×

A Big Mac of a game-changer?

We’ll never know, but, if a clandestine meeting had happened between the two progressive Democrats running for governor in 2018, Gov. Shri Thanedar might be the one presiding over the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and not Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Far-fetched?

Maybe.

But maybe not.

Everyone knows that politics takes place on two platforms. The obvious one is for general public consumption, where the office-seekers are on their best behavior, trying to curry not only favor but votes from those who listen to their spiel. The other level is the one that is infinitely more revealing and intriguing, and, in many cases, it’s what happens behind the curtains that determines the winners and losers.

Such was that scheduled meeting between Thanedar, a total newcomer to the Michigan political scene, and Dr. Abdul El Sayed, who was as equally wet behind the ears.

They were the two left-of-center candidates trying to block the Whitmer juggernaut as she methodically plowed toward the Democratic nomination for governor by ignoring her opponents and playing her own game of promising to fix the you-know-what.

While she played to the center of the party, with the help of organized labor and a host of other allies, the two gentlemen appealed to the emerging and not-to-be-trifled-with Bernie Sanders wing of the party.

Recall that the good senator knocked off Hillary Clinton in Michigan’s presidential primary, fueled by a passionate cadre of young and wide-eyed voters. Ms. Whitmer could not ignore the potential in that new coalition. But she knew, as did others, that, as long as Dr. Thanedar and Dr. El Sayed duked it out on the left-of-center spectrum, competing for the same money and votes, she could pull off a Rick Snyder.

When he ran for governor the first time, the self-described nerd was the only one who appeared to have some appeal to what was left of the moderate wing of the decidedly right-wing GOP, and, while his opponents tugged and pulled at the larger conservative base of the Michigan GOP, they proceeded to splinter the conservative vote while Mr. Snyder cobbled together some independents, some Democrats, and those moderate GOPers. He won the primary with only 38% of the vote.

Had it been a two-person race, there is little doubt that former congressman Pete Hoekstra could have secured the nomination, leaving the nerd to take his spreadsheets back to Ann Arbor.

And here was the Democratic race for governor taking on the same feel as that Snyder contest.

Which is why Mr. Thanedar wanted a private meeting with his opponent, to have what he now describes as a “heart-to-heart” talk, in a story that has never been told until now.

For weeks he lobbied for the sit-down, and Dr. El Sayed first suggested they meet in Detroit.

Mindful that the media hounds might discover them and blow the cover of the backroom confab, Mr. Thanedar suggested instead the McDonald’s in Romulus.

Really.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Dr. Thanedar had two things on his agenda.

First, he was being pummeled by his fellow progressives on social media, in paid media, and it seemed like everywhere he turned, he was getting whacked. It was not helping his campaign one iota, and he wanted at least a chance to have his opponent knock it off.

Secondly, he was prepared to make a pitch that one of them should drop out, thus making a mano-on-woman-o contest, where the chances of upsetting her in the primary were more realistic than the three-person race.

Mr. Thanedar had the bankroll to win this thing, and was prepared to spend it, but he could not focus on Ms. Whitmer alone, because Dr. El Sayed was forcing him to fight him at the same time. That siphoned off money, time, and energy that could be better spent trying to block her from the nomination.

But, when the day came to order a Big Mac in Romulus and work on beating her, the El Sayed folks canceled the meeting without an explanation.

What might have been never was, and the two guys split up the progressive vote, and she won the nomination.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Newsletter

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)