Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, Democratic candidate for governor of Michigan, is not afraid to tackle challenges head on.
“I want to hear the things that really keep you up at night,” said El-Sayed, kicking off a town hall meeting hosted by LTU College Democrats, Sept. 5 in the Marburger Science Auditorium.
El-Sayed said he “really loves people” and hearing about issues that matter to them: “Things that allow them to believe in a tomorrow that is better than today,” he said.
If elected, the 32-year-old -- raised in Gratiot and Oakland counties by his Egyptian parents and a stepmother of European descent – would be the first Muslim governor in the United States.
When he was 30, El-Sayed was named executive director of the Detroit Health Department, making him the youngest health commissioner in a major American city. Prior to that, he was a medical doctor and university professor in the field of epidemiology – the study and analysis of health and disease conditions in defined populations.
El-Sayed took over Detroit’s 185-year-old health department in 2015 after it was privatized during the city’s bankruptcy. He said the issues he faced were tremendous: “How do you provide health services in a city that’s been systematically neglected for generations?” he asked.
One of El-Sayed’s new programs was to provide free eyeglasses to children in Detroit Public Schools. Then, after news broke about the Flint water crisis, the Detroit Health Department put a protocol in place to test all schools and daycare centers for the possibility of lead in the water. El-Sayed said he was proactive on testing Detroit schools because he wanted to be sure the city’s children were not drinking tainted water at their schools.
Clean water was among issues raised by audience members at the LTU event, along with immigration, more funding for education, continued availability of healthcare and Medicaid, and the deep divide between the major political parties.
El-Sayed agreed elected officials need to look past party lines and “how we move beyond the politics of division.” He added, “always center the conversation on what’s best for the state.”
Because of his increasing interest to improve the State of Michigan, El-Sayed announced in February that he was resigning from the Detroit Health Department to run for governor in the 2018 Democratic Party primary.
El-Sayed has pledged that he will not accept corporate campaign donations. His campaign raised $1 million from private donors before he officially filed as a gubernatorial candidate. He stated he is convinced he can carry this momentum forward until the 2018 primary without corporate donors.
As a medical doctor and university professor, running for governor may not seem like an obvious next step for El-Sayed. But he said biology and politics are his two main interests, and he believes those two disciplines are more alike than they may seem. He said he spent years studying the biology of health, then became interested in the politics of health.
“I wanted the opportunity to fix with my hands those things I’d been thinking about,” El-Sayed said.
For example, he pointed out that unemployment, health care concerns, and a failing public school system affect more than just Detroit and Flint: “Those challenges are challenges we face together as a state. … There’s something about a shared future that can unite us," he said.
“We’re speaking to people who have been suffering,” he added. Low-income families in the inner cities of Detroit and Flint, as well as middle-income families in Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, the northern counties, and elsewhere: “… in the end, the challenges we face in this state are the same.”
A Flint resident in the audience stated that relief efforts in the ongoing water crisis are gradually fading away. The number of water filtration sites are dwindling, bottled water availability is shrinking, but the pipes still are not fixed. She said that Flint is “feeling abandoned – again.”
El-Sayed said he has talked to politicians from all over the state who are feeling “Flint fatigue.” He said they are tired of hearing and talking about the water crisis and want to move on to other issues. El-Sayed wants Michigan’s government to stay on top of this issue, and do more, to ensure nothing like the Flint water crisis ever happens again. It is too important of an issue, he said, because it affects more than just Flint. This could easily happen elsewhere in Michigan, he said, because Flint is not the only city with old lead pipes.
Other issues important to the audience included the “brain drain” – educated professionals leaving Michigan for California, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere for better job opportunities. Cuts in arts education, cuts in infrastructure spending, and more promotion of trade schools and one- and two-year vocational training programs were other issues raised by the audience.
El-Sayned said he wants Michigan residents to think beyond four-year degrees. He would like to see the development of more one- and two-year training programs because he believes Michigan needs more skilled trades.
A related concern of El-Sayed’s is the “systematic defunding” of education in Michigan; K-12 as well as colleges and universities. He also wants to address the for-profit charter school system – he is against for-profit charter schools – while reinvesting in teachers with increased pay and restored pensions. He said teachers also need to be revalued as educators and have their autonomy restored.
Another question from the audience focused on Michigan’s heritage in automotive technology. El-Sayed was asked how he plans to reconcile innovation in the auto industry with issues causing climate change. He said Michigan needs to retake the lead in technological innovation while being environmentally conscious.
“I don’t see those things as mutually exclusive. We can and must do both,” he said. Later, he added, “We have to do the work in building the kind of society we want.”