Abdul El-Sayed is a 32-year-old physician, Rhodes Scholar and became youngest person to lead a major American city’s health department when, at the age of 30, he was brought in to rebuild Detroit’s Health Department after the city went bankrupt.
“I was never supposed to run for office, at least not in my own mind,” El-Sayed said. But after the Flint water crisis, El-Sayed, who was nudged to run for office by President Bill Clinton at his college graduation, decided it was time to enter the political fray.
Despite his trepidation, El-Sayed, the son of Egyptian immigrants, is now waging an aggressive campaign to become Michigan’s next governor. If he's successful, he could be sworn in as America’s first Muslim governor in 2019.
A ‘Muslim’ candidate?
El-Sayed bristles at the notion that he's a “Muslim candidate,” calling his faith “irrelevant” to whether or not he is the best person to hold Michigan’s top office.
“I’m not running to be the first Muslim governor of Michigan. I’m running to be the governor of Michigan and I also happen to be Muslim,” El-Sayed said.
El-Sayed acknowledged the difficulties the American Muslim community faces 16 years after the 9/11 attacks.
“There’s been a deep curtailing of our civil liberties, starting with the Patriot Act and the large bureaucracy that's been built to surveil people who are just trying to live their lives,” El-Sayed said. “The minute that you are looked or glanced at when you walk through a public place because of the scarf on your head or the beard on your face and the complexion of your skin, those make it hard.”
El-Sayed remains optimistic about his ability to communicate his message despite the sensitivities surrounding religion in America.
“People have always asked, how are you going to have a conversation with people in Donald Trump's America? And my push-back is it's not Donald Trump's America, it is our United States of America,” El-Sayed says, “It’s the same responsibility that Americans have shared in our country since its inception.”
Rethinking the Democratic dogma
Trump’s unexpected 2016 win in Michigan has prompted much soul-searching in the Democratic Party, and El-Sayed has not shied away from voicing criticism.
“The central challenge that Democrats are facing right now is that they are relying on a system of funding that is antithetical to the ideals that they claim to support,” El-Sayed says, repeating the rallying cry of the fiery populist Bernie Sanders.
“What Bernie has been able to demonstrate for Democrats is that actually telling the truth is going to be about truly and deeply advocating for real people and communities across our state and our country.”
But as he praises Sanders, El-Sayed acknowledges that Trump was able to tap into an anxiety that runs deep in a state left reeling by the 2008 financial crisis, even as it has seen its unemployment rate drop below 4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We look at unemployment numbers, which are relatively low, but if you look at labor participation it has stagnated tremendously over the past decade,” El-Sayed said, “Both Bernie and Trump were tapping in to that reality. I think Bernie with a set of solutions and a focus on solving them, I think Trump with a focus on exploiting them.”
Hitting the road
Thus far El-Sayed has visited 81 cities and 35 counties in the state of Michigan according to his campaign, and embarked on a second listening tour of the state this week, taking a cue from Sanders and Trump who he said were “having conversations with everyone” and “left no voter behind.”