Detroit health director set to make bid for governor

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — He’s made a name for himself in Detroit as a leader in the fight for environmental justice, but the city’s health chief has resigned to tackle his next challenge: a bid for governor.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed told The Detroit News he gave notice on Monday in favor of pursuing the state’s highest office on a platform that will be deeply rooted in his values of equity and inclusion.

The 32-year-old Rhodes scholar was appointed executive director of the Detroit Department of Health & Wellness Promotion in 2015.

In his tenure, El-Sayed overhauled the city’s troubled animal control office and emerged as an outspoken advocate for residents most impacted by higher rates of lead exposure and asthma. He opposed Marathon Petroleum’s controversial request to increase emissions in southwest Detroit and demanded a safer learning environment for city schoolchildren. His final day is Feb. 17.

The Detroit Democrat, who holds a doctorate in public health, said the bid for public office would be his first. His decision, he said, is fueled by concerns over state leadership in the wake of the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint as well as policies already unfolding in Washington, D.C., under Republican President Donald Trump.

Last month, Trump ordered a controversial ban on travel for immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries wracked by terrorism including Iran, Iraq and Syria.

“I pursued this career path because I believe in the dignity of humanity and we should give our lives to protecting and promoting that,” said El-Sayed, the son of Egyptian immigrants who said he understands the challenges of growing up in America as a minority.

“We need to rethink government rather than a business that cuts costs at the expense of people, but as an entity that we are all a part of, and that we all contribute to, that provides for us all. That responsibility has never been more acute to me. I felt like I should leave my role in Detroit to very honestly and seriously consider that.”

El-Sayed is poised to join a field of Democrats that includes former Michigan Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, also is eyeing a run.

Democratic political consultant Joe DiSano said Thursday both Whitmer and Kildee would be strong candidates in a general election. But he doesn’t think any candidate has the nomination locked down.

“I do think there’s an opening for other candidates to join the field,” said DiSano of Lansing-based DiSano Strategies. “The Democratic Party is in desperate need of new blood, so I would encourage him to test the waters, see if people respond to what he’s saying and then move on with the campaign if he gets the answers that he wants.”

Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, added El-Sayed isn’t widely known, but the last election proved “old rules don’t necessarily apply,” and there’s room for nontraditional candidates. Trump’s November victory in Michigan shows people are willing to take a gamble, she said.

“People are willing to press their luck with somebody who will bring real change,” she said. “That could create an opening for any number of candidates, and it’s something for establishment candidates to keep in mind.”

El-Sayed joined the city in September 2015. He took the reins of health care services about a year after they returned to Detroit’s health department after being dismantled a couple years prior amid complaints it was bogged down in bureaucracy.

He led reorganization of the office that went from a staff of five city employees and 85 contractors to an operation now staffed with 220 city workers.

Mayor Mike Duggan on Thursday said he’s pleased with the job El-Sayed has done to rebuild Detroit’s health department and wished him well in his next endeavor.

“There are a lot of talented people here who are driven to careers in public service, and Abdul is pursuing his dream and I wish him the best,” Duggan told The News.

El-Sayed is credited with initiating a management shakeup within Detroit’s formerly troubled Detroit Animal Control office and demanding new protocols. The changes came amid scrutiny over the office’s kill rate and claims of unsanitary conditions and exorbitant fees. Today, dog bite cases are down, adoptions are up and staff has settled in at a new facility.

He launched programs to train women as peer mentors to reduce infant mortality and address unintended teen pregnancies. He also implemented stringent lead testing procedures for all city schools.

Guy Williams, president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, said El-Sayed’s work on environmental policy has been the most meaningful he’s seen from the administration in more than two decades.

“He’s been a great champion for issues that I hold dear,” Williams said.

El-Sayed has made strides in shaping environmental policy, elevating programs and coming up with solutions to long-standing problems in Detroit, he said.

“I anticipate a super-strong environmental agenda,” he said. “At a minimum, just having him as a candidate will afford an opportunity for these ideas to be seen and understood.”

El-Sayed earned degrees in political science and biology from the University of Michigan and delivered the senior commencement address alongside President Bill Clinton.

Later, he was selected to study as a Rhodes scholar at England’s Oxford University, where he earned a doctorate. He then earned a medical degree at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and a doctorate in public health.

Before returning to Detroit, he served as a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University.

“I am a doctor, educator and a public servant,” he said. “... and it’s who I will be as an elected official if I am so chosen by the people of this great state.”

Connie Kelly, who taught El-Sayed’s eighth grade math class at Bloomfield Hills Middle School, said he remains as driven now as he was then.

“He has, without question, the dedication and the intelligence to do absolutely anything he wants to do. But the most important thing in my mind is that he cares very deeply about people,” said Kelly of West Bloomfield.

El-Sayed said his parents came to the United States because they believed in the American ideals. So does he.

“I am focused on building a strong campaign that unites rather than divides, inspires rather than scares, and I think we can do that,” he said.

State records show several other other major-party but low-profile candidates have filed for the race since 2015, when Snyder began his second term. They are Republicans Jim Hines, a Saginaw-area obstetrician, Mark McFarlin of Pinconning, and Evan Sebastian Space of Grand Rapids as well as Democrats William Cobbs of Farmington Hills and Kentiel White of Southgate.

Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette are considered likely front-runners for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, should they enter the 2018 race.