Name: Abdul El-Sayed
Occupation: Epidemiologist/Former Director of Detroit Health Department
Major Policy Issues: Jobs, government transparency and education
July Financial Report: $644,324 cash on-hand
Editor’s Note: This is the final in a series of four interviews conducted by the Great Lakes Beacon with each currently declared Democratic candidate. Republican gubernatorial candidates who have declared by September 1 will also be interviewed.
Born and raised in Michigan to an immigrant from Egypt and a mother whose family has been in Michigan since the Revolutionary War, Abdul El-Sayed brings what he says is not only a “diverse perspective” to the Democratic gubernatorial race, but also one that he boasts is engaging the next generation of voters.
“I was never supposed to run for office, and I only decided I would run in a moment where I watched as state government was fundamentally failing us. In this moment today, we have to ask ourselves, what is the kind of state government we want?” he said in an interview with the Great Lakes Beacon. “Do we want the same old … Or do we want folks that have been leaders in government before and have a fresh perspective and a real orientation to be able to care for people?”
El-Sayed attended University of Michigan as an undergraduate, studying biology and politics. He then went to Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar to earn his PhD in public health. He also attended Columbia University to get his M.D. and become a physician. He was a professor of public health for some time, then came back to Michigan to serve as the Executive Director of the Detroit Health Department – the youngest individual to hold such a position for a city of Detroit’s magnitude.
“My work has been as a physician, educator and public servant, and I think that gives me a set of skills that’s unique to public service around solving real problems and doing the kind of operational work that oftentimes folks who have an experience as a legislator or no experience at all in government have missed out on,” El-Sayed said. “I know the day-to-day of operating a large health department in one of the poorest cities in America.”
He said he rebuilt the organization from a small, multi-contractor institution to one with hundreds of employees and multiple campuses handling a variety of programs for the citizens of Detroit. Among those intiatives were reducing dog bites and increasing dog adoption rates, as well as giving away free glasses to children in Detroit schools, El-Sayed noted. He said he also stood up to Marathon Petroleum’s Southwest Detroit refinery to force them to use their own money to reduce emissions, and tested 360 schools, daycares and Head Start facilities citywide for lead after the Flint water crisis.
“I was rebuilding the health department in Detroit that had been shut down when our city was facing bankruptcy and state takeover,” El-Sayed said of why he decided to run for governor. “That put me in a position where I realized this system of state government – that had shut down my health department, that has now poisoned kids in Flint – as business has failed us.”
He said there is a lot of work that needs to be done in Michigan government, but one of his first priorities as governor would be to create Michigan-centric jobs.
“Right now, too many people are locked out of the economy,” El-Sayed said. “We have to … create the kinds of jobs that are resistance to being off-shored or automated. We have to orient all the work of the economy into thinking about creating the kinds of jobs all over the state that are here to stay.”
He also said he is a major proponent of public schools – “I didn’t go to a private school until they paid me to do it when I went overseas,” he said – but the kinds of public schools he went to are not the public schools of today.
“We have fundamentally disinvested; we have created a system where too many people can profiteer via charter school method that’s just not held accountable, and we have to fix that,” El-Sayed said. “It’s worse in places like Detroit and Flint and Benton Harbor, but it’s also not very good in places like Kalkaska or Houghton. The work of being able to rebuild is very important.”
To that end, he said local control is necessary to hold charter schools accountable, and public schools need to be equipped to compete as well.
“The dollars you and I pay in taxes for public education shouldn’t go into lining somebody’s pockets. I think there needs to be an off-ramp from private charter schools,” he said, adding that a lot of public schools, especially in low-income communities, have faced a net-loss of population over time and yet are saddled with paying for buildings they can’t take care of.
He said there could be an opportunity for a state-level land bank to buy some out some of those schools and provide the sale money to the local district.
He also wants to make government more transparent and accountable, he said.
“We have to do the work it takes to make sure we’re holding our lawmakers and our governor responsible; that they’re exposed to the same Freedom of Information Act accountabilities as other states; that our state is not gerrymandered – cut up like a Thanksgiving turkey – and that no corporation can buy out our state government because a corporation can invest four times as much in a state legislative race than they can in a federal legislative race,” he said.
As for ensuring a quality of life for residents in urban centers, El-Sayed said he believes he understands those challenges “exceedingly well” given his personal and professional background. Doing so starts with ensuring education and public health opportunities in those cities, which he said means ensuring access to the basics of good food, good housing and clean water. He reiterated the component of creating jobs that “are not going to get off-shored or automated” as the other quality of life factor for urban residents.
Universal Healthcare and Party Unity
El-Sayed is perhaps the most visible proponent in the Democratic gubernatorial race that supports single-payer healthcare, or a “Medicare for all” policy made more popular by Democratic former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He said he would do “everything I can” to lobby the federal government on the matter and to raise the issue in state politics as well.
“To me, I’m the only person in this race who has ever sat across the bedside of someone who is struggling to pay for their healthcare,” he said. “I know the pain of that for folks, and I know that too many people in Michigan, even today, suffer that. And there’s a responsibility for us to act.”
He also sees a need to protect prevailing wage as a matter of protecting “quality and technical expertise” of the workers doing the work on publicly funded projects.
And he said he could be the person to help bind the Democratic Party by campaigning on a platform that tells people what it is going to do rather than what it’s not going to do, as well as telling people who they are instead of who they are not.
“It’s obvious who we’re not. But it’s not clear who we are, and my message has been entirely about the opportunity that we have to invest in real people, to solve real problems, to build a future we all want to believe in,” El-Sayed said. “That work of getting out there, of talking about that with anyone and everyone, of having the real conversations that matter today, that’s the work we’re doing. That to me is what’s going to unify our party.”
Regardless of outcome, he said he has made a commitment to support the Democratic nominee for governor, “Because I think we at this point need to come together around a set of values,” he said. “But I also know that I’m articulating that set of values better than anyone else.”