State: El-Sayed eligibility request ‘premature’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — State attorneys are asking a judge to dismiss Democrat Abdul El-Sayed’s request that Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson declare him an eligible candidate for governor, calling it “premature” because no one has challenged his status.

El-Sayed filed a complaint for declaratory judgment in March after a Bridge Magazine article raised questions about whether his voter registration history in New York could open him up to a constitutional challenge in Michigan’s 2018 election.

The Michigan Democratic Party asked El-Sayed to pre-emptively pursue an eligibility review, but an attorney for Johnson said Tuesday there is no “actual controversy” because nobody with the state has taken, or even hinted at, action to reject or disqualify his candidacy filings.

“The controversy, such as there is, is the creation of the media and the Michigan Democratic Party — not state action,” Assistant Attorney General Heather Meingast wrote in a filing to Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray.

The Michigan Constitution requires gubernatorial candidates to be registered electors here at least four years prior to an election. El-Sayed was registered in New York through at least March 2015 and voted there in 2012, but he has also remained registered in Michigan since 2003.

El-Sayed told The Detroit News his attorneys are still reviewing his next steps, but he called questions over his eligibility a “manufactured controversy” and said the filing by Johnson’s office is “entirely vindicating of the fact that this was never an issue to begin with.”

“It’s time we move beyond this and start talking about the issues that matter,” El-Sayed said. “For us, this is a moment to really think about how and why the party would ask one specific candidate to take appropriate legal action, and we did that.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon also applauded the state filing in a statement, calling it a “positive step forward that allows all of our great candidates to stay focused on the issues that really matter to the people of Michigan.”

The former Detroit health department director last month submitted 24,000 signatures to the Bureau of Elections to qualify for the August primary ballot and signed an affidavit attesting that he is registered to vote in Shelby Township and has been a Michigan resident for 22 years.

Given “the publicity” surrounding his candidacy it’s possible an “interested person” could still challenge El-Sayed’s petitions by a May 1 deadline, Johnson’s attorney said. The Board of State Canvassers has until June 8 to certify the petitions, but if it rejects them, El-Sayed could seek relief in court at that time.

“Here, where plaintiff’s alleged injury remains speculative or hypothetical, this court should be doubly wary of delving into a constitutional question,” Meingast said in the Tuesday filing.

While the state filing and request for dismissal does not prevent a future eligibility challenge, El-Sayed said it shows the state is treating his candidacy just like every other candidate and “puts to rest” the notion that his case is any different.

The eligibility issue is “a political attack by a group of people that are threatened by my candidacy,” El-Sayed said. “That’s how politics works. We’re moving forward just like every candidate, and we’re confident I’m 100 percent eligible.”

Other Democratic candidates for governor include former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, Ann Arbor Entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs of Farmington Hills.

Secretary of State records show El-Sayed was “continuously registered to vote in Michigan since 2003,” but a spokesman said his registration had been placed on “cancellation countdown status” between 2013 and 2016 because he had had surrendered his driver’s license to get one in New York.

His attorneys have said El-Sayed maintained continuous residence in Michigan while studying and working as a professor at Columbia University in New York. He and his wife purchased an Ann Arbor condominium in 2008 and kept personal property there, along with a storage space at his in-law’s home in Shelby Township, according to the filing.

El-Sayed rented apartments in New York from 2011 to 2015, his attorneys said, indicating he registered and voted in the 2012 presidential election in New York and paid income taxes in both states. He returned to Michigan full-time the fall of 2015 after landing a job in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration.