This Freshman Democrat Loves Making Memes. But He’s Quickly Becoming The Butt Of The Joke In Congress.

Rep. Shri Thanedar’s rags-to-riches story and his willingness to poke fun at himself helped get him elected in Michigan. A year into his term, he faces accusations of a toxic work environment and the prospect of a tough 2024 primary.
Photo illustration: Maddie Abuyuan/HuffPost. Photos: U.S. House of Representatives; Carlos Osorio/Associated Press; Melanie Maxwell/Detroit Free Press via AP; Michael Buck/Wood-TV8 via AP; Paul Sancya/Associated Press; Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Rep. Shri Thanedar took a sip of Diet Coke and settled back into a seat at his Capitol Hill office this month to continue discussing his first year in Congress. “People are seeing my work,” said Thanedar, a Michigan Democrat with an unusually robust and dark head of hair for a 68-year-old and a smile that can verge on... intense. “They know my story; they know who I am.”

Thanedar’s presence in Congress is a testament to his story. Born into poverty in Chikodi, India, he worked as a janitor to support his family while putting himself through college before coming to the United States at age 24. By his early 50s, the triple-degreed scientist had become the millionaire owner of several chemical testing labs. Thanedar laid this all out in a 2004 memoir, “The Blue Suitcase,” that became a Marathi-language bestseller, an English-language book thanks to a suggestion from former President Bill Clinton and a self-produced play.

“I’m one of the few if not the only member [of Congress] who came to the United States as an adult,” Thanedar told HuffPost in a wide-ranging, nearly hourlong interview that his office had requested. “I don’t think like a multimillionaire. I think like a working-class person. I live like a working-class person. Deep down, that’s who I am. And my financial success later in life didn’t change me. My kids sometimes make fun of me because I go buy things in Walmart. But, you know, I really haven’t changed. I really understand the struggles of working people.”

No one disputes Thanedar’s rags-to-riches tale. But that’s not what people on Capitol Hill are actually learning about the representative from Michigan’s heavily Democratic 13th Congressional District. Instead, in just 11 months in office, Thanedar has gained a reputation for vanity in an institution powered by the stuff, burning through staff at a rapid clip, alienating his fellow members and spending taxpayer funds on what some people with knowledge of his office view as naked self-promotion.

The result is rampant questions about whether the working-class people Thanedar claims to represent — roughly one-fifth of his district’s families are below the poverty line — truly have an effective congressman and whether those families will choose to give Thanedar a second term in office.

After the publication of this piece, Thanedar called it a “hit job featuring featuring anonymous, inaccurate information from my political opponents and disgruntled former employees ... I am as hardworking and taken as seriously as any member of Congress.”

In 2018, Thanedar spent more than $10 million on a third-place finish as the purportedly progressive option in Michigan’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Four years later, he spent $9 million to capture one of two congressional seats representing Detroit, beating eight Black candidates in a heavily splintered primary. His win is one reason why the city of Detroit doesn’t have a Black member of Congress for the first time in 70 years.

Thanedar’s fiercest critics see his congressional career as a vanity project built on self-obsession and malleable political beliefs. Many also see it as the fullest expression of a life spent pursuing the American Dream.

“His story of how he came to this country and really built himself up is good,” said one ex-staffer who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “I don’t think he’s 100% a bad guy, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself. You were once a very poor person. You’re now representing the third-poorest district in the country. They need somebody who’s going to do the work.”

“Most people get into politics because they have a certain political perspective and want to try to move the ball downfield on that perspective,” said Adrian Hemond, a political consultant in Michigan who runs a bipartisan firm that Thanedar interviewed for his gubernatorial campaign. “That’s not Shri. Shri has zero interest in policy or governing or anything like that.”

Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Mich.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol for the last votes of the week on July 20.
Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Mich.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol for the last votes of the week on July 20.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

Hemond says Thanedar considered whether to run as a Republican or independent before ultimately settling on running as a progressive Democrat backing “Medicare for All” and reparations for Black Americans, though Thanedar has said this description of his political machinations is untrue.

Detroit leaders who spoke to HuffPost for this piece say they weren’t thrilled by Thanedar’s win, though they were willing to give him a shot. But Thanedar’s first year in office has only compounded their concerns: The freshman representative is facing allegations of creating a toxic work environment with chronic turnover and of dedicating an exorbitant amount of his congressional budget to advertising — including billboards in the Detroit area that feature his blown-up face and the number of the office — that feel more like campaign self-promotion than official communication, according to three people with direct knowledge of the office who view this as improper, if not unethical.

Thanedar admits to hiring interns to take on critical services, like constituent casework, that form the bedrock of congressional work outside of casting votes and sponsoring legislation. (Interns, usually students or recent graduates, would generally earn a fraction of a staffer’s salary.)

Two current Democratic colleagues — one in a statement earlier this year and another in comments to HuffPost — allege that Thanedar’s constituent services are lacking and that he seems to be more concerned with his image than serving one of the nation’s most impoverished congressional districts. It’s rare for members of either party to come out against one of their own, and the fact that Thanedar is the subject of anonymous griping suggests a reversal of the uneasy peace that some had made with his election.

“There isn’t anything that it’s clear that he’s working on,” said a Democratic member of Congress. “It’s hard to figure out his purpose. Typically, when somebody shows up in Congress, even if they’re pretty fresh to political progress, you can identify what their cause is, what is the thing that moves them, what is their reason to be there.”

This person also called it a “uniquely difficult situation… for a lot of us, it just feels like a wasted spot.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the other U.S. House member representing Detroit, accused Thanedar in October of spending more time “posting memes” than being focused on his district. (Earlier this year, Thanedar posted a photo of himself in front of the Detroit skyline with the caption “Love the Big D,” which generated exactly the type of response you might expect online.)

Thanedar has attributed Tlaib’s criticism to her vexation over his pro-Israel stance in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel and the Israeli escalation that’s led to more than 20,000 deaths in Gaza.

“He isn’t putting in the work of a public servant and is leaving his working-class communities across his district with no real advocate,” Tlaib told the Detroit News at the time. She didn’t respond to a follow-up from HuffPost.

Asked what she thought of Thanedar’s time in office, Rep. Debbie Dingell, a fellow Michigander and Democrat, dodged. “I don’t say negative things about colleagues,” she told HuffPost as she was scurrying into an elevator at the Capitol.

Thanedar is already facing a serious primary challenge for a reliably blue seat in 2024, with supporters of his main rival arguing that a seat representing one of the country’s historically Black cities should go to someone who looks like a majority of its residents.

“This is not a publicity contest. This is a thing we call government,” said Brenda Lawrence, Detroit’s last Black U.S. House member. Lawrence is backing Thanedar’s biggest primary threat, Adam Hollier, a former legislator and ex-Gretchen Whitmer appointee, who is already drawing high-profile supporters, including Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. “I think Shri has a very big heart. But this is about the work.”

It’s no secret that members of Congress are often their own biggest admirers, but Thanedar’s Capitol Hill office reveals he’s not at all shy about embracing his own image — the first photos you’ll spot on the wall here are of Thanedar alongside the last three Democratic presidents. Like a kid in the world’s least fun candy shop, Thanedar appeared awestruck during his first State of the Union address this year when he was spotted lurking (and grinning) behind President Joe Biden as Biden mingled with lawmakers. This was the first glimpse many lawmakers got of the new lawmaker in his element.

“I had a lucrative business that I was running, and I could continue to do that the rest of my life,” Thanedar said, employing a Donald Trump-like rationale for leaving a cushy life in business to enter politics. “But when I look back, I came with nothing, and this country has given me so much. And it’s now my time to give back. I want to serve the people as long as they will let me serve. If they choose me again, and put their trust in me again, we’ll be happy to serve.”

Photo illustration: Maddie Abuyuan/HuffPost. Photos: U.S. House of Representatives

‘Most … Uninformed Human I’ve Ever Worked With’

Thanedar told HuffPost he mostly likes to have fun online, but in October, his former communications director lashed out at him in a thread on X (formerly Twitter), making serious allegations about how Thanedar operates his office and views the people he represents.

Adam Abusalah, who worked for Thanedar from March through May, claimed, among other things, that six people quit Thanedar’s office in the span of two weeks and that Thanedar ignored his warnings to keep a firewall between his official operations and campaign activities. He also alleged that Thanedar didn’t trust Black women in senior positions, though Thanedar has denied this and has since hired a Black woman as his deputy chief of staff. He wrote that Thanedar once called him in the middle of the night to complain about not having as many followers online as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Abusalah called Thanedar “the most ignorant, self-centered and uninformed human I’ve ever worked with” — a remarkable statement given that Hill staffers rarely, if ever, go off on even their former bosses in public. He also called Thanedar’s hair “fake” and cited a story HuffPost broke in 2018 about Thanedar abandoning dogs and monkeys at one of his labs during his Great Recession-era bankruptcy. (Like Donald Trump, Thanedar has endured ups and down in the business career he touted in his campaigns, though his fortunes improved in 2016 after he sold a lab he had founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to a private equity firm for $20 million.)

Thanedar told HuffPost that he and Abusalah remained friendly after Abusalah quit. He attributed his former aide’s tirade to displeasure over remarks he’d made a day earlier to Jewish Insider renouncing his membership in the Democratic Socialists of America. Thanedar also denounced Tlaib, who is Palestinian American and a DSA member, for characterizing the Oct. 7 attack as Palestinian “resistance.”

In a follow-up email to HuffPost, Thanedar wrote that Abusalah’s allegations were “untrue.” Though other people familiar with Thanedar’s office corroborated to HuffPost what Abusalah described in the X thread.

(Hours after HuffPost’s meeting with Thanedar, during which he reiterated his support for Israel, the congressman’s X account appeared to get hacked, posting a message calling Israel a “terrorist state” that was quickly deleted.)

Not up for dispute, however, is that Thanedar is already on his third chief of staff in less than a year. Thanedar also relies on interns to take on the work of more experienced and higher paid staffers. A former staffer described being fired in the presence of an intern, an experience they found demoralizing and also emblematic of what it was like working for him.

In other offices, interns may just be answering phones or folding letters, but we give them important work to do so they learn and grow,” Thanedar wrote in a statement after his HuffPost interview, but added, “I am not going to comment on the details of specific employment decisions.”

Thanedar has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his $1.8 million annual budget allowance on advertisements, according to three people with direct knowledge of his office’s spending. These people question whether this use of taxpayer dollars might violate ethics rules since it seems to be in service of his reelection.

Thanedar says his communications spending was approved by the House Communications Standards Commission, which determines whether House members can take advantage of what’s called the “franking privilege” to send official communications without postage. But House members are in charge of their own budget allocations and line items, including how much of their budget to devote to communications. Thanedar didn’t say how much he spent on advertising beyond noting: “Two-way communication with my constituents is my top priority. I have used mailers, tele-townhalls, radio and texts to let people know the services we offer.”

Shri Thanedar is one of Detroit's two House representatives.
Shri Thanedar is one of Detroit's two House representatives.
Photo illustration: Maddie Abuyuan/HuffPost

‘I Did Give Him Time’

Thanedar has struggled to find his people in Congress. Asked to name some of his allies, Thanedar mentioned Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who he said gave him a business award 20 years ago. Thanedar described them as “good friends.” Pallone’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether he and Thanedar are friendly now.

“That’s the first time that I had ever visited the Capitol, and the whole aura of D.C., meeting so many members of Congress,” he recalled of the trip to Washington to accept the award, which he said he received for owning a successful chemical testing lab in St. Louis.

Early on, Thanedar attempted to join the Congressional Black Caucus and didn’t understand why the group rebuffed him, according to a former Black aide. Thanedar said he tried to join the group because of the demographics of his district.

“I tried to tell him. I said, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘It’s because you don’t look like them, that’s why,’” this person recalled, claiming that Thanedar’s behavior in this instance was part of a broader pattern of undermining employees and even looking down on constituents. “He thinks the electorate of his district is not as smart as him. He doesn’t think they’re smart at all,” this person said.

Thanedar told HuffPost that he believes he’s a good boss and said the issues he was having with turnover weren’t unusual for a freshman member. “There are a lot of offices that have turnover, especially freshman offices. But I’m proud of my team and what we accomplished this year,” he said, citing his work on behalf of constituents, specifically a bill that would have exempted the striking autoworkers in his district from having their strike pay taxed. Like the vast majority of legislation introduced in Congress, the bill went nowhere.

Thanedar’s critics in Detroit do not see his performance in the same way.

“I did give him time,” said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, a key political leader in Thanedar’s district who has endorsed Adam Hollier in the Democratic primary, which isn’t until Aug. 6. “His absence of involvement in the county, his absence of involvement in any form you can think of other than the two times that we saw each other [this year] just convinced me that we need to be about the business of electing a [new] congressperson.” (Thanedar said one of their meetings was a two-hour sit-down and that Evans has his number.)

Mario Morrow, a veteran Democratic consultant, said support for Thanedar is “all over the map … he has a nice following of people who support him primarily because of his name recognition and the story he told during the primary.” But Morrow added that from the perspective of Detroit leaders, “Shri has not done what people in the community, in his district, feel that he should have been doing to move the district forward.”

In 2020, Michigan lost a congressional seat due to population decline, and the historically Black city of Detroit was divided between two congressional districts that Detroit lawmakers have argued dilutes Black votes. Following Brenda Lawrence’s retirement, Tlaib decided to run in the 12th District instead of the 13th, leaving that seat open for what many hoped would be a Black member. Instead, Thanedar, then a state House member, moved from ritzy Ann Arbor to the historic Palmer Woods neighborhood of Detroit to run for the seat.

“To me, representation matters,” said Lawrence. “I’m not saying that a Black person cannot represent a white district and that a white person cannot represent a Black district. But there is a whole constitutional formula where majority African American communities can see someone that looks like them.”

“Shri’s learning curve seems to be extreme, and public service doesn’t mean just showing up in the chamber to vote,” added Lawrence, who says she doesn’t see Thanedar tackling issues that matter the most to Detroiters, such as education and infrastructure.

Hollier, who finished second behind Thanedar in last year’s Democratic primary with 23% of the vote to Thanedar’s 28%, said in a statement to HuffPost: “Whether it’s because [Thanedar’s] vast fortune has made him out of touch with working people, or because he simply isn’t up to the job, the lack of results are the same. He hasn’t shown up, hasn’t spoken up, and hasn’t delivered.”

Rep. Shri Thanedar applauds on June 22 as Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol.
Rep. Shri Thanedar applauds on June 22 as Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

‘Golden Opportunity To Govern’

Thanedar wouldn’t say whether he’s planning to once again pour millions into his congressional race. The best-case scenario for Thanedar would be another heavily fractured primary. Hollier and his allies like to point out that many more people cast votes against Thanedar than for him in 2022. It’s one reason Hollier is attempting to consolidate support behind his candidacy well ahead of the August race that will serve as the de facto election for this seat.

To be clear, Thanedar did something right to get here. Even Thanedar’s fiercest detractors praised his determination as an immigrant who came to the U.S. penniless in 1979 to earn a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Dayton. By the early 2000s, Thanedar — who described having to fetch drinking water from a stream as a child — was flaunting his 13,000-square-foot Midwestern mansion (which he later lost in foreclosure) to local media outlets.

Thanedar can also be charming in a self-effacing way. A commercial from his 2018 campaign, “Name Game,” poked fun at this name while, of course, drilling it into voters.

“He’s as genuine a guy as you’ll meet,” said one Democratic consultant, who worked with him briefly and praised him as a committed family man and husband. Thanedar writes in “The Blue Suitcase” about the devastation of losing his first wife to suicide in 1996 and the joy of meeting and marrying his current partner, Shashi.

“What you see is what you get with him,” the Democratic consultant added. “He doesn’t really have an agenda. He just believes his perspective, his voice is important.”

Thanedar began our meeting talking about the chaos that colored his first year in office after hard-right Republicans ousted their speaker and left the chamber leaderless for three weeks. Thanedar said the GOP is more concerned about messaging bills and tossing red meat to the base than about results.

“They have this, you know, golden opportunity to govern,” he said. “People gave them a small but decisive margin of victory to be able to have their speaker around, and on every level they have failed to deliver for the American people.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the House Communications Standards Commission by its former name.

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