Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed is, in many ways, a perfect avatar of the current progressive movement.
He is a youthful, witty, 33-year old Muslim doctor running for the highest office in a Rust Belt state that President Donald Trump won in 2016. One can easily imagine him in a comic book about a valiant hero of the anti-Trump Resistance.
But El-Sayed, having witnessed the Obama election, the Flint water crisis and the Trump election firsthand, is aware of the pitfalls in celebrating symbolism too soon. He’s an underdog, and he appears less interested in the implications of his personal story than some writers who have heralded him as an heir to Obama’s legacy.
It was 2015 when El-Sayed assumed directorship of the Detroit Health Department. At the time, he was appointed to guide the city through the throes of a water contamination crisis. The rapidly waning popularity of Gov. Rick Snyder (R) throughout that crisis, coupled with Michigan’s reliance on industries increasingly breaking ground overseas, led nearly two dozen candidates from all parties in Michigan to see fertile ground for their gubernatorial campaigns.
This frantic race to the governor’s mansion has exposed fissures not only between Michigan’s major political parties, but within them as well. El-Sayed, for example, is currently facing skeptics and opponents within the Democratic Party who suggest that since he was recently registered to vote in New York, he may be ineligible to even run for the governorship.
HuffPost chatted with El-Sayed about those intraparty tensions, Trump, and the hard work of changing minds in Michigan on the campaign trail.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
A lot of people are asking about the way forward in the Trump era, and particularly in Michigan — a state that’s been racked by the Flint crisis and is holding an election to replace Rick Snyder. I wonder what sort of things you feel you have to do, as perhaps the most progressive gubernatorial candidate, to attract voters in a state Donald Trump won in 2016.
I’ll tell you: I was never supposed to run for office, and I only came to politics recognizing that every step of the way in my career — with the goal of helping solve inequities as they accented themselves on people’s bodies — I came to appreciate the massive role of politics in shaping the context within which people actually experience their health.
I grew up just outside Detroit. If you were to drive about 30 minutes between where I grew up and any neighborhood in the city, you’d be driving through about 10 years’ difference in life expectancy. That’s what took me into public health, and ultimately, into politics.
[Public health] has nothing to do with a lot of what we spend our time focusing on — you know, the microbiology of cells. Instead, it has a lot more to do with access to basic goods and resources; a good job that pays a living wage, puts a roof over someone’s head, puts clean air in their lungs, clean water in their cups, and lets them walk in their communities without being victimized by either the neighbor next door or the state itself. Those are the things that ultimately shape health and disease, and those are the things that state government has to be focused on.
One of the challenges progressives have had for a long time is how to speak about policies in ways that are both: A) rigorous, and B) appealing to communities across the board. I took a bet on the fact that my background is such that I’ve had experiences across the different kinds of communities in Michigan.
“I think people are thirsty for a politics that doesn’t force us all to hate each other.”
My father is an immigrant from Alexandria; I’ve done my work in urban neighborhoods in Detroit; my stepmother, who raised me, was born and raised out in Gratiot County, in the rural parts of the state. And one of the things I came to appreciate from just my personal experience is that the challenges that people face across the board — whether you’re talking about poor or working or retired people in Detroit or Flint, or poor, working, or retired people in Gratiot County or Kalkaska — is that they’re actually the same experiences. They just haven’t been allowed to have those conversations, because our politics have so divided people.
My job is to be able to unite them — to speak to the experiences that so many of them suffer as a function of bought-out, incompetent leadership — and then be able to talk about solutions that bridge those divides. I think that’s what progressives have to be able to do: get it right, in terms of a multiplicity of experiences; get it right in terms of rigorous solutions to challenges that people face; and get it right in terms of being able to speak about how we bring people together. Even people who haven’t traditionally seen themselves as under the progressive fold.
How possible do you think that is now, given the toxicity in our political dialogue and how much of it isn’t centered around actual policy, but more so about the things that divide us? How do you feel you’ll navigate that environment?
I think it’s never been more possible. I think people are thirsty for a politics that doesn’t force us all to hate each other. I think people are thirsty for a politics that actually speaks to solutions rather than to problems. And I think people are thirsty for a new look on their politics. Our particular campaign offers all three of those. So I’ve been more than surprised by just how warm our reception has been all over the state. When I talk to real people across the state, they are hungry, they are excited, they are motivated.
Now, if you talk to the power players that have sort of bought and sold politics for so long — or have been complicit in this corporate scheme that has become our politics — they see me as a deep threat. But hey, at the end of the day, each of them only marshals one vote. My job is to be able to go and win hearts and minds in communities all over this state with the opportunity of calling people to something that frankly speaks to what we can do together.
I’ve always said that if this thing was about one candidate, we would’ve lost already. But if it’s about a movement of people who see in each other the solution for the politics they’ve always wanted, then I think we get there.
You mentioned political power brokers who inhibit progress. What are your thoughts about the debate over your eligibility for office? What’s been taking place with that in the recent past?
To me, it’s a nonissue. I know I’m eligible. We’ve done our homework. We’ve crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s. You know, you don’t do two doctorates and not do your homework, so we’ve done our homework on this. We know that I am eligible, and this is about being able to push back against the attempts to otherize somebody because of his progressive politics and other things about his demographics that are so easy to otherize.
I don’t pay much attention to it; it’s not something that sits in the back of my mind all day. My job is to connect to people, but we know we’re going to be just fine when the opportunity shows itself to clear this up, and we will. We’ll be on the ballot, and to that end, nothing’s really changed about what it is we need to do. We need to be able to inspire people to believe in themselves again, and to believe in our politics again, and to talk about politics that bring us all together. That has always been the mission, and I hope that is big enough for the people in the state of Michigan.
Eligibility stuff ... Hey, you know, they’re gonna throw everything they have at you if you’re succeeding. We saw it coming a mile away, we’ve been ready for it, and it’ll solve itself in the court of law, not the court of public opinion.
Do you feel as though the blowback you’re getting from more traditional candidates with longer political histories is demonstrative of a general crisis in Democratic politics or is this something specific to your state?
I think it’s well-known that the Democrats are fighting a battle over the soul of who we are. And people like me are trying to call us to our ideals, not our identity. It doesn’t matter if you wear the blue jersey and call yourself a Democrat. What matters is that you have policies that support real people and real places — that you’re calling your community to something that is more just, more equitable and more sustainable — that you are not eating at the same corporate trough that has corrupted our politics for a long time — that you’re talking about solutions rather than just fighting the same old problems.
A lot of the old, corporate Democratic brand is a bit stale. It’s a little bit defunct of ideas. It hasn’t really been able to articulate itself very well, and I think it’s gasping, because it’s been so beholden, or on top of the power grab, and it’s just now starting to appreciate that, well, time has moved on and the sort of incremental, centrist ideas just don’t inspire people anymore, especially when they know you’re beholden to the same powers that are calling the shots on the other side, too.
“The good news here is that the only party that’s more broken than Democrats is Republicans.”
And people like me, and progressives all over the country and the state — starting with Sen. [Bernie] Sanders — have really called this what it is, which is that we cannot be peddling light versions of the same ideas and somehow think we’re going to win elections against a GOP that’s moving further and further right.
So the good news here is that the only party that’s more broken than Democrats is Republicans. And I think that a progressive voice and progressive ideas are winning. But I think this is a time for us, in this country, seeing all of the challenges we face with an economy that has fed more and more money to the top, with a social system that has failed poor and working people, with the failure to do basic things like provide health care to people or guarantee them a livable wage, there’s a time now where we have to stand up and say, “Enough is enough.” We are going to fight for policies that are well-articulated and actually speak to the real experiences of poor and working and retired people across the state and in this country. And we’re gonna have some guts in our politics again, and we’re gonna win.
Speaking of winning strategies, there seem to be two schools of thought nowadays in progressive politics: one that suggests you speak openly and honestly about matters of race, ethnicity and religion, while others reject these so-called identity politics outright. I think you’re in a unique position because you’re ― in some ways ― the literal antithesis of what Donald Trump sees as the future of the country, and I wonder how, if at all, that factors into your political calculus.
It’s not even about my faith and my ethnicity. It’s about racism in America. You can’t talk about the challenges poor and working people face without having an honest conversation about race. About 15 percent of this country has had a bum deal from the very beginning, as a function of the reality of slavery — as a function of the reality of Jim Crow — as a function of the reality of structural racism. The fact of racism in American society is real, and if you ignore it and choose not to talk about it, I think you do a grave disservice to the justice that we fight for.
And again, it’s not even about my faith or ethnicity, to be clear. I mean, my dad immigrated to this country. My dad came here to do a graduate degree and I got to live an incredibly privileged life as a function of the work that he, my mother, and my stepmother did to provide me opportunities. And so whatever I’m facing as a function of my faith or my race right now simply pales in comparison to the kind of structural racism that we see in communities nationwide.
“I just don’t think we can have an honest conversation about the challenges in our country without talking about race.”
Do you think there’s an appetite for that narrative in Michigan?
When I think about politics at its most elemental form, it’s about message, moments, and messenger. People are looking for a real message that is true to their experiences, not something that has been baked and polished out of some poll test. They’re looking for messengers who can honestly and truthfully talk about that message out of their own lived experience and the lived experience of others in their lives, and that has to be true to a moment in our politics.
To me, it’s about those things coming together. Any one of those three is just not gonna do it; it’s about those things coming together in a real human being who lives and breathes and talks, and has strengths and weaknesses.
People vote for people, at the end of the day. They don’t vote for a message on a poll. And I think the responsibility of anyone running for office now is to be true to who they are in this moment and not shy away from that. The amount of well-meaning advice I got that told me to lean off of my name, and my ethnicity and my faith — “Maybe you can shave your beard, maybe you can change your name to Abe” — I was like, “That’s not who I am.”
And that’s not who I will be. And so I only win this thing by being me, not by trying to trick some voter into voting for some doctored version of me who is poll-tested and clean and smooth. You get me, warts and all. And you may disagree with me on things, but for damn sure, you’re gonna know where I stand, because I’m gonna be honest with you about where I stand. And if you like me, you’ll vote for me. If you don’t, you won’t; and I’m okay with that.
“I only win this thing by being me, not by trying to trick some voter into voting for some doctored version of me who is poll-tested and clean and smooth.”
How much of your candidacy now relies on shoring up support from those who were jilted by the happenings in Flint and want to see their government go in a different direction? Given your experience as Detroit’s health officer, does Flint factor at all into your political calculus?
Flint actually broke while I was at the city, early in my tenure, and I think, like everybody, I was just flabbergasted. And as somebody who spent his entire life learning how to or performing the work of providing basic health, goods and services to people, I was shocked and appalled and sad.
It certainly shaped the way that we went about our work in Detroit, but also indelibly shapes the way we have to think about governance. I mean, if there’s an emblem of exactly how the current leadership has failed Michiganders, it’s the city of Flint.
And the thing about Flint is that it actually goes well, well, beyond the decision to change the water source and failing to buffer that water. It starts in the way that urban planning moved certain groups of people into the least desirable parts of town because of their skin; how we sold our entire civic space to one set of industries, and when those industries left, we were left with nothing —those who had means left the city, and those who were left over were the people who had been shunted into the worst parts of town to begin with.
“As somebody who spent his entire life learning how to or performing the work of providing basic health, goods and services to people, I was shocked and appalled and sad.”
I’ve always been somebody who has tried hard to set what true north is based on my values, and fight for true north no matter who’s on the other side of that and ― you know ― opposed my own boss, the mayor of Detroit, on things related to water shutoffs and the fact that our demolitions program in the city was demonstrably affecting children and exposing them to lead.
I’ve always tried to stand up for what is truth and work for a world that benefits real people when institutions fail them, so Flint is a really, really important point when you think about what we need to do differently and how we need to do it differently in the state of Michigan.
A lot of people have said that in order for the party to establish a viable Democratic coalition, it needs to center black voters. Have you pursued anything particular in your platform, aside from criminal justice reform, that you think would help shore up the black vote that may typically go for more traditional and well-known candidates in the Democratic Party?
I agree entirely that if we are not paying attention to the challenges of communities of color in our politics, we fail every single time. And that’s because a lot of our biggest challenges sit in communities of color and in the places where communities of color have disproportionately been concentrated, largely because of our public policies. Simply getting it right matters a lot, so our urban agenda is framed around the challenges people in communities like Detroit face, which is 80 percent black.
That’s not to say that those challenges are specific, but that is to say that we want to give a lot of attention to the way that policy has failed urban communities and the ways that structural racism has manifested itself in those communities around things like housing, around things like criminal justice, around things as simple as how you pay for auto insurance. And being able to call it out when we see structural racism disproportionately challenging the lives of people of color in urban communities and in other communities as well, but with a focus on those issues.
So calling out the redlining that currently still exists in the way that auto insurance companies charge for auto insurance that has largely left people of color paying substantially more, and without the ability of actually paying their auto insurance. Things like the way the certain schools have been funded and others not funded as a function of which children go there. Talking about things like criminal justice and the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs on people of color. These are areas where we want to talk about structural racism where it exists.
Like I said, I won’t ignore the issue and I will call it out every single time I see it, because it is a responsibility of someone who claims to speak to a more just, more equitable, more sustainable state.
I’m curious, given the ubiquity of Donald Trump, what role — if any — he plays in your campaign strategy.
I’m not running against him. He’s the president of the United States for now, and I’m running for governor of the state of Michigan. That being said, it is impossible to frame the current moment without his ubiquity being a part of that. He’s done some terrible things that have set the stage for a gutting of our economy; for an acceleration of the inequality that we see; for a failure to protect our most vulnerable; and for a lack of funds that we need to provide basic services to people who fundamentally need them, so being able to speak to that really matters.
Also, a lot of people are looking for how to send a message — if not a middle finger — to somebody like Donald Trump and, you know, I’m probably a 215-pound manifestation of what that middle finger would look like, given the fact that I couldn’t be more antithetical to him in a state that he won by the narrowest of margins. And so a lot of folks have framed it that way. But to me, it’s about speaking about what we can do for real people.
“A lot of people are looking for how to send a message — if not a middle finger — to somebody like Donald Trump and ... I’m probably a 215-pound manifestation of what that middle finger would look like.”
One of the mistakes I think Democrats in particular do, and progressives often do too, is to always frame themselves against Donald Trump ― so, rather than saying what we’re going to do, we say what we’re not going to do, and I think it’s really hard for people to vote for something that’s not going to happen. So I’ve always been really clear about what I wanna do.
And the other thing we try to do is prosecute people who voted for Donald Trump. Look, I’ve got an uncle who voted for him; he was one of my favorite people growing up. This is the guy who took us snowmobiling in the winter and water skiing in the summer. He taught me what a mustard pretzel was, which I eat to this day. And he would go as far as preparing venison halal, so that my family could eat it.
And this is not somebody who is at all motivated by the animus that has become so emblematic of Donald Trump’s presidency. But he is somebody who drove a truck his whole life, who lost his trucking business in 2008, had to lay off people whose children relied on him for the job he gave their family, and — you know — felt like he was between somebody who was kinda crazy but was talking about challenges people like him face, and somebody else who didn’t take the time to come to communities like his and to tell him the economy is back, even though it’s not back for people like him, however back it is for people on Wall Street until yesterday. And so he made a decision, and it was very different from the one that I made.
And I remember asking him about it, and in the end, he was like, “Look, I voted my best interests and you voted yours.” And so, it doesn’t help us to go to people like my uncle and say, “How could you? Don’t you see that you are wrong now?” It only helps us to say, “Look, alright, we did that, now let’s see how is it that we can actually build the kind of government that’s worthy of all of us and our children. And how do we call on ourselves to come together rather than divide?”
I think we’re stronger overall, whatever the decision you made in 2016. And I’m not interested in what happened in 2016; I’m interested in what’s gonna happen in 2018.