MICHIGAN (JNS) – With most eyes focused on Tuesday’s primary race between Democratic Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, pro-Israel groups are heavily invested in another district with a hotly contested open House seat.
Michigan’s 13th Congressional District encompasses most of Detroit, including the city’s downtown, as well as parts of eastern and southern Wayne County, and is home to a large African-American population that makes up approximately 48% of the district.
While the district’s Jewish population is tiny—made up of mostly young residents downtown—Jewish interest there shown by organizations such as AIPAC, Democratic Majority for Israel and others is highly unusual. All are backing one candidate seen to be the most pro-Israel, Democratic State Sen. Adam Hollier.
With the Democratic primary winner almost guaranteed to win the general election, Jewish groups have spent millions to boost Hollier’s candidacy, hoping to prevent the seat from being taken by Democratic State Rep. Shri Thanedar, who has previously been critical of Israel.
Thanedar, an Indian-American scientist and businessman, is best known for a quixotic failed run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2018 and for self-financing his campaigns with massive amounts of cash. During his run for governor—his first attempt at elected office—Thanedar gave his campaign $10.6 million, accounting for one-third of the total raised in the race.
After running a campaign ad during that year’s Super Bowl, Thanedar started leading in the polls, but controversies soon followed to spoil his run.
One of the controversies included the revelation in USA Today that approximately 118 beagles and 55 monkeys that had been used for pharmaceutical testing were abandoned, and later rescued, from a lab owned by Thanedar in 2010 after the lab was closed due to bankruptcy. Thanedar later denied that he had any involvement in day-to-day operations of the company, AniClin Preclinical Services, claiming that he had pleaded with Bank of America not to lock him out of the facility—and, that only 3% of the chemical analysis were tested on animals and that no animals had been harmed during the clinic’s operation.
Thanedar’s second attempt at running for public office fared better, with him being elected to the state legislature in 2020.
But as thousands of rockets fired into Israel from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in May 2021, Thanedar co-sponsored a resolution in the Michigan House of Representatives that urged Congress to halt funding to the Israeli military and to “encourage the end of the longest military occupation in the world.”
The resolution cited organizations such as B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch in calling Israel an “apartheid state” and accused Israel of human-rights violations.
In his current campaign, Thanedar is backing away from his previous stances on Israel, telling Jewish Insider that the resolution was a mistake made due to “an emotional reaction” to the conflict and this time. This time, his campaign website outlines pro-Israel policy positions, including advocating for a “strong, secure Israel” that has the right to self-defense and defending Israel on the world stage.
“As your next congressperson, I pledge to be a supportive voice for Israel in Washington and will defend Israel’s right to exist and to thrive in the years and generations to come,” states his website. “That means supporting Israel both economically and militarily so they are able to defend themselves in a dangerous part of the world; it means defending Israel diplomatically and playing an active role in ongoing efforts to forge a peace agreement centered on a two-state solution; and it means calling out not just anti-Semitism at home and abroad, but also those policies that we believe are harmful to the State of Israel and the United States, to democracy, and to human rights and justice.”
He has also recently sponsored a resolution to fight anti-Semitism in Michigan and condemn the weekly Saturday protests in front of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor.
‘Support must be further solidified’
“It appears to me that he’s taking a different approach in this campaign for Congress than he did when he ran for governor. From what I remember, he tried to win that Democratic nomination from the left. And he’s not doing that this time,” said David Dulio, professor of political science at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich. “Which is interesting to me because in that district primary, that’s when you could do it rather than a primary that’s statewide when you need a lot more sort of middle-of-the-road Democrats to come your way, especially in certain parts of the state.”
While most Jews in Michigan will not vote in this district, Asher Lopatin, executive director of Detroit’s Jewish Community Relations Council and American Jewish Committee (JCRC-AJC), said many are not convinced by Thanedar’s change of tune. Lopatin said that for him, acting on emotion is dangerous for a politician.
“What’s he reading and getting emotional about? And, of course, there’s going to be something else that he’ll get emotional about and then have to walk back,” said Lopatin.
Pro-Israel organizations have placed their bets on Hollier—who is half-black, half-Native American and openly pro-Israel.
“When it comes to my views on the Middle East, the existence of Israel is not up for discussion. It must exist. Israel is one of our nation’s strongest allies. I am hopeful one day that the Israelis and Palestinians will peacefully come together to create a two-state solution,” Hollier, who is a U.S. Army Reserve officer, wrote on his campaign website. “It is my experience that Jewish and black communities stand together on civil-rights issues in our country, and as attacks on both communities continue to arise, that support must be further solidified.”
“Pro-Israel America is endorsing Adam Hollier because he is a strong, pro-Israel candidate who understands that the road to advancing peace and prosperity in the Middle East runs through unwavering, bipartisan support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress,” said Pro-Israel America (PIA) executive director Jeff Mendelsohn in a statement.
The AIPAC-aligned super PAC, United Democracy Project, spent more than $2.5 million in ads supporting Hollier and $693,000 in ads attacking Thanedar according to Open Secrets. Democratic Majority for Israel PAC spent nearly $100,000 in ads supporting Hollier.
Lopatin said that he met Hollier several years ago when he spoke as a guest at a JCRC-AJC government relations meeting. While the meeting didn’t touch on Israel issues, Hollier left a good impression on Lopatin.
“He was just a great guy who really had thoughtful positions on criminal justice reform, on gun control … on the issues we feel strongly about,” said Lopatin, adding that they met a second time at an event advocating for social action for communities in Detroit.
“I’m not surprised that someone who is so intelligent and rational and thoughtful on other issues is also thoughtful on Israel and supportive of Israel,” he said.
‘Astounded with how much money is being spent’
Despite the influx of cash from pro-Israel organizations, Hollier’s total raised is dwarfed by Thanedar’s self-financing. As of the last Federal Election Commission campaign finance reporting date, Thanedar’s campaign amassed $8.2 million during the campaign cycle—with all but a little more than $10,000 coming from him.
Hollier has so far raised the most out of the 10 other candidates in the race with a little under $1 million. Four other candidates, including former Obama-administration official Portia Roberson, raised respectable sums and, with the wide-open primary, all have a chance to take the nomination.
“I’m sort of astounded with how much money is being spent in this race,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “I guess part of the calculation might be whoever wins this primary might be in office for a very long time, so maybe the various groups intervening here feel like this is the time to spend because it’s a safe Democratic seat and whoever ends up winning very well could hold it for the rest of the decade or even beyond.”
Dulio said that it appears to him that Hollier is making more headway with the funding he has than other candidates by using it to touch on the most important issues in the race. Hollier’s ads, he said, were “hitting on important issues that the voters probably care a lot about.”
“I mean, he’s got ads up and they talk about the economy but also clean water,” he said. “For me, I guess, a feeling is important because I remember the Hollier ads more than I remember the Thanedar ads.”
But despite the differences in fundraising, there is no clear frontrunner and the race could be decided by very low margins of victory and the polling in congressional districts is not accurate enough to make predictions.
The most recent poll, conducted by the Lansing, Mich.-based pollsters Target Insyght, shows Thanedar leading the race with 22%, followed by Roberson with 17%, Hollier with 16%, and the rest of the candidates polling in single digits.
“There are so many people in it and you know, somebody can win that race with 20%,” said Dulio. “But you don’t necessarily need all that many votes to come out on top if support is really splintered across all those different candidates.”