What is it called when an event that is both completely predictable and preventable from happening, because no one would do the things necessary to prevent it?
It could be “Congressman Shri Thanedar”. A congested field, a lack of clear political weight and some really tricky issues around race and gender — all of which contributed to Thanedar’s decisive victory over eight opponents in the race for the 13th congressional district seat.
The Indian-American millionaire previously mounted an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018 and a winning race for the state House of Representatives in 2020, spending buckets of his own money. Thanedar said he was prepared to spend $5 million on a bid for the 13th District seat, raising the stakes even for well-placed candidates who lacked such resources.
Here’s the good news: Thanedar served one term in the state legislature, which gave him some experience as an elected official. He moved to Detroit in 2020, connecting with the community he represents. He says his childhood in poverty in India familiarized him with the hardships faced by Detroit’s poorest residents, equipping him to advocate on behalf of his constituents with even more urgency, he says, than his well-heeled black opponents. And Thanedar seems as determined to learn the job of political representation as he was to build a successful business.
After:Michigan primary election 2022: Live results, races to watch
After:Shri Thanedar wins Democratic race for congressional seat in Detroit
But none of that is any consolation for Detroit’s black political establishment, which envisions a future in which America’s blackest city doesn’t have a single black representative in the US Congress.
Detroit residents have been represented by a black Democrat in Congress since 1955, when the late Charles Diggs Jr. was elected. He was joined in 1965 by the late John Conyers Jr., who left office in 2017. Part of Detroit has been represented by U.S. Representative Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, since 2015; this year, Lawrence announced that she would not seek re-election, creating an open seat in a newly redesigned 13th district, which encompasses most of Detroit, Grosse Pointe, Hamtramck, Highland Park and parts of Dearborn and the downstream suburbs.
Every black political insider I’ve spoken to this election cycle has told me that defeating Thanedar is of paramount importance.
Still, the businessman outperformed his eight main opponents, winning 22,302 votes, 28.3% of the votes cast, even winning Detroit by a narrow margin. The second-highest voter, State Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, got 23.5% of the vote; Focus: HOPE CEO Portia Roberson won 16.9%. Because the district is so solidly Democratic, the winner of the primary contest is the de facto winner of the seat.
Whether Thanedar wins a seat in the US Congress without a majority of votes cast, in a primary contest in which more than 70% of voters vote for someone else, is another issue. In solidly partisan constituencies, run-offs should be necessary, giving voters a chance to narrow their choices – that’s what happens in a two-party constituency, when the winners of the primaries face off in a general election.
But I digress.
It’s not hard to imagine that in a smaller field, one in which Thanedar faced a Black Detroiter or two, things might have turned out differently.
“There were too many candidates splitting the vote, and Thanedar has a rock-solid base in Detroit, as evidenced by the fact that when he ran for governor he got more votes in the city of Detroit than Governor Gretchen Whitmer,” said Sheila Cockrel, a 16-year Detroit City Council veteran who is now the president of Crossroads Consulting. “Had there been consolidation behind an African-American candidate from Detroit, we might have had a different outcome.”
Despite widespread recognition that a nine-person race overwhelmingly favored Thanedar, none of the other eight candidates were willing to step down, a source of consternation for more than one political insider.
No modern political figure wields the kind of influence enjoyed by, say, legendary party leader Ed McNamara – in other words, no leader can credibly advise a candidate with little chance of winning to leave the race, or pledge his support in a future election after such a departure.
“The black community is struggling with unity right now,” said Stephen Grady Muhammad, deputy chief of staff for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. “Before, we had leaders who could pull together and almost force the community to come together.”
The Unity Initiative That Failed
Evans, Muhammad said, made a “valiant attempt” to achieve this, convening a group of prominent political and community leaders (facilitated by Muhammad) to rally support behind a consensus candidate. But when the group chose Hollier, the rift within Detroit’s political establishment grew.
Black women were unhappy with the choice of Hollier’s male-dominated group over candidates like Roberson or former state legislator Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a Detroit school board member. The copious PAC money backing Hollier did not lessen those feelings.
“Black men feel cheated,” said a political insider who worked with one of the unsuccessful candidates. “Some of them think that white men have a level of power that they have not yet achieved or actualized, and feel disenfranchised. They saw this as an opportunity to assert male power black.”
Muhammad said the group was just trying to select the best candidate and he still believed Hollier was that person. But he admits he may have underestimated the importance women voters placed on electing a woman to the congressional seat.
During an endorsement interview this summer, Hollier told the Free Press editorial board that compared to black women, black men are underrepresented in political office.
The insider pushed back against the idea that black women outnumber black men in the halls of power.
“It depends on the position,” the insider said. “Who’s been the black mayor, who’s been the black (county) executive? Black men are comfortable with black women in certain positions, and it’s not always in leadership positions. A months after the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down Roe v. Wade, now is not the time to tell black women you don’t need representation.”
Because there were three women in the race, the vote was even more divided.
The insider noted that the three candidates in the race — Roberson, Gay-Dagnogo and former Detroit City Councilwoman Sharon McPhail — collectively got more votes than Thanedar.
“After the Roe v. Wade decision, a lot of women I know personally felt it was their duty to declare that women support other women running for political office,” Cockrel said. “But you had three or more women in the race who all had a base or riding minimum. If everyone had consolidated behind Portia, the outcome might have been different.”
Now the black political establishment looks to 2024, when Thanedar will have to defend his newly won seat.
It’s hard to know if anything will change. Muhammad said he believed the community would reassess itself and figure out a new way forward.
But these divisions, and the resulting resentments, are real, and the unity that Muhammad says is essential does not seem within reach.
If black voters in Detroit fail to find a true consensus in 2024, Thanedar’s re-election is virtually assured.
Nancy Kaffer is a columnist and member of the editorial board of Free Press. She covered local, state and national politics for two decades. Contact: [email protected] Become a Freep.com subscriber.