Abdul El-Sayed is a Muslim American of Egyptian descent running for governor in a state won by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. If these seem like long odds to you, you’d be right. Until this week, polls placed El-Sayed last among the three candidates competing in the Democratic primary: Former state Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer led with about 39 percent of the vote, while businessman Shri Thanedar captured 17 percent. El-Sayed brought up the rear with 12 percent.
But this week, everything changed.
Last Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., endorsed El-Sayed, leveraging his considerable popularity in the state to El-Sayed’s benefit. And that weekend, democratic socialist superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined El-Sayed on the campaign trail, hitting four stops in two days and helping to fill venues up to and over capacity.
These efforts seem to have worked.
This is good news for Sanders fans in the state. El-Sayed, a doctor, Rhodes scholar, and former director of the Detroit Health Department, is poised to break a lot of glass ceilings in the state of Michigan. But the primary identity he’s running on is “progressive.”
His campaign has put together a uniquely comprehensive suite of policy proposals, including a commitment to establishing a $15 minimum wage; tuition-free college for Michiganders with family income under $150,000; aggressive criminal justice reform; and the most detailed state-level single-payer health care plan ever.
This policy suite is the work of Rhiana Gunn-Wright, also a Rhodes scholar, who originally hails from Chicago’s South Side. “We take what I call an intersectional approach to policy,” she says in a video explaining the campaign’s approach. When policymakers craft policy, it often fails to address the problems faced by a diverse constituency, says Gunn-Wright. By taking into account the full diversity of Michiganders’ lives, the team sought to craft policy that would resolve inequalities across the board while avoiding costly errors. “Overall, it just costs everyone a lot less energy,” she says.
Just implementing statewide single payer, which has never been done before, would make El-Sayed one of the most impactful governors in contemporary U.S. history. But can he win?
El-Sayed faces off against Whitmer and Thanedar on Tuesday, August 7. Unlike Thanedar, El-Sayed doesn’t have $11 million of his own money to loan the campaign, nor does he have the financing that Michigan’s labor unions and some corporate interests have generated for Whitmer. And if he wins, he will still have to face off with the yet-to-be-determined Republican candidate — though it will likely be Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has the advantage of being seen as a relatively moderate Republican in a swing state.
But after joining El-Sayed at a pair of campaign events last weekend, it became apparent that El-Sayed has one thing the other candidates don’t have: sheer voter enthusiasm.
That enthusiasm was captured in a new video the campaign released featuring last weekend’s rallies.
In the spot, El-Sayed counters an argument he has heard throughout his campaign: that a Muslim cannot win statewide in Michigan. “If you’re like me, you’ve heard the language of the impossible,” he said. “We hear it loudest in the deeds of neglect of the politicians and the corporations who have power. … That language of the impossible, it’s there when they say to us, ‘You’re too young, you’re too brown, too black, too foreign, too female, too Muslim, to lead.’”
He posits that the primary is an opportunity to put these fatalistic arguments to bed: “On August 7, we quiet them. We show them what is possible.”
Indeed, Whitmer has been dinged for her association with corporate interests — particularly her ties to the insurance industry.
Her father, Richard Whitmer, was the head of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. And in a 2015 interview, she credited her friend Dan Loepp — the current head of the company in Michigan and former senior House staffer — as being the first person to suggest that she enter politics.
Earlier this year, The Intercept broke the story that lobbyists at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan were throwing a fundraiser for Whitmer, where she got nearly $144,000 from senior Blue Cross staff in one day.
Of the three primary candidates, Whitmer is the only one who does not support a state single-payer health care system in Michigan, calling it unrealistic. She recently claimed that criticism for her connections to Blue Cross are “extremely sexist,” citing the fact that the bulk of her campaign contributions are from donors giving $100 or less. She does support a federal single-payer plan, but Michiganders, who face a unique health crisis in Flint, may want more of a commitment.
Her relatively moderate stance may hurt her among other constituencies too. While El-Sayed and Thanedar would outlaw for-profit charter schools, Whitmer would opt instead for more oversight. On July 20, J.C. Huizenga, the founder of the charter school chain National Heritage Academies, kicked $5,000 toward her campaign. Huizenga is one of the largest political donors in the state of Michigan, and is a major donor to the state’s GOP committees.
A senior staffer told us that over the course of the past few months, the campaign has made approximately 400,000 phone calls to Michigan voters and has knocked on 130,000 doors. As part of its outreach strategy, the campaign offers tools for supporters to self-organize and contact voters from anywhere in the United States. On any given day, volunteers are active in Michigan, but also around the country. In the volunteer map, posted on July 30, one can see that there are phone bank events as far away as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Eastside of Los Angeles.
Democratic state Sen. Morris W. Hood III, a Whitmer surrogate, emphasized Whitmer’s experience.
“Would you want a heart surgeon who has 16 years of service or no service?” Hood said. “I”ll take the one who has 16 years of service, because they know how to do it. They’ve experienced it.”
Whitmer served in Michigan’s legislature between 2000 and 2016, first in the House of Representatives and later in the Senate. During that time, she built deep relationships with many of the movers and shakers in Democratic politics, including Michigan’s historically influential labor unions. More than a dozen union locals are supporting her bid, and unions have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a 527 group backing her.
Her signature policy is, if nothing else, pragmatic. “Fix the damn roads,” she says in her videos, a slogan that graces many of her yard signs. Sure enough, about a block away from her Detroit office, a phalanx of traffic cones marks the spot where a sinkhole has opened up in the road. Anyone who drives around Detroit or the surrounding areas instantly recognizes that Whitmer’s complaint about streets and highways is justified. And local infrastructure issues have been known to resonate: Virginia Democratic Del. Danica Roem, whose historic win as a transgender candidate made national headlines last year, deployed a similar tactic in her race, promising to fix the troublesome Route 28.
Still, pragmatism wasn’t enough to protect Michigan Democrats from major losses in 2016, when Sanders trounced Clinton in Michigan’s primary — during which Clinton won only 10 of 83 counties in the state — and when Trump unexpectedly defeated Clinton in the state during the general election.
Hood, the Whitmer backer, pushed back on those who would argue El-Sayed’s faith is an obstacle to winning. “Someone, their faith and what they believe in, doesn’t take away from the person. That’s the American right to be able to worship whoever you want to worship. We shouldn’t be biased because someone believes a certain thing or doesn’t believe a certain thing,” he said.
But not everyone shares Hood’s sanguine view of Michiganders’ religious tolerance. Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell suggested to the Huffington Post last month that El-Sayed’s faith may prove to be an obstacle. When asked if his faith may make him less electable, she replied, “I don’t want to say that, because I think [El-Sayed’s] fabulous, and I represent one of the largest populations of Muslims in the country,” she said. “But there are people trying to divide us by fear and hatred, and [Trump] is one of them.” Moreover, confrontations like one with far-right activist Laura Loomer, suggest that anti-Islamic sentiment isn’t anathema to voters.
In an interview with Vogue, El-Sayed said the attacks on his faith are a distraction from what he believes in. “I think they use the excuse of my faith and identity as a reason why they should not support me or they could not support me. Which is just sad and sorry. Because what they’re saying is that people in the state of Michigan aren’t open enough. They’re not betting against me; they’re betting against the good people in the state.”
Osama Siblani, the publisher of Michigan-based Arab American News, hopes that, win or lose, El-Sayed will ultimately help break the glass ceiling on Muslim American and Arab-American candidates so that voters will start to judge them on the content of their characters and not the method of their prayers.
“You have to look beyond how do I pray, to see what do I pray for,” he said of the crop of Muslim candidates. “We pray for the same thing.”