A Bernie-Branded Millionaire Is Leading the Democratic Race for Governor. He Almost Ran as a Republican, Consultants Say.

Consultants have come forward claiming that the leading Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate was flirting with running with the GOP instead.

Shri Thanedar, a scientist and entrepreneur who has experienced big highs and lows in business announces his candidacy for Michigan governor during a news conference, Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Detroit. Thanedar, a Democrat, is a native of India and founded the Ann Arbor chemical testing company Avomeen. Thanedar says he is running because he wants to "give back" and "help others achieve the American dream." (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Shri Thanedar announces his candidacy for Michigan governor during a news conference on June 8, 2017, in Detroit. Photo: Carlos Osorio/AP

A Michigan gubernatorial candidate who has branded himself as the Bernie Sanders of the 2018 race privately mused about running as an independent or Republican just weeks before launching his campaign, according to four political consultants and one small business association representative he met with.

Shri Thanedar, a millionaire who has poured millions of dollars of his own money into the race, ultimately decided to run as a progressive Democrat. He is now first in some polls, eclipsing former state Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer and former Detroit Public Health chief Abdul El-Sayed, whose campaign is largely staffed by veterans of Sanders’s actual presidential campaign.

Thanedar has referred to himself as a “fiscally savvy Bernie,” and is pushing a platform full of Sanders’s progressive policy priorities. He’s claiming he will advocate for things like a single-payer health care system and a $15 minimum wage, both of which are uphill battles in Michigan and can only pass with a committed governor and legislature who do not abandon them out of political timidity. The campaign ads he has spent millions on call him the “most progressive Democrat running for governor.”

From the Shri Thanedar campaign ad “Science,” aired in December 2017.

Joe DiSano, who runs the Michigan-based consulting firm DiSano Strategies, told The Intercept that he first met with Thanedar in January 2017, before he announced his bid for governor. “Shri didn’t know what party banner to run under. But he was certainly running,” DiSano said.

At the time, DiSano was advising Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who was considering joining the race.

“I told him, even if I was free to help, I couldn’t assist if he ran as a Republican. I offered to help him work through the process if he ran as a Democrat,” said DiSano. “He agreed to run as a Democrat, but it wasn’t until well into February 2017. Initially, he was playing with the idea of running as an independent. I pointed out, in Michigan that is almost impossible at the statewide level. Finally, I ran some numbers showing him that futility of running as an independent.”

Adrian Hemond, CEO at Grassroots Midwest, which advises candidates in both major parties, met with Thanedar in late winter of 2017 (he could not recall the exact date).

Hemond, who is a prominent Michigan Democratic consultant, was joined by Dan McMaster, a prominent Republican consultant, as well as Brian Began, a former staffer for Michigan’s House Republican Caucus. At the meeting, they asked Thanedar what party he was thinking of running in.

To their surprise, Hemond said, Thanedar told them it didn’t matter.

“He came to us looking for advice about running for governor, and was obviously in the market for a consultant,” he said. “We asked him what party he wanted to run from and he said he didn’t care. He said whichever side we thought he had the best chance to win on. Which we thought was interesting.”

They started asking Thanedar about his positions on the issues. “He tried to be very cagey about what his issue positions were,” Hemond said. “For instance, we had a conversation about abortion politics. And we told him, look, you know, if you run as a Democrat, then obviously you’re going to be running as being pro-choice. If you run as a Republican, then you’re going to have to run as being pro-life. Are you going to be comfortable with that? Is your family going to be comfortable with that? He indicated yes. I don’t know if that was just him in sort of his political ambition, saying, yeah, I’ll play along with that, or if he was just trying to game that out. But we asked him about issue positions on a number of different issues that can play in one or the other of the primaries. And his position was mostly that he didn’t care. That he would adopt whatever position was beneficial for him to run for governor.”

Both McMaster and Began confirmed Hemond’s account. “When we met with Sri, obviously the first thing we asked was what party he was in. He wanted to hear our opinion,” Began said. Thanedar, Began recalled, believed that his personal biography would be enough to win the race, and told the consultants he planned to commission a screenplay about himself.

“He was looking for advice on whether to run as an R or a D. He did admit he was pro-life, which is interesting, [now] that he is running as a progressive Democrat,” said McMaster. “I laughed when he walked out the door, because a fool and their money part ways often, and that was my impression.”

Began, meanwhile, said he couldn’t divine from the conversation where Thanedar stood on abortion rights, while DiSano came away believing he was “adamantly pro-choice.”

In February, DiSano met again with Thanedar. “He told me he was going to run as a Democrat during a meeting at his home,” DiSano explained. “I think the only things that stopped him from running as a Republican was that he was adamantly pro-choice and Trump had just popped his first version of the travel ban. I asked Shri, ‘Do you think the party of Trump is going to nominate a pro-choice immigrant from India, with brown skin and a funny accent, the same time they are pushing this travel ban?’ That seemed to strike a chord with him.”

DiSano described Thanedar as actually quite opposed to progressives and, particularly, Sanders.

“My key takeaway from my experience with Shri is his disdain for ‘progressives.’ He repeatedly expressed disdain for them, and Bernie Sanders in particular. I don’t disagree with his assessment of Sanders, but I think I witnessed an insight into where his political true north really is,” said DiSano, who is no fan of Sanders himself.

DiSano said one of Thanedar’s specific objections to Sanders was the fact that he wanted to raise taxes. “Shri was in the end-process of selling his company. He said under Sanders, he would pay 90 percent of his profit,” he said. “Of course, the purchaser is now suing Shri for fraud.”

Sanders did not call for a 90 percent tax rate, but did defend former President Dwight Eisenhower imposing such a marginal income tax; Thanedar denies that the sale was in any way fraudulent, and is contesting the claim in court as having no factual basis.

After this story was published, Thanedar provided an email that Hemond sent in July 2017, attempting to reconnect.

“Hope all is well! Your campaign finance filing dominated the media cycle yesterday!” Hemond wrote.  “I wanted to take a moment to follow up with you about your campaign and ways we may be able to assist. We’d love to come see you in the near future if you have some availability. Look forward to chatting again soon. Thanks!”

Hemond said that he couldn’t comment in detail on the overture, but that he was hoping to connect Thanedar with another client. “I was pitching him on taking up an issue for an institutional client that I thought would be helpful to his campaign, as well as that client,” Hemond said. “I’m bound by a pretty strict confidentiality agreement, so I can’t discuss the client or the issue, but I will say it involved publicizing an issue via his campaign with that benefitting my client, and him benefitting by the issue helping him with a segment of organized labor, which was a weakness we identified in his campaign when we met. He did call me back after this email, seemed interested, then never followed up. The client lost interest in him as a messenger fairly quickly anyway.”

DiSano’s and Hemond’s accounts are similar to that of Rob Fowler’s. Fowler, who runs the Small Business Association of Michigan, or SBAM, previously told MIRS News, a local outlet, that when Thanedar met with the group before announcing his gubernatorial bid last year, he was still undecided whether to run as a Democrat or a Republican.

“We told him, ‘You need to settle that, and you need to settle it quickly,’” Fowler said. Thanedar gave a statement to MIRS News, contesting the claim that he hadn’t made up his mind. “I had been a Democrat all my life. I have voted Democratic all my life,” he said. “When I was going around talking to different people, I received some unsolicited advice, that, because I was a business person, I should be a Republican.”

An email to Fowler requesting comment was met with an automatic reply saying he was traveling out of the country.

DiSano said he met with Thanedar the same day as the meeting with SBAM. “It seems our conversations with Shri were strikingly similar,” he said of Fowler’s reported conversation with Thanedar.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed speaks before submitting 24,000 nominating petitions to the Michigan Bureau of Elections, Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Lansing, Mich. El-Sayed became the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate to submit nominating petitions, a step that could lead to clarity over nagging questions about his eligibility to run. (AP Photo/David Eggert)

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed speaks before submitting 24,000 nominating petitions to the Michigan Bureau of Elections on March 6, 2018, in Lansing, Mich.

Photo: David Eggert/AP

Abdul El-Sayed, one of Thanedar’s two main opponents, has the most progressive platform and a phalanx of former Sanders advisers running his campaign — but what he doesn’t have is Thanedar’s money. Thanedar has loaned his campaign nearly $6 million and spent around $2 million on TV advertising, while El-Sayed hasn’t spent a dime on the airwaves.

In an interview with The Intercept, Thanedar confirmed that he had met with DiSano and Hemond, and confirmed that he was mum about his political identity and positions, but said that it was all part of his electoral strategy. He said he didn’t tell the consultants what his party affiliation was at the time of the meetings because he was waiting to make an official announcement later.

“I remained noncommittal because I did not want to share any information with them until such time as I announced my candidacy. The fact that I was not sharing anything … I felt open to listening to their ideas. They conveniently misunderstood what my positions are because I didn’t end up hiring them. They are spreading these rumors to discredit me,” he said of the meeting with Hemond.

When asked about Thanedar’s response, Hemond didn’t buy it.

“The idea that a candidate for high political office would be hiding his party affiliation while interviewing consultants to help him win that office beggars belief,” he said. “Mr. Thanedar may have had a good reason for saying he would run from whichever party gave him the best chance to win, but ‘saving it for his announcement’ is not that reason.”

Thanedar said he had hired DiSano to do polling for him, but ended that relationship when DiSano upcharged him from $20,000 to $40,000 for the poll. DiSano disputes this account, saying he stopped working for Thanedar before finishing the poll. “I terminated our relationship, not him, because he is way too slippery for me,” DiSano said. “Shri was genuinely undecided on if he was a Democrat. I am far from the only one he’s told that to. … He has an incredible ability to distort reality. As a scientist, you would think he would be more grounded in facts. I never took a penny from him. In fact, last summer, I ran into him at an event in Ann Arbor. He followed me out to the parking lot and tried to write me a check. I refused.” (Thanedar confirmed that he never paid DiSano.)

While Thanedar spent big to convince voters he’s the most progressive choice in the race, his record may call that into question. Federal disclosures show that, in December 2007, he wrote a $2,300 check to Hillary Clinton’s campaign as she was running to the right of then-Senator Barack Obama. In March of the following year, he donated $2,300 to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign. McCain went on to become the Republican nominee, ultimately losing the election to Obama.

Asked about the donation to McCain at an event at Central Michigan University, Thanedar said that a friend of his was running McCain’s campaign and that he wanted to talk to the candidate about immigration.

He repeated a similar line in an interview with The Intercept, saying that he usually only donates to candidates when he is invited to a fundraising event where he can discuss issues with them, and he does not view these donations as an endorsement. “I don’t go out looking to donate; I only do that when I get asked to. And when I do that it’s usually, I’m going to an event because the event is where I get to meet other people from the community. … Like Hillary Clinton, I wanted to ask her about her small business policies. McCain, I wanted to talk about immigration. … So, when I get invited, I go, and it’s not really an endorsement when I go there.”

Thanedar also pointed out that around $29,000 of the roughly $32,000 he has donated to candidates has gone to Democrats. “So that shows my inclination towards the Democratic Party,” he concluded.

The consultants interviewed for this story didn’t have a strong opinion of Thanedar’s candidacy. “Shri seems to have gotten much of his expectations of what a modern campaign looks like based on TV shows and Iowa rallies. Reality is a bit different, so he didn’t like it when I told him he needed to cut his hair and get some elocution lessons,” DiSano said. “Shri vacationed in Iowa during the lead-up to the 2016 caucuses while his wife was in India visiting family. He was particularly enamored with Marco Rubio.”

Thanedar told The Intercept that he has long been fascinated by American politics, particularly the presidency. So, during the Iowa caucuses, he attended events with a number of candidates, including Sanders, Clinton, and several Republicans.

“In Iowa, you get such access to the politicians you would otherwise not get,” he said. “So I went to house parties, I went to several presentations by the Clintons, I went to several rallies by Bernie. I also went to some rallies by the Republican candidates. But I’m more interested in the process.” He also disputed DiSano’s claim that he objected to Sanders’s view on taxes. “I have never said anything about that to Joe or anyone else. I love Bernie, I love his ideas, and I met him, I followed him. So, I don’t know where he gets all that.”

Thanedar’s account and that of DiSano, Hemond, and Fowler can’t be reconciled — they tell two different stories, one of a committed progressive Democrat looking for political advice, and another of a political agnostic looking to hitch his wagon to whatever will get him into the governor’s mansion.

In order to defend his progressive bonafides, he repeatedly pointed to his campaign’s issues page, which endorses proposals such a $15 minimum wage. “I’m a very progressive person that has specific ideas and plans,” he insisted.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., center, speaks after a caucus luncheon, with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., center, speaks after a caucus luncheon, with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 19, 2017.

Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

The Intercept asked him what else he could do to demonstrate a consistent record of support for a Sanders worldview. Why, for instance, did he not use his millions of dollars to support activist organizations and Sanders-style candidates? “They didn’t ask for it. If they had asked, I would have considered. I don’t go looking out to give money to organizations. If the organizations come to me, I pay, assuming that I want to go to their event,” he said.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, has made criticizing the political establishment of both major parties a cornerstone of his political philosophy. So, we asked Thanedar if he would be willing to do the same and criticize any establishment Democrats for their policy missteps. In his response, he sounded more like a mainstream Democrat than a Sanders revolutionary.

“Sen. Sanders has a right to say what he wants to say. But my focus is more, I’m a commonsense, pragmatic leader. I’m more about solving problems. I’m more about getting things done. I’m not really a person who just wants to criticize others. I’m more about going there and getting things done. And this state has a lot of problems,” he replied.

Finally, we discussed the lawsuit Thanedar is facing related to his former company’s earnings. “Every company gets sued,” Thanedar said. “This is a case that has no merits, and look at me, I took the challenge. I could’ve paid them some money and they could’ve gone away, but I chose not to because I’ve not done anything wrong. I’ve not done anything wrong, and I’m fighting it, and that’s the kind of leader I am.”

Correction: April 6, 2018
An earlier version of this story stated that Brian Began works at Midwest Strategies. He is the elections and research director at Grassroots Midwest.

Update: April 8, 2018

This story was updated to include an email exchange between Hemond and Thanedar from July 2017.

Top photo: Shri Thanedar announces his candidacy for Michigan governor during a news conference on June 8, 2017, in Detroit.

Join The Conversation