Lansing — If Michigan elects a Democratic governor in 2018, it could be a historic first.
Voters could elect the nation’s and state’s first Muslim governor, Michigan’s first black governor or its first Indian-American governor. Or they could pick the state’s second female governor.
So far, not a single high-profile white man is vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination, though Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger has expressed interest. The declared and expected GOP candidates, which include Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette, are all white men.
With 11 months to go before the primary, Michigan is boasting an incredibly diverse Democratic candidate pool after voting Republican for president last year for the first time in 28 years. Michigan narrowly voted for Donald Trump, who has weathered criticism over his perceived reluctance to distance himself from white supremacists and history of offensive comments about Muslims, Mexicans and women.
Gretchen Whitmer is an early front-runner who is racking up Democratic establishment endorsements.
Next in line are Abdul El-Sayed, Detroit’s former health director and an Arab-American and Muslim; wealthy Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar, an Indian-American immigrant; and former Xerox Global Vice President Bill Cobbs of Farmington Hills, who is black. Justin Giroux, a restaurant worker from Wayland, and Kentiel White, a black health care worker from Southgate are also running.
In interviews, the candidates don’t stress their diversity, preferring to emphasize their policy stances or their general appeal.
“I’ll be honest: I’ve always thought about myself as so fundamentally American that I couldn’t escape my American-ness if I tried,” El-Sayed said. “So this for me is about embracing our country and the opportunities it offers because of the challenges that we face right now and the need to have high quality leadership and people who come together in solving those challenges.”
Michigan State Police said hate crimes in the state rose 23 percent in 2016, but the 32-year-old epidemiologist and Detroiter expresses faith in Michigan’s residents.
“Now, a lot has been made about my faith and my ethnicity,” El-Sayed said. “I can tell you this: I know, having been to 80 different cities and 40 counties across the state, that Michiganders are really good people. People are not asking me as much about how I pray as about what I pray for.”
Thanedar, who says he immigrated to the United States in 1979 with $16 in his pocket, considers himself “as much an American as anyone else.” He became a U.S. citizen in 1988, made a fortune running businesses and is now dumping more than $3 million of his own money into his campaign.
He likes to talk about his success story, fixing the state’s infrastructure and improving the state’s education system. If elected, the businessman would become the nation’s third Indian-American governor, but that’s not his focus.
“You know, I don’t look at myself as an Indian-American,” Thanedar said. “I just look at myself as American.”
Cobbs jabs Trump for “not really trying to build an inclusive America.” But he said he doesn’t see racism as a challenge to his campaign.
“I think rather than talk about being its first black governor, I think what’s most important is that I’d be a governor who’s committed to working on behalf of all of our citizens,” Cobbs said. “I don’t think that my being black should be a factor.”
What would it mean for Michigan to elect the state’s second female governor after Jennifer Granholm?
“I think more than anything what it means is that we would finally have a progressive governor who knows how to get things done and get this state back on a trajectory where we are leading,” Whitmer said.
The candidates’ reluctance to talk about race, ethnicity, religion or gender — or spend much time bashing Trump — might be due in part to Hillary Clinton’s failed Democratic presidential campaign, said Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
Clinton’s campaign was heavy on slamming the New York billionaire’s character and promoting diversity, but she still lost reliable Democratic-leaning states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Whitmer suggested she won’t make the same mistake.
“They weren’t inspired by the message,” the 46-year-old former state Senate minority leader said. “They didn’t see how anyone’s plan was going to, you know, improve their lives. We’re not going to make that mistake.”
Research shows white voters who are reminded that demographic trends mean they could be a minority within 30 years tend to respond to questionnaires more conservatively and with more support for Trump in particular, Grossmann said.
Any white anxiety of becoming a racial or ethnic minority “might mean it’s not a great idea to run on a ‘diversity is good’ message kind of by default,” he said.
A Target-Insyght survey of 377 likely Democratic primary voters in late July found the Whitmer and Fieger tied at 35 percent each in a hypothetical match-up. El-Sayed and Thanedar were at 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.35 percentage points and was paid for by the Michigan Information & Research Service.
Grossmann said he doesn’t think race, ethnicity, religion or sex will have much to do with who ends up winning the primary. Whitmer’s popularity is likely driven by her party connections, he said.
Questionnaires show people tend to harbor more negative attitudes toward Muslims than blacks, Latinos, whites or Christians, Grossmann said.
In Michigan — where a Kalkaska village president remains in office despite sharing a Facebook post that called for killing “every last Muslim” — the bias has translated into groups attacking El-Sayed over his faith.
A state organization called Secure Michigan — which says it focuses on how the U.S. refugee resettlement program hurts Michigan — links to articles suggesting, without proof, that El-Sayed has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The website links to an article suggesting that El-Sayed is part of a vast conspiracy to wage “civilization jihad” and another to a site called “Bare Naked Islam” that claims, “It isn’t Islamophobia when they really ARE trying to kill you.”
Secure Michigan spokesman Dick Manasseri declined to comment on the articles the group’s website hosts or his concern about El-Sayed.
“Anyone with any rational sense knows that there’s no truth to that,” said Asha Noor, a representative for the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “He has a lot of support in the state ... but there will always be sort of a concerted effort to tear down anyone who has a Muslim-sounding name or who happens to be Muslim in this political climate that we’re in.”
At a recent Hillsdale County Democrats meeting, white Democrats who attended El-Sayed’s speech appeared inspired.
“Oh, I’d vote for him in a minute,” said Heather Allison, an 80-year-old Jackson resident who drove to Hillsdale with three others.
During his speech, he advocated for equal and high-quality education throughout the state, overcoming health disparities between urban minority and affluent white areas, and a “shared future” that unites everyone.
“A lot of people have told me, ‘Abdul, you’re an unlikely leader for this because you’re kind of young,’ ” El-Sayed said in Hillsdale. “And what they don’t say also is, ‘You’re kind of brown and kind of Muslim.’ ”
“My constitution tells me that there shall be no religious test to leadership,” he continued.
Allison and others in Hillsdale said they loved the message. But some doubted whether Michigan is open-minded enough to elect a Muslim candidate.
“I think today, the way the world is, it’s going to be a problem,” Allison said. “It’s not for me.”