El-Sayed canvasses for Sanders, talks state health in new book

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Two years after his Democratic run for Michigan governor ended in a second-place finish, Detroit Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is back on the campaign trail — this time as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders — and is celebrating his upcoming book.

El-Sayed endorsed the Vermont senator to be the country's next president in November, as Sanders did for El-Sayed in Michigan's 2018 gubernatorial primary.

In a recent interview with The Detroit News, El-Sayed said he decided to formally back Sanders because he is "consistent" on key issues and because of the way he's driven conversations on corruption, economic justice and initiatives like Medicare for All.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is a physician, epidemiologist and public health expert who ran for Michigan governor in 2018 and was the health director for the City of Detroit.

El-Sayed said he looks up to Sanders because they have always shared the same goals and both understand that the future hinges on whether or not Americans are able to solve the structural challenges they face.

"He gave me some really good advice when he came to endorse for our campaign. He said, never lose track of where young people are because they'll show you the way forward. And he's right," El-Sayed told The News.

Having both lost their bids in 2016 and 2018, respectively, their values haven’t changed, he said.

"We are more unequal today than we have been since the Gilded Age, which is the age that preceded the Great Depression," El-Sayed said. "We still have 10% of Americans who don't have access to health care at all. Our economy has been offshored or automated to the point where so many people who once could have relied on a solid job that paid a fair wage that allowed them to retire with dignity, those are being turned into gigs."

He said the $1.5 trillion in college debt and having climate change "will be catastrophic for Americans."

"The idea that somehow we just have to go back to our past and that's a solution? I heard that in 2016 and I am not willing to go back there no matter who wants to take me there. We've got to go forward, we got real problems to solve," he said. "And throughout his career, Bernie has spoken to those challenges and the responsibility to solve it. He's been clairvoyant throughout. I mean, any one issue you've got a video of Bernie campaigning on it, but before it was cool."

Sanders thanked El-Sayed while rallying in Dearborn on Saturday, saying the doctor "is doing an extraordinary job explaining what health care in America must be and thank him for all the work he's done."

'Healing Politics' coming March 31

Aside from the campaign trail, El-Sayed has become a CNN contributor and is also celebrating his new book, "Healing Politics," which comes out March 31. 

"I started to ask myself, politically, why are we where we are and the book is the answer to that," he said. "I use it to talk about the epidemic insecurity that we're facing and the type of empathy politics we need to solve it."

Abdul El-Sayed waves to supporters before U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks.

El-Sayed said he was lucky to spend 18 months touring the state during his run for governor and getting to know Michigan's residents. In the book, he introduces himself, his story, his Egyptian heritage and being an epidemiologist, someone who engages in the science of understanding patterns and disease. He uses this science to diagnose what he's calling an "epidemic of insecurity."

"It's all of the ways in which we have failed people in our society right now, whether it's lack of access to basic health care or mental health, a broken economy that tends to force people into these gig jobs that don't provide basic means of living wage and benefits, failure to provide folks adequate housing, a broken political system that tends to suppress votes and gives corporations more rights than people have," he said.

El-Sayed said these interlock to create a system that leads to a moment of deep insecurity that makes people afraid for their future.

"And when people are insecure, it leads them to make decisions that are more about preventing any future loss than investing in the future game. And I think this is the frame within which we can best understand our politics, and what we need to do about that. And to me, the response has to be a focus on empathy."

As a doctor, El-Sayed has learned to empathize with people who are driven by pain. 

"You look at somebody like Donald Trump, he's profoundly wrong, but he's playing to that pain and weaponized it against us and against people," he said. "And so what can we do together in collective pain to help to build out the kind of America that heals? And that really is the focus of the book.

Coronavirus and Detroit health 

El-Sayed was the executive director of the Detroit Health Department and health officer for the city from 2015 to 2017.

He said the state, and several of its biggest communities including Detroit, have shortchanged public health and it's only noticeable in outbreaks like coronavirus.

Abdul El-Sayed speaks about his candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, during a Sanders campaign rally at Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn on Saturday.

He stepped down from his city role to run for governor and since his departure, the department has had consistent turnover. In February, the state’s chief medical executive was accused of abusing her power while she was director of the Detroit Health Department by crafting a position for a department employee with no intention of conducting competitive interviews.

"Working under that kind of leadership is really hard, and the department itself is robust," El-Sayed said, "but we have to demand leadership that puts science first, that focuses on people's well-being, and is willing to lead to the issues that people face rather than lead to the story that we tell about what the city is."

What's next?

Since his run for governor, El-Sayed has spent the last two years teaching courses on well-being and public policy to scholar residents at Wayne State University, Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and at the University of Michigan in the fall.

"It's a course that sort of explores public policy and how we think about what matters in government and how that influences our health. We look at case studies like the Flint water crisis and environmental justice in Detroit to show that picture," he said. "It's a really enjoyable class to teach, and most importantly, I really, really enjoy engaging young folks who are actively thinking about these issues."

Abdul El-Sayed and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders together at the end of Sanders' speech at Cobo Center in Detroit in 2018.

When asked if he'd run for public office again, El-Sayed said "perhaps."

"I certainly would be willing to run again, if it was the right position to be able to lead on the right values," he said. "I'm not ruling it out, but I'm certainly not ruling it in. We'll take it day by day and see what, what options and opportunities open up."

Maya Younis, who heard El-Sayed speak at Sanders' Dearborn rally Saturday, said she remembers having to remove propaganda from the aisles of Meijer in Allen Park when El-Sayed was running for governor.

"It was a pamphlet with a photo of him and his wife with the title 'Muslim violence increases as Michigan now aims for Islamic governorship,'" said Younis, 29, showing a photo of the flyer to The Detroit News. "I was just looking for cooking racks and had to confront the manager as to why these were spread throughout the store. He was heavily attacked in his campaign."

She said if El-Sayed ran for public office, she'd vote for him again.

"He drips authenticity and is someone who can so eloquently take down misinformation," said the Dearborn resident. "I enjoy following him. He's so unbothered by everything going on, keeps things professional and is like our poster child. I really believe him."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_