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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan voters who twice delivered the governorship to a Republican computer executive-turned-venture capitalist are again being wooed by a wealthy outsider businessman with no political experience for the top post — this time a Democrat.
Shri Thanedar, who was unknown until six months ago, has spent millions of his fortune on TV ads in which he pokes fun at mispronunciations of his name, touts policy prescriptions like single-payer health care and, in recent days, jokes that some of the state's potholes are so big "you can see them from space."
Thanedar's ensuing rise in polling is no laughing matter, however, within a Democratic Party that has not controlled any significant lever of state government in years. Some Democrats have doubts about his party affiliation. Others worry that if Thanedar wins the August primary, Republicans will pounce on his spotty business record.
Michigan's largest local Democratic club, based in suburban Detroit, recently took the extraordinary step of issuing an "anti-endorsement" of the 63-year-old immigrant, scientist and entrepreneur. The Grosse Pointe Democratic Club wants voters to support either Gretchen Whitmer, a former legislative leader who has the backing of labor unions and the party establishment, or Abdul El-Sayed, an ex-Detroit health director who has appealed to left-wing Bernie Sanders loyalists .
"We really strongly believe that he would not only be a horrible governor if he ever got there, but that he would also really be disastrous for the Michigan Democratic Party if he were our nominee," said Colton Dale, an executive board member.
Thanedar — like term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder before him — has substantially boosted his name identification with an early ad blitz. But he has also faced negative publicity: a lawsuit alleging he fraudulently misled the buyer of a stake in his chemical-testing company; news that one of his former labs tested drugs on beagles and monkeys; allegations that he ignored concerns that a company spiked a male herbal supplement with Viagra; and questions about a donation to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and for attending a rally for 2016 presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
"Most Democrats that I know don't like to get photo-ops with Marco Rubio," El-Sayed said. "So it's questionable about this guy. But we do know he has a lot of money and he does want to buy an election."
Thanedar, who also gave money to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, said opponents are trying to "distort" his political leanings. He said he is willing to work with Republicans, who lead Michigan's House and Senate and are expected to keep control of at least one chamber.
"Our politics has become so polarized, and it's always demonizing the other side and grandstanding. Once a party comes in power, the other party focuses on trying to make them not successful," he said. "I'm a doer. I'm a commonsense, pragmatic person."
Born in India, Thanedar left in the late 1970s to earn a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Akron. He later spent more than two-dozen years in Missouri, where he bought a three-person lab and grew it to a 450-employee business, only to lose it and other companies to receivership in 2010.
After a brief retirement in Florida, he moved to Michigan and started Avomeen Analytical Services, a chemical-testing lab in Ann Arbor. He sold majority control in 2016 for around $20 million and made news by giving $1.5 million in bonuses to roughly 50 employees.
Thanedar said he is running to help others achieve the "American dream." Michigan's GOP leadership, he said, has emphasized corporate tax cuts without adequately spending to fix aging roads or build a skilled workforce by making college or training more accessible.
Thanedar said voters should embrace him as the most "progressive" candidate because of his life experiences. As a doctoral student, he sent $75 of his $300 monthly stipend to his family in India. At times, he slept in his car and a campus building. After his first wife killed herself, he was a single father until remarrying.
He said his story resonates, especially in Detroit, where "people see that my struggles were their struggles." Whitmer, whose father was CEO of Michigan's largest health insurer, and El-Sayed "came from privilege," he said.
A new Thanedar ad depicts Whitmer as the choice of the same "Democratic machine" that backed Clinton. In response, Whitmer spokesman Zack Pohl said, "We've kept our campaign positive ... instead of tearing down fellow Democrats."
Whitmer in recent days launched her first TV ad, which promotes her work to expand Medicaid and raise the minimum wage.
While some Democrats are worried that Thanedar will win, former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson predicts a Whitmer victory and credits her for conserving money until closer to the primary. The GOP field is led by state Attorney General Bill Schuette.
"There will be naturally some people who have gotten nervous by seeing Shri's spending and the natural uptick in the polls because of that," he said. "But she has marshalled her resources at the right time to tell the people of Michigan who she is."
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