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Why Democrats Are Lining Up to Oust One of Their Own

Shri Thanedar is the first Indian American elected to Congress from Michigan, but some prominent Democrats are supporting his challenger.

Shri Thanedar
Shri Thanedar. Michael Buck/Wood-TV8 via AP

Democrats are actively trying to oust an incumbent lawmaker in a rare and coordinated effort to restore a Black representative to one of Detroit’s congressional seats.

When Rep. Shri Thanedar took office, it marked the first time in nearly 70 years that the city had no Black representation in Congress. While Thanedar made history in his own right as the first Indian American to represent Michigan in Washington, many Democrats are now putting their weight behind his challenger, Adam Hollier, to represent the majority Black city of Detroit.

It’s rare for a primary challenger to a lawmaker in a very safe seat to earn so much support from members of the same party. Hollier, who was one of several Black candidates to lose to Thanedar in a crowded 2022 primary, has endorsements from high-profile Democrats in Michigan, including the sitting secretary of state, the Michigan House Speaker and members of the state legislature. Hollier, a former state senator who continues to work in Michigan government, also has the backing of a senior Black member of Congress and says he has the ear of other members of the Michigan delegation and the Congressional Black Caucus.

For now, Thanedar says he is not worried.

“We are a good three months away from the filing deadline,” Thanedar told NOTUS, shrugging off the threat. “I have a job to do in Washington, D.C. … There’s plenty of time for electioneering.”

In the short time Thanedar has been in Congress, he’s faced accusations of running a toxic work environment, not doing enough for his constituents back in Detroit and spending too much time making memes for his social media accounts (accusations he denies). He’s also spent millions of his own money funding his campaigns. The primary election for his 13th District seat, which swings heavily Democratic, will take place in August, and the winner of that will likely be the next representative.

“I’m not here to crucify Shri Thanedar,” said former Rep. Brenda Lawrence, who is Black and represented a part of Thanedar’s district before Michigan’s maps were redrawn. “It’s just, your skill sets are matched for certain tasks, and I do not see the reality of his skillset being matched to being a member of Congress.”

Lawrence has been particularly vocal about having Black representation in Congress for Detroit. Last year she led several top Democrats in signing a letter asking other officials to unite behind Hollier to avoid a contentious primary fight.

“We know that Black voters are the bedrock of the Democratic party, and we know what Adam’s election will mean for so many across the community. Representation matters, and Adam’s election will energize and mobilize Black voters and young voters alike – two groups that will decide the fate of the Presidential election here in Michigan,” the letter read.

The letter also takes several thinly veiled swipes at Thanedar without using his name, admonishing “out of touch multi-millionaires” for turning a “blind eye to the struggles of working people across the Detroit area.”

“They’d rather post memes than roll up their sleeves and actually get something done — and we’ve had more than enough of that,” it continued.

Lawrence told NOTUS she understood that Thanedar would “have a learning curve” because he’s in his first term, but too many residents keep calling her to complain about his ineffectiveness, she said.

Hollier also has won the public support of current Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore, who endorsed him last Fall. Hollier and Moore met at a conference two years ago and have remained close, he said. Much later, when he attended a CBC legislative conference, other attendees from Wisconsin had lauded Moore’s willingness to support upcoming leaders and how she prides herself on “building up our bench,” he recalled.

“We just vibed from the beginning,” Hollier told NOTUS. “She’s someone with a long track record of supporting the next generation of leadership, including people like myself and [former Wisconsin Senate candidate] Mandela Barnes.” Moore’s office declined to comment.

Most Michigan Democrats in Congress won’t say anything negative about Thanedar, but they aren’t rushing to his defense either.

Rep. Debbie Dingell told NOTUS she keeps in touch with Hollier because they “do veterans stuff together.” She declined to say whether she would endorse Hollier, citing the “Dingell rule”— an unofficial policy instituted by her late husband, former Rep. John Dingell, that instructs members of the Michigan delegation to not speak negatively of each other publicly.

“Adam’s a good guy, so is Shri,” she said.

But Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who also represents a part of Detroit, hasn’t been so reticent to criticize Thanedar. The two very publicly fought in October when he criticized her statement in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel. Tlaib, who is the only Palestinian member of Congress, then accused Thanedar of neglecting his congressional duties and “leaving his working-class communities … with no real advocate.”

At around the same time, Thanedar’s former communications director, Adam Abusalah, also accused Thanedar in an X thread of prioritizing his campaign over his legislative work and of creating a toxic work environment.

Thanedar vehemently denied both Tlaib and Abusalah’s allegations and told NOTUS in an interview last year that Abusalah had written the thread because “he’s a Palestinian American and he clearly was upset by my stance on Israel.” Abusalah said he did the thread because Shri was “lying” about his work.

Other Democrats in the Michigan delegation say they’re staying out of the primary fight for now – but acknowledge that they’re in contact with Hollier.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who’s currently running for Michigan’s open Senate seat, touted a “long relationship” with Hollier. Rep. Dan Kildee, who helped Hollier during his 2022 bid, told NOTUS that he last spoke to Hollier three weeks ago. “He just calls to update me on what’s going on,” Kildee said.

Kildee, like top Democrats in his state, said he thought there was a “valid argument” for Black representation in Detroit given that the city had a Black representative for almost seven decades and he understood Moore’s decision to back Hollier. (Due to redistricting, Tlaib was redrawn into the 12th District, replacing Lawrence, and Thanedar won the open seat in the 13th).

Slotkin agreed.

“We all grew up with John Conyers,” Slotkin told NOTUS, “So it doesn’t surprise me that Gwen got involved.”

Beyond Moore, Hollier said he has also spoken to Congressional Black Caucus leadership although he declined to specify who.

Thanedar maintains that he has good relationships with members of the CBC (he even attempted to join the caucus when he got to Congress but was told membership was limited to Black members) and that he is passionate about his constituents’ issues despite not being Black.

“I want to respect their tradition,” Thanedar said. “I just basically decided to develop relationships with members of the [caucus] … and through them, I would often ask, ‘What are you talking about in the caucus?’”

He said his friends in the CBC are Reps. Jasmine Crockett of Texas and Jonathan Jackson of Illinois, and he considers Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee his “mentor.”

Thanedar said he “kind of pick[s] her brain in terms of what she sees as possible solutions” for his constituents. The offices of Crockett, Jackson and Jackson-Lee did not return a request for comment.

“I am as hardworking and taken as seriously as any member of Congress,” he told HuffPost last year.

However, Thanedar did acknowledge to NOTUS that his colleagues do have a hard time receiving him because he’s “an outsider to the establishment.”

“Somehow people really do not know how to react to me,” he said.

Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.