Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed spoke at MSU on Monday to shed some light on his election platform.
Hosted by College Democrats, 32-year-old El-Sayed spoke openly to students about his background as Detroit health commissioner. El-Sayed is vying for the Democratic nomination in the November 2018 election.
A University of Michigan graduate, he became a Rhodes Scholar and studied public health at Oxford University in England and went to medical school at Columbia University in New York City. He majored in biology and political science as an undergraduate student.
“For me, I thought I wanted to use science to help people,” El-Sayed told the crowd of students gathered in the Wilson Auditorium. “So, I went off to the University of Michigan to study biology and politics. … I couldn’t pick any one thing, and I knew I kind of liked both of those things. Everybody used to make fun of me. They’d be like, 'How are you going to put these together?' At that point I had no clue, but I knew what I liked.”
El-Sayed, who used both majors to help with his job as an executive officer and heath director for the Detroit Health Department, believes biology and political science aren’t that different.
“Biology is a system of rules by which our bodies, ourselves make complex decisions about scarce resources in our bodies,” El-Sayed said in his speech, “Politics is a set of rules by which our communities make decisions about scarce resources in society. If you want to understand why people get sick, we spend a lot of time focusing on the biology. But, it actually has a lot to do with the politics. ... If you want to understand who gets sick and who doesn’t, pay attention to the politics.”
As an executive officer and heath director in Detroit, he believes he gained the experience needed to be governor.
“I rebuilt the health department in post-bankruptcy Detroit," El-Sayed said. "I’ve worked with all levels of government; federal levels of government, state government, local government, to create real solutions to real problems that we’re facing. Getting kids access to glasses free of charge, standing up and forcing polluters to reduce their emissions, making sure that our children were safe and healthy in our schools that were inspected. Making sure there weren’t places where there was lead in the water. Those are all experiences that I think are critical for a future governor to have.”
El-Sayed believes he can bring Michiganders together in a way that other gubernatorial candidates cannot.
“I think Michigan needs a governor who can unite us around the challenges we face," El-Sayed said. "I think you look at this race and how it’s shaping up, I come to it from a place of what we can do to create the best, most dignified life for people all over our state, recognizing the challenges they face, whether they’re poor working people in places like Detroit or Kalkaska, they have the same challenges that can bring us together. I’m the only person on the left in this race who believes in a government that can dignify the lives of real people and has built that.
One of El-Sayed's biggest initiatives if elected governor will be reforming the government to encourage transparency and stop gerrymandering.
“We have to clean up our government," El-Sayed said. "Right now, government’s not accountable because we have a deeply gerrymandered state, there’s too much money flowing in politics from corporations. We don’t know what legislators or the governor are doing because we can’t look into the messages that they send each other, and we have term limits that have made everybody a babysitter rather than a parent in the government.”
El-Sayed also said he would pursue revamping Michigan's infrastructure and fixing public education. He believes the state must reinvest in public schools in order to see improvement.
“The plan that we have is an infrastructure bank that would allow us to buy schools that have been decommissioned from the school districts, and then enhance capital into fixing the schools that do exist," El-Sayed said.
El-Sayed sees charter schools and vouchers as detrimental to Michigan’s public school system and he said if elected, he plans to get the state away from these programs.
"We have to create an off-ramp for for-profit education,” El-Sayed said. “Nobody should be able to profiteer off of money that we’ve invested in our kids’ brains. We have to be able to provide really high quality support services for kids in schools, doing things like building off a program that we created in Detroit to get glasses, and also making sure that they have high quality food, making sure they have access to connect to the kinds social work services that they’ll need. This is really about social mobility for our kids, and if we do those things I think we have a shot at rebuilding k-12.”
El-Sayed said another important issue facing Michigan residents is health care. He supports single-payer health care, and if it doesn't pass nationally, he plans to enforce it at a state level. He says the system would help small businesses who struggle to find affordable healthcare for full-time employees and would provide better healthcare to patients.
“(Pursuing single-payer healthcare in Michigan) would mean creating a public health insurance program that would provide every single Michigander access to high quality affordable health care," El-Sayed said. "It would allow them to be able to see a doctor to get the kind of care they need if they got sick. We would pay for that by being able to pick off the costs that so many businesses have by having to provide healthcare for employees and replace that with a tax that would come out to cover the expenses for all.”
At the end of his speech, El-Sayed took questions from the audience, including one on renewable energy. This prompted him to highlight a plan he hopes to enact if elected.
“I want to see Michigan get to 40 percent renewable energy by 2040,” El-Sayed responded. “That’s a goal that we want to set, and I think if we’re willing to invest ... in helping companies invest in the capitals that they need, if we’re willing to tax carbon and make it harder for corporations to pollute, then we can get it.”
El-Sayed finished the speech by calling on MSU students to participate in the democratic process -- even if they don’t support him.
“Do not forget that this United States of America is your America, it’s not Trump’s America,” El-Sayed said, “This democracy is your democracy if you’re willing to stand up and grab it and fight for it. So, I hope I said something today that inspires you to believe that my candidacy is about that, but even if I haven’t, I hope that you’ll go work for someone else because doing the work of democracy is not easy, but it has never been more important.”
James Madison College freshman Hannah Fischer says she was impressed by hearing El-Sayed speak for the first time and now hopes to intern for him.
“I’ve heard a lot about Whitmer, and I think a lot of people think she’s the mainstream candidate, but after hearing Abdul today, I think I want to intern for him – which means I’d be voting for him,” Fischer said, “But so far, I feel like I like him as a person the best so far.”
When asked if El-Sayed has any weaknesses as a candidate, Fischer could name only his age as a potential issue.
“I think then you have the fact that he’s young, which could be looked at like it’s a weakness or a strength, but a lot of people might see that as a weakness that he’s been out of college for what? Like, ten years,” Fisher said. “So maybe he’s not experienced enough or hasn’t been in enough politics positions. So, I think that could be his biggest weakness.”
Aside from age, Fischer believes that El-Sayed possesses many attractive qualities for a potential governor.
“As a candidate, I think his background,” Fischer said. “He talked about how he combined biology and politics, and his experience working for the health department for Detroit and everything he learned from that.”
The College Democrats plan to host all four gubernatorial candidates on campus before the election. College Democrats president Dan Martel believes the event went well.
“I think it went well,” Martel said, “What struck me about it was he answered all of the questions in such detail that we actually didn’t get to ask a high volume of questions. He seems he carries himself very intelligently, he speaks in a very intelligent manner, and he answered the questions very thoroughly. I appreciate that. I kind of feel a little bummed that I didn’t get to hear him answer a bigger variety of questions, but also at the same time, I’m happy about how it went because he did answer the questions he was asked in such great detail.”
College Democrats press secretary Eli Pales said that the organization has not endorsed a candidate yet, but confirmed his personal belief that El-Sayed gave a compelling speech.
“I think he’s a really smart dude,” Pales said. “He knows his policy. He knows what he’s talking about. I think if you look at his educational background, he’s really got a lot of knowledge from everywhere he’s been. From a doctorate to a medical degree, and he’s had the experience of policy as well, so I think it was really valuable for our student body to get a perspective from in the weeds, which a lot of people don’t appreciate as much.”