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Another brilliant, self-made millionaire with no political experience wants to be governor

Jul 26, 2017

Imagine you suddenly came into $3.3 million dollars, and your instructions from the universe were to spend it to make life better for the people of Michigan.

My guess is that your first idea would not be to spend it to try to win the Democratic nomination for governor next year. But that’s what Shri Thanedar is doing.

He is, indeed, a rather amazing scientist and businessman, an immigrant from southern India who was born in poverty, came to America, made a fortune, lost it, and made another.

Now, he has decided to run for governor, and to jump-start his campaign by pouring those millions into it. If you haven’t heard of him before, don’t feel bad; two weeks ago, I hadn’t either. Judging from his website, he is both extremely accomplished and a genuinely good person.

When he sold his latest company last year, he shared a big chunk of the profits with his employees. His positions on the issues seem to be largely sensible platitudes.

“All Michiganders deserve an equal shot at success, but for far too long Lansing politicians have favored the wealthy over the middle class,” he said in the press release sent out to announce that he was donating millions to himself.

He added, “I’m going to make Michigan’s government work for everyone again, not just those at the top.” Well, I am totally on board with those sentiments. I’ve been saying similar things on these airwaves for more than ten years.

Except, to put it in intellectually respectable academic terms, what I’d like to ask Dr. Thanedar is, “How you gonna do that, bro?” During my career as a journalist, I’ve learned that there are two things people think they can do without any training whatsoever:

Start a restaurant, and run for high political office, usually governor. Now I have absolutely no objection to Shri Thanedar wanting to get involved in politics. I think he would bring an interesting, unique and valuable perspective.

But running the state without experience is something else again. Thanedar doesn’t seem to be aware that being governor is not just about having good ideas. It is about finding ways to persuade others – namely, the legislature – to make those ideas reality.

Seven years ago, we elected as governor a brilliant self-made millionaire with both a law degree and an MBA. We also gave his party overwhelming control of both houses of the legislature.

But Rick Snyder has failed to get major parts of his agenda passed, in part because it is very clear he didn’t completely understand the system. He seems to have assumed that the legislators were more like his employees or subordinates. That’s not how they see themselves.

Nor did he have any prior experience working with them. Thanedar would be in the same boat, except more so; whatever happens, we will have a state senate controlled by the Republicans. Apart from all that, there’s something strangely repugnant about how much money now matters.

When Thanedar’s donation was announced, the two other major candidates, Abdul El-Sayed and Gretchen Whitmer, immediately announced that they’d each raised over a million too. This for a primary race still more than a year away.

I wonder if they might not all be better off starting restaurants instead.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.