Abdul El-Sayed says America is ready for its first Muslim governor. He's thrown his hat in the ring in his home state of Michigan, banking on his advocacy for progressive policies like a single payer health care and legalizing marijuana to reap the tax benefits.
"Think about what it would mean for our country," El-Sayed said, "if one of the states that helped push Donald Trump over the edge turned around and elected a 33-year-old Muslim-doctor as governor."
A first-generation American, El-Sayed is also a former star athlete, Rhodes Scholar and university professor. He cut his teeth in public service as director of Detroit's public health system, a job he took on at just 30 years old. At the time, El-Sayed was working as a professor at Columbia University and became frustrated studying health disparities and feeling like he could not have an immediate impact.
"I really wanted to be a part of fixing the problem," he said. "I didn't feel a sense of urgency in the room. I think a lot of folks in the academy do great work and it matters, but they're so far removed from the people who suffer the disparities that they study. And I think when you take the time to expose yourself to that, the sense of urgency comes back."
After accepting the job as director of Detroit’s public health system, El-Sayed and his team instituted social programs that delivered free glasses to every child in the city that needed them, rebuilt the animal control system and created peer-mentorship programs for mothers who are newly pregnant.
“We were able to deliver a set of goods and services to people in the city that hadn't been delivered for a very long time,” he said.
Realizing that he was still limited in his ability to enact policy change as health director, El-Sayed said he decided to run for Governor. He said he wanted to build “the kinds of institutions that empower people to have their best, most dignified lives."
"So much of the work that we needed to do in places like Detroit and in places like Flint and other places like Kalkaska ... require an agenda that puts people's well-being first," El-Sayed said. "I wasn't seeing that either at the city level or at the state level."
But, running for elected office wasn’t always a consideration for El-Sayed. He said the first person to ever tell him to consider a career in politics was former President Clinton, who was his college commencement speaker. El-Sayed was valedictorian at his college and said that Clinton approached him after his speech and asked why he was going to medical school and suggested he should consider running for office.
At the time, just six years after 9/11, El-Sayed recalls thinking elected office was not possible for someone like him. It wasn’t until 2004, when he saw President Obama speaking at the Democratic National Convention, that he felt a “young brown man with a funny name” like himself could run for office.
Now, he wants to lead the state that won Donald Trump the presidency by campaigning on unity, hope and creating faith in a new generation of leadership.
“It has been a hard 10 years in Michigan, but I hope that we can think about what we want to build together," El-Sayed said, "that we are willing to dignify all of us, as equal under the eyes of the law, and equal under our state's goals and aspirations and then build that way."
Check out the full conversation on this week’s episode of "Uncomfortable."
El-Sayed was interviewed as part of a series called "Uncomfortable," hosted by Amna Nawaz, that offers in-depth honest conversations with influential leaders about issues dividing America.