Can a Michigan doctor become America's first Muslim governor?

Abdulrahman El-Sayed, Detroit's former top health official, has gone from a longshot campaign to a serious contender for the Democratic nomination in Michigan.

David Eggert/AP
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed spoke before submitting nominating petitions to the Michigan Bureau of Elections, in Lansing, Mich., March 6.

On a blustery April morning in 2007, a University of Michigan senior named Abdulrahman El-Sayed stepped onto a podium inside the famous Ann Arbor stadium and delivered a six-minute commencement speech to tens of thousands, punctuating his remarks with an emphatic “Go Blue!”

A few minutes later Bill Clinton, the keynote speaker, took the same microphone: “I don’t want to embarrass your senior speaker,” the 42nd president said, “but I wish every person in the world who believes that we are fated to have a clash of civilizations, and cannot reach across the religious divides, could have heard you speak today.”

After the ceremony, Dr. El-Sayed says in an interview, the former president approached him in the football stadium’s locker room. “I hope someday you’ll consider running for office,” he says Mr. Clinton told him. “I really appreciate that,” El-Sayed responded. “But I don’t know if you saw my first name?”

Eleven years later, El-Sayed is in the middle of a potentially historic gubernatorial campaign. If elected, he would become the first Muslim governor in US history. At 33, he would also be among the youngest in decades. Campaigning on an ambitious plan to revitalize Michigan’s struggling cities, he’s emerged as a legitimate challenger for Michigan’s Democratic nomination in August, behind former Michigan Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer.

“It’s not a surprise that he’s generated a very strong and passionate following,” says Michigan Democratic Party chairman Brandon Dillon. “When you meet him and hear him speak, you can’t help but be impressed.”

El-Sayed grew up in Bloomfield Hills, a wealthy Detroit suburb, in a blended Arab-American family. Both of his parents immigrated to Michigan from Egypt, although El-Sayed grew up mostly with his father and his stepmother, a white woman from rural Michigan, both of whom worked as engineers. His childhood amounted to a very American cultural mash-up: His father was a part-time imam and one of his grandmothers was a Presbyterian deacon; he played high school football and spent summer holidays with relatives in Egypt.

It’s a background, El-Sayed says, that translates particularly well into connecting with a wide cross-section of voters. “One of the things that I’m very thankful for is my upbringing,” he says, and “[the] ability to traverse and move through different worlds.” 

After completing two years at the University of Michigan’s medical school, he won a Rhodes Scholarship, then went on to earn a doctorate in public health from Oxford University and an M.D. from Columbia University, where he became an associate professor of epidemiology.

In 2015, with Detroit a year or so out of bankruptcy and reeling from a burgeoning water shutoff crisis, El-Sayed moved back to Michigan to lead a turnaround of the city’s public health department. He was 30 – the youngest-ever top health official of a major US city. He would go on to implement programs to curb infant mortality, give thousands of students eyeglasses, and test lead levels in hundreds of schools.

Inspired by Flint, travel ban 

In February 2017, El-Sayed announced he was quitting the post to run for governor. Weeks earlier, a newly inaugurated President Trump had signed the first version of a travel ban for residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries. El-Sayed, as a Muslim and a public health expert, says he was motivated to enter the race partly in response to both Trump-era policies and the Flint water crisis – a preventable public health disaster that investigators have linked to state government cost-cutting efforts. Thus far, 15 current or former state and City of Flint employees have been charged with crimes from misdemeanors to involuntary manslaughter after lead leached into the city’s water when the supply was switched to the Flint River. A second criminal investigation examining crimes of fraud and greed is also under way.

“The ways in which government has failed people [are] myriad and diverse,” he says, “but no matter where you go people are just so frustrated.”

El-Sayed is a progressive Democrat whose campaign is inspired by that of Vermont’s Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (who won Michigan’s Democratic primary). Central to El-Sayed’s message is the idea that government has been hijacked by corporate influences, and he emphasizes that he’s not accepting corporate PAC donations. He says he’s not worried about angering “a bunch of very powerful, very rich people who usually buy elections against people like me.”

He also promises a comprehensive approach to improving government. Earlier this year, El-Sayed released a detailed “Urban Agenda”: The 45-page document, presented as a holistic approach to improving the difficult circumstances of an urban three-year-old child in Michigan, includes a push for tuition-free higher education for qualifying families and a statewide single-payer health care system, but also specific initiatives to address Detroit’s tax foreclosure epidemic, improve adult education, and upgrade the state’s drinking-water infrastructure.

Michigan has been dominated by a Republican legislature for years, and in November 2016 elected a Republican president for the first time in nearly two decades. But the state’s political climate, analysts say, could be ripe for a drastic change of course after Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, whose tenure was tarnished by the Flint water crisis. “After eight years of Snyder, everyone’s looking for a change,” says Michigan Democratic strategist Joe DiSano, referring to the incumbent governor. “[El-Sayed] is visceral change.”

He began as a relatively unknown longshot, but over the past year El-Sayed’s campaign has gained momentum. He now counts a team of some 2,500 volunteers across the state, including Sanders campaign veterans, and a war chest of more than $2 million, mostly raised from small donations.

His name recognition and support among the Muslim community is “almost unanimous,” says Fatina Abdrabboh, executive director of the American Muslim & Minority Advocacy League.

For a community that feels targeted, the success of El-Sayed serves as a tremendously powerful counternarrative, she says: “It’s not your name that matters. It’s not what level of religiosity [you have] or your adherence to a group. It’s credentials. It’s vision. It’s platform and policy.”

Campaign controversy

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the campaign has also inspired Islamophobic backlash. In one viral meme, traced to the pro-Trump Facebook page Patriots For America USA, El-Sayed is pictured straightening his tie while all-caps letters warn that “Abdul El-Sayed is running to be the first Muslim governor ... to turn all of Michigan into Dearborn!” That's a reference to the largely-Arab Michigan city that’s often the target of false claims of Sharia law and racist attacks.

In late January, the campaign hit its first major controversy, when questions about El-Sayed’s eligibility surfaced in a Bridge Magazine story. Michigan’s constitution dictates that a governor has to have been a registered voter in the state at least four years before the general election. He had previously registered in Michigan as a teenager and re-registered in 2016 with a New York driver’s license. A spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State has previously said that, although El-Sayed did not vote in Michigan between 2013 and 2016, he never lost his registration in the state. Although El-Sayed’s eligibility would have to be officially challenged in court, the election lawyers Bridge consulted “raised serious questions about his legal qualifications to be on the 2018 state ballot.”

In an interview, El-Sayed called the controversy a politically-motivated attempt to add an asterisk to his name. His campaign says that he’s maintained an apartment in Michigan since 2008. The state’s Democratic Party called on the campaign to clear up the issue in court to prevent last-minute chaos, and last week, the campaign filed a request for a judgment in Wayne County Circuit Court. 

Notwithstanding eligibility questions, El-Sayed is considered the biggest challenger to Ms. Whitmer, a former state senator, although analysts say the race remains open. “It’s very early,” says Mr. Dillon, the Democratic Party chairman. “We expect it to be a competitive primary.”

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