Michigan has the unfortunate distinction of being a state that has gone from a paragon of the middle-class American Dream to near-bottom in almost every standard of living category. In 2015, it was rated dead last for government ethics and transparency, and Flint still doesn’t have clean drinking water after four years. Gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed wants to reverse course.
While Randy “Iron Stache” Bryce’s bid for Paul Ryan’s congressional seat hopes to lead a blue wave in Wisconsin, across Lake Michigan, 33-year-old El-Sayed is running for governor in a state Trump won in 2016. If he wins, he’ll become the first Muslim governor in U.S. history, and he doesn’t see the 10,000 votes that won Trump the state by as an insurmountable challenge. El-Sayed’s background, like Michigan, is proudly varied. His father immigrated from Egypt, but he spent the majority of his life in the suburbs of Detroit, cheering for the Michigan Wolverines football team.
By all accounts, El-Sayed is a normal millennial with no political experience vying to run a state that has had its infrastructure and soul chipped away at for the better part of three decades. But he’s a Rhodes scholar, and at 30 years old he was the youngest health commissioner of a major U.S. city. He rebuilt the Detroit Health Department after the city shut it down during the municipality’s bankruptcy in 2013, and — bolstered by the 2016 election of Trump, whom he deems utterly unqualified — El-Sayed stepped into the political arena as an equally inexperienced candidate with a polar opposite view on governing.
Over the past few months, he’s made headlines by rejecting all corporate money and quietly raising an entirely publicly-funded campaign. UPROXX caught up with him at a boisterous, standing-room-only town hall held in Traverse City, Michigan to discuss healing the political divide and where he believes the state of Michigan, and the country, needs to go.
You’re seeing quite a few young people here, from Standing Rock protesters to March For Our Lives organizers. The news is saying a lot about how you being left-leaning and Muslim, but not much about the fact that you’re a millennial. Does that help you speak to the younger generation?
I can fight for their ideals and their opportunities. And I know that a lot of young people have been really put off by politics. And they see the responsibility to step in and fight. They’re graduating into an economy, whether from high school, from the trades, or from college, that is one of the hardest to find a job in with huge levels of debt, and without opportunities that they feel are befitting of their educational experiences. And they worry about the world that they’re raising their kids in. And what that’s gonna be like for them.
I had the privilege of being a young man in my twenties while Barack Hussein Obama was president. And, while I may have disagreed with some of his policies, let’s be clear, the man was dignified and articulate, and thoughtful, and an excellent American president. And young people now don’t have that. And they worry a lot about whether or not our system can be rectified. And they see the responsibility to be a part of that, and I’m thankful that they see that in this campaign.
And that’s another fascinating part about this specific race here: in Michigan, a lot of the people who may vote for you voted for Trump. How do you bring those people back into the fold when politics has been so divergent?
It’s about standing for ideals. People don’t vote for a platform; they vote for a person. And my platform’s very different than Donald Trump’s, but I’m speaking about issues that are relevant in their lives. And they’ve seen the Trump direction and it is not working for them.
I think about my own uncle, a guy who voted for Donald Trump. I love the guy. He loves me. And every summer he would take us waterskiing, he would take us snowmobiling in the winters. He was the guy who taught me what a mustard pretzel was. You learned how to prepare venison halal so that my family could eat it. And he was not somebody motivated by any sort of racial or religious animus, but he didn’t have access to a good job for a long time. 2008, he was a truck driver, lost his trucking business, had to lay off people he knows and loves, and for the past 10 years, he’s been told by Democrats that the economy’s back, and it’s not. And he had a candidate who didn’t bother to come to his community and was talking about an economy that wasn’t true for him. It might have been true for the stockbrokers on Wall Street but not for him. And so he was between a rock and a hard place. And he chose what he chose.
And my responsibility is to get out all over the state. We’ve been to over 100 different cities, places that people say, well, as a Democrat, why would you even waste your time to go there? Well, because there are Michigan voters there; I care a lot about them; I wanna talk about what we can do to make their lives better, and I think I’ve got a plan to do it. I think if I can get out to them, they can see that. And so the number of times I’ve had Trump voters come up to me and say, “you know what, I disagree with your position on X, Y, or Z, but I’m voting for you.” And you ask them why and they’ll say, “well, it’s because you stood up and you talk about the things that you believe in.” It’s clear to me that you’re doing this because you care about public service and you care about the people that you serve. And that’s what this is all about.
Right. And I think everyone has that uncle. Are you still on like speaking terms with him …
… because a lot of people aren’t speaking with their families these days because of political differences.
In a way, is this race about bringing that uncle back into the fold and shaking hands and being like, we may not completely see eye to eye, but…
The two most powerful words in our language are, “I disagree.” Because they mean that we’re willing to hold the conversation space even if you don’t agree on the thing that you’re talking about. And I think that it’s been too easy now, in the era of social media, to just shut off a conversation because it’s painful or hard to swallow. And I think that’s when you have to hold on. And we might disagree on some things but we agree on others and we’ve gotta find those things we agree on. And here’s the thing, even if the only thing I agree with somebody is, “Hey, I love my kids and you love your kids too.” Or, “I love my mom and you love your mom too,” then hey, that’s something. Right? And we’ve gotta hold onto that.
Your recent tweet was about how life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness falls under the fact that we should have clean drinking water.
So, with the Trump voters, for example, we all want the same things, so why is it almost a pejorative from that section of voters to say that you, Abdul El-Sayed are far left.
People are like, well that seems populist. I said, no, that’s not populist; it’s people-ist. I will always put people before everyone else in making decisions about what we have to do. So if you’re a corporation and your best interest is not served by a policy, and the interests of the people are best served, then you’d better believe where I’m going. Because at the end of the day, that’s the responsibility.
And so, yeah, I just … far left, far right. I just don’t believe in that. The question to me is, are you willing to put the many over the few? Are we willing to stand up for basic human rights? Are you willing to call to justice and speak truth independent of who’s on the other side? And are you willing to do what it takes to get it done? And are you willing to do that with a smile on your face? And so, I think that’s pretty critical.
Especially with Michigan, it almost feels like this is ground zero of where everything went wrong in the ’80s: union busting, the manufacturing industry went downhill. How much does that inform your position and what you’re doing now?
Quite a bit. Look, I was born in the ’80s and I grew up in the ’90s and 2000s and watched as a lot of access to high-quality middle-class jobs went away. And we have more inequality in our society now than we did during the Gilded Age. And we saw as government stood up and did what it needed to do to break the power of the monopolies that were buying and selling politicians and getting their way in the economy to the detriment of every-day people.
And so we’re seeing that now and we have a responsibility to solve it. And I think, this moment in our politics, you talk to folks and they’ll tell you that it’s never been worse than now. Right? Folks who lived through the ’68 period — they worry a lot about where we’re headed now and I think we need leadership that’s willing to stand up and call out truth where they find it. And I hope that I can be that.
How much does being elected as the first Muslim governor matter to you?
No, I’m not running to be a Muslim governor. Look, for what it means for the Muslim community, I think that’s important. But I’m not running to be the first Muslim anything. I’m running to be the best governor for my state in a moment where my state needs a strong governor. And if I can accomplish that, then I’ll have accomplished what I’m after.
You seem to be rejecting any identity politics and many traditional Democrat platforms. Now we’re seeing kind of pushback against your campaign from the establishment.
I rather naively thought that when they realized that I had the truest ideals, the best ideas, and the ability to excite people in a room, that they would come around. And in fact, what has happened, is a lot of those insiders have been so threatened by our campaign, that they’ve tried every which way to throw shade on our campaign and failed. Here’s the thing, I don’t stop moving forward. I wouldn’t have been able to stand up to the corporations I stood up to if I did. I just don’t stop and that’s the thing that I think they’re starting to appreciate now.
So my point is: beat me at the ballot box. If you think you can beat me on ideals and ideas, then bring it. But I’m not seeing anything. And so our job is to keep speaking truth, to keep walking forward, to keep driving. And here’s the thing about the identity politics, it’s not about the identities but it is about inclusion, and it should not matter how I pray; it should not matter what my ethnic background is, but I’ve been told by a lot of those folks you can’t win because of that. I’m not saying I should win because of it but what I am saying is I should have equal access to it, independent of those things. And that is what this America has guaranteed me, and my family before me, and my family after me. And what I’m trying to do is hold us to those highest ideals.
Which is the standard of living we all want that seems to be disappearing or never materializing for some?
That’s right. That’s right.
How does it feel, from the moment you decided you felt compelled to do this to right now, seeing a line out the door of people waiting to hear you speak?
I’m just so thankful for the support we’ve gotten. This is not about me. If it was about me, we’d have lost a long time ago. This is about us, the conversations we have about the society we wanna build, and what we’re willing to do to get that done. And if I can be part of that, then I will have been so blessed.
Governor Snyder’s deal with Enbridge leaves the future of the Great Lakes in the hands of a corporation that has a history of hiding problems from the public. We can’t trust Enbridge. That’s why we must immediately #ShutDownLine5 pic.twitter.com/1lhmMKxdAj
— Abdul El-Sayed (@AbdulElSayed) April 22, 2018