Abdul El-Sayed lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for Michigan governor in 2018 badly. And yet two years later, his political and media star has never been brighter. In March, the 35-year-old ex-Detroit director of public health and current Bernie Sanders campaign surrogate became a CNN contributor who appears regularly on the network to offer views on both politics and the COVID-19 crisis. He also hosts the podcast America Dissected from Crooked Media, founded by the former Obama White House aides behind the super-popular Pod Save America.
Now the Bloomfield Hills native is out with Healing Politics, (Abrams Press, 2020), which is part memoir and part political treatise. An epidemiologist by trade, El-Sayed’s thesis is that Americans suffer an “epidemic of insecurity” that infiltrates most aspects of our lives that must be addressed. The book was finished long before COVID-19 struck, and his views on that issue will appear in May’s print edition of Hour Detroit.
But El-Sayed, who can’t go on a book tour now, spoke to Hour Detroit about many other topics and issues discussed in Healing Politics — including the death threats he endured during his run for office, intolerance within the Muslim community, and his frustrations with Barack Obama, Mike Duggan, and Gretchen Whitmer.
Hour Detroit: It’s unusual to have a guy who came in second in the primary become so prominent after that. How did you go from being an electoral footnote to being a bit of a star?
Abdul El-Sayed: I don’t know that I’m a star. I keep saying the things that I believe in and I think they resonate with people. At the same time, a couple of things go a different way and we have a different outcome in the race. People saw potential in the movement we built and our ability to speak to the aspirations of young people. My hope is that we always stay consistent and we always stay humble and that it’s the honesty and integrity of the message that you carry that creates movements.
I finished Healing Politics thinking, ‘What is he running for?’ It has all the elements of the campaign memoir. Is this a precursor to something?
I didn’t try to write the book as a preamble for another run for office. I tried to write the book as an honest assessment of what I believe and why. If I run for office again, then great. But if I don’t, then great. I’m not running in 2020, for sure. I believe in a set of ideals and I really wanted to articulate them and why I believe in them and the rigor underneath them.
Speaking of rigor, there were many interesting and telling factoids in the book. That the infant mortality rate in Detroit is 15 out of 1,000 live births, which is double the national average, is one. Another was the idea that more than half of U.S. counties have no psychiatrists and that most of them are over 60. What were you trying to use this data to say?
I formulated my thesis for the book — that we’re facing this epidemic of insecurity — on the campaign trail. A lot of it was anecdotal from people I met, and then my question was, do these anecdotes actually hold up when you expose them to empirical questioning. What I saw in Michigan was a pretty representative sample of what the country looks like right now. As a scientist, we formulate a hypothesis first and then try to disprove it. And I did exactly that. A lot of it holds up because the basic needs of a good life don’t exist for a lot of people and because of the systems that we’ve created and relied upon have failed us.
You grew up in Oakland County and mention you went to protests with your parents when you were young. What did they protest?
As a young Muslim American, it was impossible to avoid protests around our basic civil rights. We’d show up and the mosque community had organized a protest on the PATRIOT Act, for example. If you don’t agitate for your rights as a member of a minority community in America, those rights can [be taken] away. We’ve taken the cue from members of our community who are also members of the black American community that if you’re not advocating for your rights, nobody else is.
Healing Politics provides nuance and insight about the complexity of the Muslim American experience and community itself. The Muslim population in America is the most ethnically diverse faith in the nation, but you also write that it’s the most segregated. That struck me as a contradiction.
The fact is, unfortunately, a lot of our parents and our parents’ parents, when they came here, replicated the same segregation they found here. For so long, you have had the Arab and South Asian community on one end. We tend to live in the burbs or tend to be socio-economically empowered. And then you have the black American Muslim community, who tend to live in urban communities and who tend to be poorer than their counterparts. My father made sure we understood that we had people in our community of all such positions and races, so we used to visit a lot of his friends and their families. If we’re not organizing with everyone, we’re unnecessarily excluding people.
Is Detroit’s Muslim community as segregated?
Unfortunately, it’s actually worse in our community because it’s so big. In a lot of communities, if you’re not a very big Muslim community, you just don’t have the numbers to be able to self-segregate. Here we do. There’s been a large black Muslim community in Michigan since the ’50s and ’60s and it’s been a major hub for the Nation of Islam. We also have huge immigrant communities in Dearborn and outside Dearborn. We need to do a lot better so that everybody feels welcome and empowered as part of a broader community.
You write about surprising Muslim opposition to your campaign. There are mosque elders who were dubious and said you couldn’t win. And then there are other Muslims who you say were actively sabotaging or trying to challenge your campaign. I can understand why some people would think you couldn’t win, but why would they try to hamstring you?
Every minority community in the country knows about the folks who derived their own power about being, the good X – the good Muslims, for example. They derive their power by being really close to the power structure as it stands. They had a vested interest in making sure that somebody who wasn’t a client of the folks who are already in power doesn’t succeed because I might be a threat to their own power. You can’t just assume that anybody who looks like you or prays like you or loves like you is looking out for you. For them, I was a big threat and so they work hard inside of the community to make sure I did not succeed.
How? What did they do?
The stronger my campaign became, the more virulent the opposition got. They made up rumors about the campaign, about me, my family. They infiltrated our campaign meetings and engagement, trying to take information and give it to the opposition. They used vile stereotypes of Muslims and our community to try and upend the campaign. It was actually quite astounding.
The book opens with revelations that you received serious death threats during the campaign. Who was threatening you and what was that like for you and your family?
It was coming from white supremacists, an astounding number of them in Florida for some reason. We knew what we were getting into. My wife and I aren’t stupid. We understand what it means to be a Muslim in America. We’ve been Muslims in America for our whole lives. It’s scary. We hired a full-time bodyguard on the campaign because of it. But if you let that stop you, then you’re being selfish with respect to what you owe the next generation.
Yeah. I was deeply privileged to have been a part of normalizing our existence in America. I didn’t win but at least I tried to break a barrier down in a way that spoke to a broader set of aspirations that are independent of faith. My campaign was not centered on me being Muslim at all. It was centered on universal healthcare, equality, and combatting racism. It was about what we as a state and America should aspire to as a people.
You seem so disappointed in Barack Obama in the book. Is that a fair reading?
It is, but it’s only because he loomed so large in my generation’s understanding of what was possible. I really appreciate everything he did to make it possible for somebody like me to aspire to run for office. At the same time, I’m frustrated that so many of the things that he ran on didn’t happen. Maybe I shouldn’t be, but my existence in the public space and my choice to run for office and stay involved is about believing that it is possible. I’m deeply grateful for everything Obama and his family had to go through to make it possible for somebody like me to aspire to run, but the administration did not deliver. If I ever get the opportunity to sit down with him, I hope that I’m honest about that. I’d say, ‘Look, you ran on a set of things that are not done. And it behooves us to keep fighting for them.’
You also seemed disappointed in Mayor Mike Duggan regarding the water shutoffs in Detroit and the lead contamination from the vacant home demolitions. Where did you leave things with him when you left your position?
It’s not a secret that he and I disagreed on a lot of his policies. I was very disappointed. I came there to do a job and came to realize that the job was not going to be possible because of the priorities of the administration. When that became clear and I realized that I was going to have to underwrite a set of policies I didn’t believe in as a health director, I left. I left to run for office so that I could set priorities that I do believe in.
What is your relationship with the mayor now?
He and I have had made peace with where we sit. He’s made some decisions in the context of this coronavirus epidemic that I agree with. It’s not a personal thing.
You’re also quite critical of how Gretchen Whitmer and Shri Thanedar funded and executed their campaigns but don’t name them in the book. Why not?
I want to focus on the issues, not the people. I have nothing against them as individuals. I disagree with the way they do politics, but no need to make it personal. That’s not the point.
You write a lot in Healing Politics about their campaign money. Is that the only reason you lost?
No. I think it’s a big reason why, but it’s not the only reason. Any campaign is a complex thing. Trying to say ‘this is definitely the reason why’ is inconsistent with how the world works. These things compound on each other. I didn’t win for a lot of reasons, but the way money moves in politics even beyond my campaign is a big problem for getting things done in politics.
So other than the money, why else didn’t you win?
Campaigns are about momentum, and for a lot of reasons, our momentum got slowed down. Shri being in the race was a big problem. You have a guy who’s spending $10.5 million on your message that is plagiarizing from you. The eligibility challenge (in which a lawsuit, which failed, was filed questioning whether he could remain in the ballot) was an issue. I was running as a first-time candidate, and running a deeply unconventional race was a lot for people to swallow, and yet we got 340,000 votes and were able to move the conversation. Even if it didn’t wind up with me being governor, it changed the conversation in Michigan politics.
If COVID-19 had hit before Super Tuesday — when Joe Biden began his romp over Bernie Sanders — to the extent it has now, would the Democratic primary process be in a different place today?
I don’t know, but I do know that when the story is told about what we faced and what we did, a lot of it will look a lot like the Bernie Sanders playbook – paid sick leave, universal healthcare, a basic income. These are all things Bernie has been talking about for a very, very long time. And these ideas are so fresh on the tip of people’s minds, they’re in the public lexicon now because he ran. But the challenge with this moment is that when faced with a lot of insecurity, people want something secure and, you know, Joe Biden is the political equivalent of a security blanket.
For more on Healing Politics, visit abdulelsayed.com.