The Muslim “Bernie Clone” Running for Governor in Trump Country

A 33-year-old progressive is building grassroots support in red areas of Michigan.

Darren A. Nichols February 20, 2018

On January 10, Abdul El-Sayed, a Muslim Berniecrat who’s campaigning for the governor’s seat, speaks in Adrian, Mich., which went for Trump in 2016. (PHOTO BY ROBIN SCULLY)

ADRI­AN, MICH. — On a wet, win­try Jan­u­ary night, Demo­c­ra­t­ic guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Abdul El-Sayed address­es a packed room at the Lenawee Coun­ty Cour­t­house Com­mons. The 33-year-old son of Egypt­ian immi­grants intends to become his state’s first Mus­lim gov­er­nor. He launch­es into a speech on the chal­lenges fac­ing the state: pol­lu­tion, high-cost health­care, a tough job mar­ket, a gig econ­o­my and a bro­ken polit­i­cal sys­tem. It’s a talk he’s giv­en in more than 90 cities and 40 counties.

“Listening to him speak gave me hope for the future of my children in Michigan,” Baker says.

Then he comes to his diag­no­sis: The rea­son why our pol­i­tics feels so bro­ken is because the peo­ple often­times whom we’ve elect­ed to rep­re­sent us, well, this sys­tem kind of ben­e­fits them. They’re eat­ing at the same cor­po­rate trough.”

As a Mus­lim can­di­date, ElSayed might have expect­ed a tough crowd. Eighty-four per­cent of Adrian’s 20,000 res­i­dents are white, and Lenawee Coun­ty went for Don­ald Trump by a 21 per­cent mar­gin. Yet the rough­ly 100 atten­dees appear impressed.

He does not back down from tough ques­tions,” says CeCe Rodriguez, sec­re­tary of the Lenawee Coun­ty Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, which host­ed the event. He real­ly took time to get to know us.” Emi­lie Mullins, 42, an inde­pen­dent, says El-Sayed’s her­itage is a non-issue for her.

I didn’t know a lot about his plat­form before tonight, but I liked almost every­thing I heard,” says Mullins. Michi­gan is bare­ly main­tain­ing or slid­ing back­ward in almost all qual­i­ty of life issues. I’m look­ing for a pro­gres­sive can­di­date, and [El-Sayed] sup­ports a high min­i­mum wage, pro­tect­ing our envi­ron­ment, improv­ing the schools and attract­ing qual­i­ty jobs to Michigan.”

El-Sayed also advo cates uni­ver­sal health­care and has pledged not to take cor­po­rate dona­tions. His pro­gram for Michi­gan includes invest­ing in infra­struc­ture and edu­ca­tion; pro­tect­ing teacher pay and pen­sions; legal­iz­ing mar­i­jua­na, which he esti­mates could free up near­ly $125 mil­lion in the state bud­get; and over­haul­ing the state’s high auto insur­ance rates. And while he sup­ports revi­tal­iz­ing Detroit, the state’s largest city, his plan focus­es on improv­ing the qual­i­ty of life in res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods, not the down­town area.

If we’re will­ing to work togeth­er, we can pro­pose and actu­al­ize solu­tions to prob­lems we all face,” El-Sayed says. It’s not about where we’re from, the col­or of our skin, where we were born or what we do for a liv­ing. It’s about rec­og­niz­ing there’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty for us to pass some­thing bet­ter to our kids.”

Incum­bent Repub­li­can Gov. Rick Sny­der can’t run for a third term because of Michigan’s term lim­its. The state’s pri­ma­ry is eight months away and El-Sayed is up against three oth­er Democ­rats. Gretchen Whit­mer, a for­mer Demo­c­ra­t­ic minor­i­ty leader in the state­house, leads ear­ly polls of Democ­rats, but the Detroit News says she is vul­ner­a­ble because she has not done well in metro Detroit.

In head-to-head polling, she is run­ning near even with Michi­gan Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bill Schuette, the ear­ly favorite for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion. (El-Sayed may also face a res­i­den­cy chal­lenge. He lived in New York from 2013 to 2016, and Michi­gan requires can­di­dates to have been reg­is­tered to vote in the state for four years.) 

El-Sayed has an impres­sive résumé. A for­mer Rhodes schol­ar, he has a med­ical degree from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and a doc­tor­ate in pub­lic health from Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty. At 29, he was appoint­ed the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Detroit Health Depart­ment by May­or Mike Dug­gan. But what wins over grass­roots sup­port­ers is his mes­sage of serv­ing peo­ple, not prof­its. Mullins, for exam­ple, says she drove to Adri­an because she is look­ing for a can­di­date who has not sold out to cor­po­rate interests.

Joni Bak­er, 40, has been intrigued by El-Sayed since she saw him in a Face­book video near­ly a year ago. She calls him a Bernie Sanders clone,” which is per­fect in my book.”

Lis­ten­ing to him speak gave me hope for the future of my chil­dren in Michi­gan,” Bak­er says. I liked that when he answered a ques­tion, he didn’t just have emp­ty promis­es. He was knowl­edge­able on the prob­lems our state has been hav­ing, and he has detailed plans to fix them.”

El-Sayed tells the crowd that, after he’d decid­ed to run for office, he learned he was going to be a father. With no mon­ey com­ing in, he asked his wife if it made sense for him to stay in the race. He says she replied, The best thing you can do for this lit­tle girl is go out and win the elec­tion — it says more about who we are as a country.”

Dar­ren A. Nichols spent more than 20 years at Detroit News cov­er­ing City Hall, includ­ing the largest munic­i­pal bank­rupt­cy in history.
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