Ex-Detroit health chief starts bid for Mich. governor

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Saying the time to act is now and that Michigan’s shared future is what unites its people, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed officially announced his campaign for Michigan governor on Saturday at Eastern Market.

Surrounded by nearly 100 supporters outside in Shed 2 of the market, El-Sayed said his focus “is, has always been and always will be people, their opportunities, their passions, their perspectives. The things that we can do for them together”

“My work has always been about building and leading the kinds of institutions that create opportunity for real people by breaking down barriers they face,” he said. “That work has never been more important than it is today. The politics of fear and hatred threaten to divide us.”

The 32-year-old Rhodes scholar was appointed executive director of the Detroit Department of Health & Wellness Promotion in 2015, but resigned earlier this month to make the run for the state’s highest office.

El-Sayed told the crowd that some people think they can make the country great again by telling people who “look like me” that they don’t belong here and they should sit on the sidelines.

“We are not sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “We must act. We cannot wait until our children are poisoned or their schools are shut down.”

El-Sayed has made a name for himself in Detroit as a leader in the fight for environmental justice.

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.

After the Flint water crisis, El-Sayed said he worked to ensure that children attending Detroit schools and day cares were drinking lead-free water. He created programs aimed at reducing infant mortality and unplanned pregnancy. He also built a program to give schoolchildren across the city glasses if they needed them.

His supporters say his family reflects the diversity of the state. His parents are immigrants who left Egypt in pursuit of greater opportunity in America and other family members are farmers, teachers, and small-business owners who have lived in Gratiot County for generations.

Robin Mazhar, of Rochester Hills, wore an “Abdul” sticker on her winter coat at Eastern Market and said she supports El-Sayed because “he is an amazing kid who is the ultimate super achiever.”

“He has done amazing things not just for people, he took on animal control, too,” she said.

Ann Arbor resident Jeff Maltas,27, drove to Detroit to meet and hear from El-Sayed in person. Both men are scientists and Maltas said he wants to know more about the El-Sayed’s positions.

“He is a scientist with a lot of publications, a health official in Detroit, he is extremely impressive overall with all of his accolades, being a Rhodes Scholar,” he said. “The health combined with the science, combined with somebody who cares about people in general, is a good base for a candidate.”

The Detroit Democrat, who holds a doctorate in public health, has said his platform will be deeply rooted in his values of equity and inclusion.

His decision to run, 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.

At 30, Abdul became the youngest health official of a major American city when he was brought to Detroit by Mayor Mike Duggan to rebuild Detroit's Health Department after it was privatized during the city's bankruptcy.

Abdul lives in Detroit with his wife, Sarah, a mental health doctor.