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Okemos – The Michigan Nurses Association union on Monday endorsed Democrat Abdul El-Sayed for governor, giving the 33-year-old medical doctor his first significant labor endorsement ahead of the 2018 primary.

The announcement is a boost for El-Sayed as the former Detroit health department director works to gain ground on former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination who has dominated the endorsement race to date.

President John Armelagos said the 13,000-member association is backing El-Sayed because of his commitment to the union’s “core values,” including support for a “Medicare for All” national health care system and the bipartisan Safe Patient Care Act introduced in the state Legislature in May.

“This was not an anti-Gretchen endorsement,” Armelagos said. “This was a pro-Abdul endorsement.”

Nurses Association Vice President Jamie Brown said she went into the candidate interview process “fully expecting to come out endorsing” Whitmer but ultimately joined in a unanimous board vote to back El-Sayed.

“She didn’t have the policies,” Brown said of Whitmer. “Abdul came in, and he had the policies. He had the answers. Everything we threw at him; he had the answer to it.”

While voters will decide Democratic and Republican gubernatorial nominees at the ballot box in August, endorsements and fund-raising totals are early indicators of institutional and grassroots support.

Whitmer, the former interim Ingham County prosecutor, has raised more money than El-Sayed and has been attempting to consolidate Democratic support for the 2018 primary.

She boasts a national endorsement from EMILY’s List, backing from Wayne County leaders including Executive Warren Evans, and endorsements from unions such as the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights.

Unions backing Whitmer represent more than 175,000 Michigan workers and retirees, according to her campaign. But several of the state’s most powerful unions – the United Auto Workers, Michigan Education Association and Service Employees International Union – have yet to endorse a gubernatorial candidate.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, the early favorite for the Republican nomination, continues to pick up endorsements. Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden announced his support for Schuette on Monday, joining a growing list that includes President Donald Trump, former Gov. John Engler and U.S. Reps. Dave Trott of Birmingham and John Moolenaar of Midland.

Schuette is competing against state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton and Saginaw-area obstetrician Jim Hines. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley of Portland is also expected to seek the Republican nomination but has not yet announced a campaign.

The Democratic field includes Ann Arbor Entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, who has committed nearly $6 million of his own personal fortune to his campaign, and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs of Farmington Hills.

The Michigan Nurses Association endorsed eventual Democratic nominee Virg Bernero in the 2010 primary and backed former congressman Mark Schauer in his uncontested 2014 primary race.

State records show the nurses’ political action committee donated $39,500 to Schauer in his failed bid to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014. The PAC also spent $180,000 on ads supporting the Democratic nominee, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The nurses’ union will primarily focus on direct voter contact in the run-up to the 2018 primary, Armelago said, promising the group will “mobilize nurses all over the state” to talk about El-Sayed in their own neighborhoods.

El-Sayed, who recently moved to Shelby Township, welcomed the union endorsement and praised the profession, noting his wife is nine months pregnant.

He touted his support for a universal health care system and defended his decision to provide his own staff with a stipend to purchase health insurance rather than directly provide coverage as an employer.

“In the broken system we have right now, I want to make sure everybody on my staff has access to health care. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” El-Sayed said.

“But I want to be clear that the world we ought to be building in Michigan should be one where nobody has to worry about if they’re employed or who their employer is to have access to a basic set of services that we should call a human right.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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