoints. We need to handle instances like that with this in mind. It’s painful, but that’s the price we pay for democracy.
TMD: There’ve been recent studies showing that Michigan’s third-grade reading scores are incredibly low, just about dead last of the 50 states. What are some specific ideas you have in terms of improving education?
Thanedar: I was one of the first — well, the first — candidate to come up with a bigger plan for education. I have a grandson who’s eight months old, I see how young children are. We need to start that learning very early in their life so the three and four-year-olds should be able to get a good early education. I would heavily promote that. Start the education process early, start teaching the kids reading and math skills very early and expand kindergarten education. Really, early education I think is the key, but we certainly need to invest more money in K-12. We need to invest money into people instead of just zip codes.
TMD: We’re kind of switching gears here, but what impact do you think the legalization of marijuana would have on the state of Michigan?
Thanedar: I don’t really see anything. I’m fully supportive of that. It would provide revenue for the state, which we could put into schools and roads. I think it should just be regulated like alcohol. We should have an appropriate age limit. There should be a level set like alcohol and once it’s passed, I want to expunge records of those who have been held for small possession charges, the non-violent offenders. I would find and I would use my power as the governor to pardon some of those and expunge their records so they would not be held back from health care education, housing.
TMD: The Flint water crisis is still occurring. How would you combat this?
Thanedar: I’m a chemist. I have a Ph.D in chemistry. I understand the effects of lead poisoning. The effects are not only now but in the next five years, 10 years we could see the effect of that on mental illness, on learning disabilities for children. The state did something terribly wrong to the (Flint residents) and we need to make that right. We’re only going to do that through providing free health care and giving them some more opportunities. We need to replace the lead pipes in Flint and everywhere else. That’s the absolute minimum that we need to do. But, in general my concerns are that funding for cities and how the state distributes the revenues and the revenue distribution needs to be based on needs, not on zip codes. The heart of the Flint problem is uneven revenue distribution. The heart of that is leaving communities unattended and not cared for.
TMD: With what seems to be an increase in school shootings and mental health issues across the country, how will you address these issues in Michigan while adhering to Second Amendment rights and privacy protection?
Thanedar: The key area here is responsible governorship. We need to make sure that guns are out of the hands of people that are mentally unstable or convicted domestic abusers while protecting the rights of our citizens. I fully support the Second Amendment, and I support the right to bear arms. We need to ensure that the guns are not getting into the wrong hands. Absolutely no guns in schools. I want no guns in the hands of teachers. Teachers need to teach. We need to put enough money into education and schools so that we are able to protect by using technology through card access or cameras or security or whatever it needs to be. The teachers should not have to be worrying about using guns.
TMD: What do you think will be the most difficult aspect for you if you are elected?
Thanedar: The most difficult aspect would be working with the Republicans and making them aware that the road to prosperity is through investment and taking everybody along and win-win solutions and making a difference. It’s not about standing on the steps of the capital and talking to media. The governor’s job is not a very glamorous job. The governor’s job is to be in the chambers and in the conference rooms and meeting with different viewpoints, listening to experts and getting all viewpoints and then coming up with the best vision and best plan of action for solving our problems. I feel that I am best qualified to do that compared to my opponents on the Democratic side as well as on the Republican side. They do not have the experience that I do in the ability to solve problems and find solutions. I am willing to work with people. That’s what I bring that nobody else does.
TMD: I understand in November 2017, a buyer of Avomeen, a company launched with your son, sued you for fraudulent and misleading finances to sell shares. Also, over 100 dogs and monkeys were recently rescued from an abandoned lab you own. How are you addressing these controversies?
Thanedar: Well, let me explain: There is no controversy. Basically, people get sued all the time, especially in the business world. I’ve been doing business for 26 years and I may have been sued like four or five times. All of them have since been withdrawn. The current suit has no merit. I believe that I will prevail and I had plenty of opportunities to settle it but I did not because it has no merit. I’m fighting it. That’s the kind of person I am. I don’t get easily bullied and I don’t get easily intimidated. I don’t operate under fear. I’m very fearless. Growing up in poverty, that’s the one thing that I learned from my mother. When someone tried to intimidate me, especially now that I’m a candidate, I said, ‘Fine, go sue me.’ I’m going to be tough when I need to be tough, even if that does not (mean well) from a political issues point of view. I’ll do the right thing.
In terms of the dogs, no dogs were abandoned. It got reported wrong. There’s one reporter that has some friends in my opponent’s camp and this reporter has written like four or so articles (as a) major crusade. A lot of that reporting is incorrect. They’ve taken some events and facts and distorted them and then my opponent then uses that information and sends out Facebook advertisements. He is advertising that some of the dogs were left to die and it is far from true. It is totally baseless and dishonest for them to do that. This is what really happened: the fact and truth is that I had a pharmaceutical business that was a service business and we created medicine. Part of the innovation for new medicine is that the governor and the FDA require you to do animal research. That’s part of it. It’s not necessarily the best part of it. I had an animal facility that was used for that and then when my business got in trouble during the Great Recession, like how many businesses failed during the recession, the bank who I borrowed money from came and acquired all of my assets. They shut down that part of the business. They kept six of my animal care employees. The animals were completely taken care of. During the three months that the animals were taken care of, the bank had sold all of my assets and they took $160,000 of my money to take care of the animals over a three-month period. The animals were fed, they were taken care of, they were nurtured, they were groomed, medical things were taken care of. Then, the bank went and found animal shelters who would take these animals away and then they went and transferred these animals to the animal shelters. This is what was done at the request of the bank. When the animal shelter people came, the animals were taken good care of.
Now, when this big drop came that animals were rescued, the neighbors got panicked and began throwing food and water over the fence. They did it out of kindness, but it was not necessary because these animals were taken care of.
For my opponent to write a Facebook ad saying that animals were left to die is really dishonest. It’s very unethical behavior. That is not the way to run a campaign. If we’re going to distort things and be untruthful, then what kind of things would he be untruthful about when he’s a governor?
TMD: How do you hope to address concerns from the Upper and Lower Peninsulas in an equal manner?
Thanedar: The number one thing is creating jobs. That means we’ve got to create skillsets. I’ll be going to the Upper Peninsula for the third time now, and I saw the last couple of times that I was there that there is no growth. There are no opportunities. The people are moving out. The population has flattened or declined. Opioid addiction is prevalent. There’s mental health issues and a lot of law enforcement. But, ultimately, it’s creating skill sets and getting training to people and bringing trade skills, technical skills. That is really what we need.
TMD: According to your website, Michigan ranks last in government transparency. With such low rankings, how would you hope for a major turnaround in your first term, if elected? How do you plan to implement government transparency?
Thanedar: You can see my book and see the book was written in 2008, way before I ever thought about running for public office. I wrote my book in a very transparent way. I am a very transparent, open person. That’s how I will be as a governor. There’s nothing to hide. I will open the legislature, my office and lawmakers to FOIA and we need to be transparent. We are of service to the people of Michigan. They hire us to do a job and they need to know that there are no secrets. When our governor goes to Japan or China, we need to know where he is and what he is doing.
TMD: How will you handle a major crisis in office, say a natural disaster or political scandal?
Thanedar: Well a natural disaster, we need to handle it with compassion. We have seen different levels of compassion. We see when there are sinkholes in Macomb County, those got addressed very quickly. When we had issues with lead poisoning (in Flint), nobody cared. It appears that how natural disasters are handled depends on who lives there. Often, there is a different standard for people of poverty. There are different standards when people of color are involved. We need to have the same compassion and concern regardless of if it’s happening in Macomb County or if it’s happening in Flint or Inkster or Highland Park. That’s how I would handle natural disasters. I would act quickly and I’d be very hands on. I won’t be that person who said, “I never saw that email.” It’s never going to be about whether the governor knew. I would know it as soon as it happens. I will act on it and be very proactive and fair. In terms of political scandals, same thing. We need to be upfront with people.
TMD: That’s pretty much all the questions we have for you today, is there anything that you would like to add?
Thanedar: I look different. I don’t look like the past governors. I’m an immigrant. I think I’m the only immigrant that’s running for governor. I speak differently more than most people in Michigan. But my point is that say four years from now I write my State of the State address and I’m talking about taking our education to the next level, fixed the roads and we are approaching near the Top 10 … would it matter where I was born? Would it matter in what accent I said those words? That’s what I want Michiganders to remember when they go to vote on Aug. 7. Any Democrat who’s “good enough” isn’t good enough.