Why Abdul El-Sayed’s long-shot bid for governor merits attention

Abdul El-Sayed.
Abdul El-Sayed. Jack Nissen

Ahead of Michigan's 2018 gubernatorial election, the Metro Times editorial staff will interview the top contenders.

When Abdul El-Sayed delivered the commencement speech at his graduation from the University of Michigan in 2007, former President Bill Clinton, who took the stage after him, joked that the then-22-year-old had a future in politics. El-Sayed, a Muslim born to immigrant parents, had studied political science and biology, but opted initially for the more pragmatic career path: He became a doctor.

Eight years later, after receiving a Rhodes Scholarship and studying at Oxford University in England, El-Sayed landed in the public sector, heading up Detroit's health department at the age of 30. At the time of his 2015 appointment by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, El-Sayed was the youngest health commissioner in any major U.S. city.

But his time helming the department would be short-lived. El-Sayed oversaw public health programming in Detroit for an 18-month period in which the city made headlines for shutting off water to tens of thousands of residents. He says his requests for an end to the water shutoffs went ignored, but his department never conducted a study to look into the possibly detrimental health risks of the policy, and it remains in effect today. El-Sayed did however manage to complete a study on another, less visible public health issue facing the city: a massive home demolition program that was spewing lead paint particles into the air and, as El-Sayed now tells it, "poisoning kids." It took Mayor Duggan more than a year to act on the data collected by the health department; his administration didn’t adjust the demo schedule to mitigate the risk of lead exposure in kids until this spring.

The inaction on the part of his former boss is what appears to have motivated El-Sayed to seek to be the person in charge. At 33, he is running to be governor of the state of Michigan with the goal, he says, of "building a Michigan that is more just, more equitable, and more sustainable."

Compare his policy positions to those of Bernie Sanders, who won Michigan's 2016 Democratic presidential primary, and El-Sayed checks all the boxes: he wants a $15 minimum wage, a universal health care system, and campaign finance reform. He also doesn't take money from corporate donors. But El-Sayed has thought beyond how he would fare on the lefty litmus test, and his ambitious plans are carefully tailored to deal with Michigan's complex web of problems.

They begin with targeting the porous membrane between money and politics which helps produce policies that subsidize big corporations. He wants to get rid of the term limits that have left us with babysitter politicians nurtured by right-wing legislation mills. He argues for clean government, answerable to voters, not corporations. He wants more transparency, insists upon impartial redistricting (even if Democrats control the map), and demands a full repeal of Citizens United.

Economically, he says the solution for Michigan isn't to offer sweetheart deals to corporations and enforce austerity on the poor, but to invest in the people of the state. He points to the knock-on effects of universal health care, eliminating redlining, criminal justice reform, closing funding gaps for school districts, and even free glasses.

Many of the methods by which he would achieve his goals are innovative, and outlined fully in the sections below. But one solution stood out to us for its lack of political coyness, and as evidence that El-Sayed is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. When we asked the candidate how, if elected, he would wrangle a Republican-led legislature into approving policies focused on empowering people, he said that of all the Democratic candidates, he was best-positioned to mobilize citizens so lawmakers would have no other choice.

"Here's the thing, if I win this election, I will have the single biggest mandate of any governor in Michigan history," he said. "Michigan will have gone from electing a bigot president who does not belong in office anywhere by 10,000 votes, to turning around and electing a 33-year-old Muslim-American doctor governor."

"Everybody wants to know — is there a blue wave, and who's iconic of the blue wave? The millennial Muslim guy running for governor in Michigan," he says. "So where do you think that's going to have me? CNN, MSNBC, FOX NEWS, everywhere. Do I have the personality skills to take advantage of that? I think I do."

(Indeed, El-Sayed is extremely charismatic.)

"Then I get elected governor, now I get to take that bully pulpit of the governor's office and, I'm a bit of an activist, so we're going to go out there in those communities and we're going to organize. Not only that, but the ability to fundraise at the national level, being the first Muslim governor in U.S. history — it's through the roof. So I'll have the ability to pack money and people into those communities and basically shut down legislative offices if I want to."

Getting that far is a long-shot scenario. El-Sayed has been polling in the single digits, with former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer and wealthy businessman Shri Thanedar out front in the race. Prognosticators have said his name and religion would make winning Michigan an impossibility. And over the past five months, El-Sayed was dogged by questions over whether he would even be eligible to run after it was reported that he had registered to vote in New York from 2012 to 2015. The issue has since been resolved, with the state saying El-Sayed is in fact eligible.

But some of those challenges may not be insurmountable. It's still early in the race, and, according to at least one poll, some 35 percent of Democrats have yet to decide who they support. El-Sayed's campaign also argues that polls have trouble tracking millennial support, and that the large crowds the candidate draws are a better measure of his support. El-Sayed certainly has strong support from national progressive groups and the Michigan Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus, which reportedly booed his adversary, Thanedar, out of the room at the party's endorsement convention last month.

With questions over his eligibility in the rearview, El-Sayed has said he's looking forward to going back to talking about the issues. Below, you can see where he stands on a number of them, and how he plans to effect the massive changes he says are necessary for Michigan to start properly taking care of its people.

Healthcare for all

El-Sayed supports universal health care and believes Michigan could set an example by creating a single-payer system.

"We already all pay for health care," he says. "We spend 19 cents on the dollar on health care — more than any other high-income society. In fact, if we were to walk from here to across the bridge [to Canada], they're paying 11 cents on the dollar. The reason we're paying more is because we are paying for the overhead profit that was on the hospital side and on the insurance side that everybody is collecting on. Yes, we pay for it. The question becomes whether or not we are willing to stem the cost of it by paying for it in a different way."

El-Sayed says, "Rather than asking your employer and you to pay some kind of insurance company that replicates overhead with every other insurance company and takes 15 cents on the dollar so they can feel good about themselves and be rich — instead of that, what if we were to pay to a public system that shows up as a tax but that's a tax that's far lower than what you already pay anyway?"

If the state were to implement a universal health care system, El-Sayed adds that auto insurance rates would go down because, right now, "we're asking auto insurance to be health insurance."

Education reform, K-12

El-Sayed says he would create a school facilities infrastructure bank to more equitably fund education across communities. Michigan districts, he says, currently have about $14 billion in facilities debt, which is financed not by the state, but by bonds backed by local property taxes. El-Sayed would ask voters to levy a statewide property tax of 4-5 mills to create a $22 billion Shared School Infrastructure Bank. $14 billion would be used to cover existing debt — which he says Michiganders are already paying for through debt service payments — while the remaining approximately $9 billion would be for facilities funding.

El-Sayed says he would also reform the charter school system through a variety of measures. He would eliminate for-profit charter schools, limit the number of charter authorizers across the state and bring authorization under the purview of state Department of Education and state school board, and require that decisions about charter schools opening are made with some local agreement on behalf of the school district. He would also require that both a teacher and student be on the board of each charter school.

"I understand that there are some communities who might say, 'Hey, we want to build a charter school to provide a particular kind of education for a particular kind of kid,'" he says. "Great, that's what they're supposed to be. It was not supposed to be a system by which capital-backed finance sharks could make money off of public education."

The market-based education system, he says, is "garbage."

"Just to give you an idea of how garbage it is, you have this charter school that advertises," he says. "When they advertise they're literally taking the funds that we're supposed to be using for our kids and putting it up on a billboard just to put up a picture of a kid in a polo shirt to somehow say the education the kid is getting is great, which statistically speaking it is not."

"And then what happens is because they are advertising, the public schools have to advertise too," he says. "So all of that money is now being spent on advertising that was supposed to be spent on our kids, which makes no sense."


The infrastructure bank would apply to additional sectors, including transportation, water, and energy.

The transportation bank would be funded with about $1.5 billion every year until the state's roads, which this year got a "D+" ranking from the American Society of Civil Engineers, bump their grade up to an "A." The proposal would rely on current levels of road funding, plus an additional $600 million raised via gas and diesel taxes, tolls, and higher registration fees for large vehicles that tear up the roads. The plan would also use about $60 million in marijuana taxes, should the substance be approved for recreational use this fall.

El-Sayed would fund improvements to water infrastructure by raising $600 million for his Clean Water Bank through a bond that would need voter approval.

Clean energy plan

El-Sayed's goal is to bring Michigan to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, and yes, there's a bank for that too. Clean energy infrastructure would be constructed and operated mostly by homeowners and landowners, rather than municipalities. The focus of the Clean Energy Bank would be to mitigate investment risk (for Michiganders investing in infrastructure and investors offering loans to consumers), lower transaction costs, and ensure consumers don't get price gouged by private lenders. It would be funded with about $100 million initially via an annual ratepayer fee of about $11 per household.

Free water access

Michigan is surrounded by much of North America's freshwater supply, and yet, our state and city governments regularly make headlines for limiting people's access to water. El-Sayed says under his governorship, the amount of water it takes people to drink, cook, bathe, and clean would be free. Households that use more would then cover the cost by paying more per unit of water.

El-Sayed would also instruct the state health department and director to conduct a study into the impact of water shutoffs. If public health risks are identified, El-Sayed says there exists a law that allows the health department and state health commissioner to intervene "for the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the people of this state."

Criminal justice reform

"The entire system of criminal justice around petty crimes needs to be reformed," says El-Sayed, noting that laws are often enforced unevenly, putting more people of color behind bars. "We incarcerate 11 percent more people in Michigan than the national average and our prison budget shows that. It costs about $36,000 to $40,000 a year to incarcerate somebody. It costs about $36,000 to $40,000 a year to send them to Harvard. We've got to think about why we're spending so much there."

If elected, El-Sayed says he would fight to reduce sentence lengths, streamline the parole process, commute the sentences of people serving life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles, raise the age of adult prosecution, ban the box, and implement support services for prisoners and ex-prisoners in order to help reduce recidivism.


El-Sayed supports legalization and the expungement of the criminal records of people who've been convicted of marijuana-related offenses.

Limiting tax incentives for corporations

Calling the Michigan Economic Development Corporation a "public piggy bank for private funders," El-Sayed says he would retool the way the state invests in projects by wealthy developers.

"The way we've done public-private partnerships for so long has been that private folks decide that they want a project, they get a bunch of public money, and then they keep all the benefits of it," he says. "The way we should be doing public-private partnerships is that the state runs operations and the project and then we get private financing as investments. Sure, if you're a financer of a big public project, can you make some money? Yes, but we know exactly what's happening and why it's happening and who it's happening for."

"I don't believe we should be subsidizing huge corporations to the tune of billions when we're not able to invest in people. So the way that we do mega-credits, the way that we entice corporations by allowing them to, in effect, eat up the taxes their workers are paying, that to me makes no sense at all," he says. "If we're going to give you a subsidy at all, it's going to be tied to a job, and if you're not providing jobs, that goes away."

Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.

Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.