Why you should care
Because he’s prescribing solutions in a state plagued by uncertainty.
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Abdul El-Sayed was a funny, sociable kid, perpetually late with his homework, says his old math teacher Connie Kelly: “He was doing the gentleman’s B, B-minus routine.” And when she criticized the eighth-grader for not working to his potential, she remembers him responding with utmost certainty: “Mrs. Kelly, you have no idea what’s in store for me.”
Michigan is about to find out as El-Sayed makes his first run at elected office, as governor of the Great Lakes State. The son of immigrants from Egypt holds a doctorate in public health from Oxford and a medical degree from Columbia. He has published research on the effects of racial stigma on the health of minority communities related to pregnancy and birth, and shared his insights in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and CNN. But after chasing early aims to be a physician in places like sub-Saharan Africa and as an award-winning epidemiologist, he found both dreams “unsatisfying,” he tells OZY. Which led him to take on the task of rebuilding the Detroit health department in 2015. Now, two years later, El-Sayed feels a deep urgency to expand his influence, in his view to help more people than he can as a health czar — which is why he put in his two weeks’ notice in February to run for office.
Impassioned, but with a dose of collected bedside manner, El-Sayed assesses Michigan’s ailments from a mahoganied coffee shop in downtown Detroit. “It’s the bitter alchemy of poverty and racism,” he says, blaming both Republican and Democratic leaders for choosing business interests over people for decades. The pox-on-both-parties tone — and that from a recent public employee — doesn’t go unnoticed in a state that backed both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in last year’s primaries. El-Sayed believes the challenges here in Detroit are spreading like a virus to the rest of the state. People seek a “dignified job,” he opines, with a living wage, a little money for the weekend and the belief that their children can have an equal or better life. For El-Sayed, policy is the best preventive medicine.
As he strolls through Eastern Market in Detroit, the same neighborhood he and his father wandered through during childhood grocery trips, he flaunts a familiarity too natural to fake. He calls popcorn sellers by name, chats with the busker who played drums at his campaign launch a few weeks before and bro-hugs the cafe owner who tried to name a sandwich after him — an honorific he had to decline because it was “a conflict of interest,” El Sayed says, since his agency conducts food safety inspections. Plus the sandwich, with coronation chicken and grilled on an olive ciabatta with onions and peppers, was terribly unhealthy.
But this is no jaunt through an idyllic community. The city is under the weather: Traffic lights get whipped around in the wind, and many are without electricity after a storm knocked out power for nearly 400,000 across the state. Soon, a snow will set in, as emergency officials scramble to restore heat. The economic environment is even worse: The median income of $25,764 is half that of the national median in 2015, according to the most recent census figures, and two-fifths of residents live in poverty compared to just a 10th nationally.
As a salve, El-Sayed’s platform is still murky; with more than a year before the 2018 Democratic primary, El-Sayed can talk broadly for now. Accountability for corporations that receive tax breaks. Sustainable jobs. Collaboration with colleges to prepare students for high-skill professions. Policies to retain local talent from the state’s top universities. Transparency through an “environmentally just system of governance” — a promise he made recently to leaders in Flint, where cost-cutting measures led to lead poisoning in the water supply. Under him, decisions will be made by those most affected, he told them, rather than “at the top, by an elite that doesn’t understand the experience of real people on the ground.”
His buzzwords — accountability, collaboration, transparency — are a tad banal. But El-Sayed says they were key to crafting a culture at a health department that had been dismantled during the 2012 bankruptcy, when Detroit became the first major U.S. city to privatize its health department. Those services had only just been returned to the state when El-Sayed took over in August of 2015. It wasn’t pretty: Five city employees worked in a hideaway office tucked in the back of the municipal parking building.
He liked the challenge. “I’ve always been pretty decisive when it comes to big decisions,” El-Sayed says. (He married his wife, Sarah, another physician, after less than five months of dating.) He increased funding for public health fivefold, lead screenings by 25 percent and provided 1,000 eyeglasses to kids, with a Bernie Sanders–esque guarantee of free spectacles for all children in need. Most notably, he led negotiations to get a 20 percent reduction in petroleum emissions from the nearby Marathon refinery, in a city where asthma hospitalization is three times higher than the rest of the state, winning him a spot on the Crain’s 40 under 40 list and being named 2016 Public Official of the Year by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
Not everyone was pleased with his anti-pollution efforts. A spokesman for the Marathon refinery, which had proposed to the Department of Environmental Air Quality a plan to increase emissions, told reporters at the time that their suggestions would “continue to be well below those allowed under its existing permit.” In one case, El-Sayed backed a Detroit zoning board decision that said a company couldn’t “store uncovered piles of coal-based byproduct coke breeze along the Detroit riverfront,” according to a Detroit News report. The company’s lawyer called the permit conditions “onerous,” noting they have “never been imposed on anybody before.” (An El-Sayed spokesman responded by saying that regulations considered “onerous” to some companies in Detroit are seen as “regular business practice” in cities like Los Angles and Chicago.)
But given such overall forward momentum, some local supporters wonder why El-Sayed is intent on moving on now. Detroit still trails other major cities in virtually all the areas he targeted as health commissioner, from infant mortality rates to asthma hospitalizations. (On these problems, he says that “time will tell.”) The prognosis for Detroit assuredly looks brighter thanks to El-Sayed, who brought in $1 million in grants and built up the health department staff to over 40. But he won’t be there to bring in that future, leaving his post in a city already plagued with a fear of abandonment. Almost two-thirds of Detroiters have skipped town since 1950, with population down to just 700,000, and those who remain complain that local officials overlook their needs for corporate interests of the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler). “If he was doing such an important job, how could he abandon that? It makes him look like he’s just political,” one resident said, anonymously, for fear of backlash.
Gathered in the back room of La Pita, a long table of Arab-American leaders meet each Saturday to eat, smoke cigars and flex their political muscle in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb where almost half the residents are Muslim. Even here, support for El-Sayed can’t be assured: They’re in a listening mode, says Osama Siblani, the influential publisher of the Arab-American News, and won’t make a decision based on ethnicity. Sally Howell, director of the University of Michigan–Dearborn Center for Arab-American Studies, adds that people will “support him as long as he is in the fight, but people are also hedging their bets.” They will have plenty of other options: Former state representative Gretchen Whitmer is the early front-runner. And many in the area are coalescing around Dan Kildee, the U.S. representative from Flint, who Siblani calls “a good friend.” (From a St. Paddy’s Day event in an Irish pub in Detroit, Kildee told OZY he hadn’t “made a decision about whether to run,” though the emcee had just told the crowd moments before to help elect him governor.) When asked about El-Sayed’s run, Michigan GOP state chairman Ron Weiser declined to comment on the Democratic slate, simply saying, “Bring them on.”
Michigan went for Trump by a 10,000-person margin in November, seemingly in part due to his campaign promise to institute a Muslim travel ban as a way of heading off (perceived) external threats. According to exit polls, almost a fifth of Michiganders thought terrorism was the most important issue facing the country — only the economy was selected more — with Trump beating Hillary on the issue by a 55 to 42 percent margin. Now, could white voters rally behind a Muslim candidate?
El-Sayed replies with an Obama-esque quip: Michigan may exactly be the place where “a pudgy kid with a funny name,” as El-Sayed describes his high school self, could get elected. The state has voted for folks like Rep. Justin Amash, born to a Palestinian father and Syrian mother, and the Lebanese Christian Spencer Abraham, a former U.S. senator and Bush-era secretary of energy. Like Obama, El-Sayed has white role models in his family — a Michigan-born stepmother and a Trump-voting uncle who, after one hunt, cut the venison according to halal standards so El-Sayed could eat the jerky. El-Sayed, a practicing Muslim who doesn’t eat pork or drink alcohol and prays five times a day, stresses he makes “decisions on what my moral code tells me,” not based on his identity or faith. It’s in keeping with an oft-repeated promise that he aims to be not the first Muslim governor, but the best governor for the state.
Today, as El-Sayed makes his fourth major career weave, he recalls the naysayers who critiqued his previous shifts. When he left his medical residency, people said he didn’t realize the gravity of his post. Same thing when he left a tenure-track position at Columbia in 2015.
But today, many people get the narrative. The Trump administration’s early days were a major catalyst for El-Sayed to announce the campaign. El-Sayed remembers visiting his family in Alexandria, Egypt, where free speech was under attack. He recalls ignoring his grandfather’s advice and, as a teenager, using “colorful street language” — his words — about the Egyptian president in public. His family soon received a visit from the police, who in his telling only ceased questioning him once they saw his American passport. He’s also got beef with the Trump-led cuts to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which provides half his city with health care. An ACA drought would have hampered his job as health commissioner, he says — part of the reason he decided to hang up his stethoscope.