El-Sayed channels Bernie Sanders in bid for far-left gubernatorial surprise

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul Al-Sayed shakes hands with resident Regina Lawson at the Thome Rivertown Senior Apartments in Detroit on July 12, 2018.

Detroit — Abdul El-Sayed has heard the doubters, some within his own party: He is too young, too brown or too Muslim to win election as governor in a state that backed Republican President Donald Trump in 2016.

But the 33-year-old former Detroit health director is working to prove them wrong and become the next far-left Democrat to upset the party establishment. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a democratic socialist who pulled off the feat last month in New York by defeating an incumbent Democratic congressman, endorsed El-Sayed and is set to campaign for him here in late July. 

El-Sayed is attempting to build on the vision of Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who scored a surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in Michigan’s 2016 presidential primary by railing against corporate influence and trying to rally the youth vote. On Thursday, he was endorsed by Flint film director and liberal activist Michael Moore.

Although El-Sayed is polling third in the three-candidate Democratic gubernatorial primary and has no experience in elected office, he is an aggressive campaigner and skilled orator. Supporters argue the son of Egyptian immigrants may be uniquely positioned to reach voters of color that Sanders struggled to engage in losing the nomination to Clinton.

“We know that we can win this race because we have a message that speaks to who we want to be,” El-Sayed told The Detroit News. “People are sick and tired of broken politics. Politics that’s bought and sold by corporations and by millionaires. And they want a politics that works for them.”

As he introduced himself to senior voters at a Detroit nursing home in late June, El-Sayed began by noting his age, skin color and religion,clearing the air before moving on to policy and credentials. He’s a Rhodes scholar with a doctorate of public health from Oxford. A valedictorian at the University of Michigan. A physician and epidemiologist with a medical degree from Columbia University.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul Al-Sayed speaks with resident Brenda Galloway at the Thome Rivertown Senior Apartments in Detroit on July 12, 2018.

The Shelby Township resident is running on a far-left platform and has rolled out detailed plans to pay for ambitious and expensive programs. He wants Michigan to create its own government-run universal health care system, provide free college education for every young resident whose parents earn less than $150,000 a year and pursue a temporary moratorium on water shutoffs for residential customers behind on their bills.

The proposals and others have made El-Sayed a favorite of the progressive left, which helped propel presumed Democratic attorney general nominee Dana Nessel to the Michigan ballot and 28-year-old political novice Cortez to a surprise primary win last month over Democratic U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York.

But unlike Sanders and Ocasio Cortez, El-Sayed has not publicly embraced the democratic socialist label. And it’s not yet clear whether the Michigan “movement” he touts will materialize by Election Day.

Democrat governor candidate Abdul El-Sayed campaigns at the Village of Harmony Manor senior home in Detroit on June 28, 2018.

“I believe that the forces of capital and the forces of democracy have to run in parallel paths,” El-Sayed said. “When one takes over the other, as we’ve seen in terms of the corruption of our politics by huge levels of corporate capital, whether it’s accounted for or unaccounted for, that is the ultimate corruption of what democracy is supposed to be.”

A jock, a scholar

El-Sayed was born in Rochester Hills but moved around as a child after his parents’ divorce. He spent time in Egypt, Missouri and Florida before landing back in Michigan for fifth grade.

He was raised in a mixed-race household by father Mohamed and stepmother Jacqueline, college professors from different parts of the world. His father immigrated from Alexandria, Egypt, to study at Wayne State University. His stepmom grew up in rural Gratiot County.

A captain on the football, wrestling and lacrosse teams at Andover High School in Bloomfield Hills, El-Sayed would go on to play three years of club lacrosse at the University of Michigan, where he met his wife of 12 years in a chance encounter on the Diag.

“I remember thinking when I saw him this guy is a complete jock,” said Sarah Jukaku, now a resident psychiatrist at the UM. “A cute jock, but a jock. When I actually talked to him, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s really intelligent.’”

El-Sayed had a penchant for telling stupid jokes, his wife recalls. “Now he can call them dad jokes,” she said with laugh, referencing their 7-month old daughter Emmalee, who was born after her dad decided to run for governor.

Already planning to go to medical school, El-Sayed double-majored in biology and political science. His senior year, he talked his future mentor, epidemiology professor Sandro Galea, into allowing him to volunteer on a research project.

“I didn’t have money to hire him at the time,” Galea recalled. “He insisted, making a case he would be equally committed without being paid, and he was as good as his word.”

Galea, who stayed close with El-Sayed as his studies took him to England and New York, describes him as a “star” student. They would go on to publish a book together that applies concepts of computer science, ecology and economics to public health challenges.

“It’s a way of understanding a complex world and taking it down to its components so you can understand it and make a difference,” Galea said, describing an apparent connection between El-Sayed’s academic work and political philosophy.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul Al-Sayed, left, speaks with resident Mary Stroud, right, at the Thome Rivertown Senior Apartments in Detroit on July 12, 2018.

“He’s been in this to make a difference, and I think he’s running for the nomination for governor for all the right reasons,” Galea said. “That’s plenty unusual I think in today’s politics.”

Deciding to run

Peers chose El-Sayed to deliver remarks at his UM graduation ceremony in 2007 shortly before the headliner: former President Bill Clinton, who said he was “inspired” by El-Sayed and other speakers.

Clinton approached him after the commencement, praised his speaking chops and asked him why he was going into medical school instead of politics, according to El-Sayed.

El-Sayed recalls laughing it off at the time, telling Clinton that people with 11 letters in their first name — his full name is Abdulrahman — don’t get to run for office in the United States.

"The first time I thought remotely that there was a possibility was watching Barack Obama run," El-Sayed said. "And even then, the biggest hit on him was that he could potentially be a Muslim, right?”

El-Sayed, who could become the first Muslim governor in the United States, said he disagrees with “a lot of their politics” but sees presidents Clinton and Obama as important figures in the "evolution" of the Democratic Party.

“Obama gave me license to see myself in a politician for the first time,” he said.

El-Sayed left what could have been a long career in academia to return to Detroit in 2015 and take over a city health department that had been decimated by years of cuts before and during state-imposed emergency management.

There, he secured grant funding to create a “vision to learn” program that screened K-12 student eyesight and provided free reading glasses to those that struggled. Watching the Flint water crisis from afar, El-Sayed also helped launch a program to test Detroit's public schools for lead levels.

Frustrated by the Flint crisis, Trump’s election and growing tensions with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who he said resisted ideas that weren't his own, El-Sayed resigned in February 2017 to run for governor.

El-Sayed’s relationship with Duggan, a Democratic power player who is backing former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer for governor, is now “non-existent,” he acknowledged.

“I respect his efforts on things like auto insurance, and I think on his best days where there are opportunities to improve the lives of people outside of downtown and Midtown ... he takes those opportunities,” El-Sayed said. “But the focus for him has always been building downtown and Midtown."

How he can win

Estranged from Duggan and most unions that have traditionally helped Democrats build successful get-out-the-vote operations in Michigan, El-Sayed is instead relying on grassroots and progressive networks to generate support and get backers to the polls in the Aug. 7 primary.

Our Revolution, a group that formed in the wake of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, endorsed El-Sayed in May, and local chapters across the state are helping to co-host events and encourage volunteers.

As of late June, El-Sayed said his campaign was knocking on 10,000 doors a week and had made more than 1 million contacts with voters.

“He inspires people, and the other two candidates are not inspiring,” said Tanya Sharon, a 72-year-old Oakland County Our Revolution organizer who has helped knock on doors for El-Sayed.

“We have a lot of Democratic voters who would not go out and vote in 2016 because they didn’t feel the candidate was inspiring and would speak truth to power. I think those people will get out and vote if Abdul is the nominee.”

While Whitmer is the front runner, El-Sayed’s biggest obstacle to the Democratic nomination may be Ann Arbor chemist Shri Thanedar. The Indian immigrant has poured millions of dollars into his own campaign and run television ads touting policies designed to appeal to the progressive left.

Combined, El-Sayed and Thanedar’s polling numbers rival Whitmer’s. But they’re competing for the same turf and splitting voters, said pollster Ed Sarpolus, who suspects demographics may also be a factor for both underdogs.

“If you look at the debate, the best performance, the best vision and the best story-telling was El-Sayed,” Sarpolus said. “So why is he trailing? Perhaps if he had a different last name and a different complexion, he’d be leading this race right now.”

It’s unlikely El-Sayed will score a shocking win like Ocasio Cortez did in New York because he’s competing for votes in a much larger electorate and facing a “battle-tested” candidate in Whitmer, who is running a more active campaign than Crowley did in New York, said Democratic strategist Howard Edelson.

“Anything is possible as far as an upset, but my sense is its unlikely based on his poll numbers, his fundraising and his campaign infrastructure,” Edelson said.

Whitmer is the only Democrat in the race not calling for single-payer health care, and El-Sayed has criticized her for accepting contributions from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan executives. He railed on the donations in a televised debate last month but did not name Whitmer, the daughter of a former Blue Cross CEO, or directly attack her in their most visible forum to date.

Thanedar is facing opposition from liberal groups who question his commitment to the cause, but his personal wealth means he is likely to continue outspending El-Sayed and appealing directly to voters in the final weeks of the election. 

"Tons of college kids" are volunteering for the El-Sayed campaign, said Kelly Collison, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Progressive Caucus, which is backing his candidacy.

“The energy and grassroots is all behind Abdul right now,” she said. "If we have Gretchen Whitmer, I worry we’re not going to have the grassroots power it’s going to take to battle the millions of dollars that (Republican front runner Bill) Schuette is going to put in.”


Abdul El-Sayed

Age: 33

Hometown: Shelby Township

Family: Wife Sarah Jukaku, daughter Emmalee, born November 2017

Professional experience: Director of the Detroit Health Department, August 2015 to February 2017; Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University, May 2014 to August 2015

Political experience: None