In August, many political pundits predicted that American electoral history would be made. Abdul El-Sayed, a 33-year-old former physician, Ivy League professor, and until 2017, the Executive Director for Detroit’s Department of Health, was expected to become the Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan. He appeared to be the embodiment of progressivism in the age of Trump—one of a growing number of candidates who openly called themselves “democratic socialists” after decades of Clinton-esque “Third Way” centrism.
El-Sayed, who was dubbed by the New York Times as “the changing face of the Democratic Party,” presented a policy platform included raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, advocating for universal healthcare, abolishing ICE and legalizing marijuana. At campaign rallies, he railed against big money in American politics. “I think most folks in politics come here to rub shoulders with a bunch of lobbyists they want to get money from,” he told the Detroit News in May. “I don’t take that money, so it’s a very different kind of conversation.” His profile was bolstered by support from a growing number of new Democratic candidates with similarly radical progressive policies, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unexpectedly won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th District back in June.
As a practicing Muslim, El-Sayed would have been the first Muslim governor ever, so his religion ended up being at the forefront of the race. Inevitably then, he spent much of the final weeks of the campaign, as he took the lead, warding off Republican attacks that accused him of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as fears that he’d “bring Sharia law to America.” Whether it hurt him or not is open to interpretation, but El-Sayed did ultimately lose his race, finishing second to former state senator Gretchen Whitmer. In a Twitter post he wrote on the night of the Michigan primary, however, he vowed to continue being politically active: “The victory was not ours today, but the work continues. Tomorrow we continue the path toward justice, equity and sustainability.”
I recently caught up with El-Sayed to ask about his reflections on his first major political race, how he’s attempting to help other lesser-known progressive candidates and what the Democrats should be doing if they truly want to take on Trump and the GOP both this November and in November 2020.
With the election now two months in the rearview mirror, how do you feel about your campaign?
I wanted to run on a campaign of my own values. We defined the issues that matter, communicated those values and forced everyone else to respond. We did our best, and though we didn’t win, I don’t regret a second of our campaign. I would’ve kept running if I could! And even though we didn’t win, the campaign was able to move the conversation toward what values we want to uphold in our country. Now, we have an opportunity to build on those values.
What were the values that resonated the most with your supporters?
A big one was corporations and big business, and how they directly influence our politics—but also how they could influence conversations on issues like health care and access to education. That’s something that I’m taking with me. I want to help campaigns that don’t run on corporate donors and fundings, but instead are guided in ideals and values. Health care and education are important issues, especially because of creeping privatization. We need public services that benefit everyone, and I want to support candidates who believe that—it’s so urgent right now.
How exactly are you helping other campaigns like yours?
Well, we set up an activist group called SouthPaw, which is an organizing PAC. We’re using the infrastructure and momentum that was built during my campaign and focusing it on helping [progressive] candidates in down-ballot races, as well as candidates who are active in their impact on things like state legislature. Of course, we’re focusing on grassroots activism too, and getting as many people to help bring change as we can.
Your campaign attracted a lot of young people. Did they stay on once the race was over?
Our movement was for everybody, and we had all kinds of people supporting us. There were people who were young, people who lost their jobs (or who were working low-wage jobs), professionals and people who just resonated with our message that we can build a better society. Of course, there was a lot of energy that came from young people. That’s partly because the 2016 election was a wake-up call. A lot of young people figured out that if we don’t build a future that works for everyone, no one will. That’s especially clear from the actions of this administration. This is a moment in time where we’re having important conversations about who we are and what type of country we want to be.
While you didn’t run as a “Muslim candidate,” your religion ended up becoming a key part of the race. What role do you think it played, and do you think it would have an impact on other young Muslims in America thinking about running for office?
I wasn’t running as a Muslim, and I always said that my reason for running was to be the best governor of the state. Obviously people talked about it, and I expected that. But whenever I was asked, I’d always say that I didn’t run as anything other than as American who wanted to serve my community.
That’s the thing about America—all of us belong to this country; it’s founded on a set of ideals that everybody is equal. So while there were times when it was uncomfortable, what I hope is that it didn’t discourage anyone from running for office or getting involved in politics, and that people of all stripes and colors believe that there’s an opportunity to bring about change—and that they have every right, as an American, to do so.
One part of your platform was marijuana legalization. What was your reasoning behind that stance—the high incarceration rates that have come with the War on Drugs?
Some people interpret things like weed legalization as a commentary on the failure of the War on Drugs, and to an extent, that’s correct. But for others, myself included, it’s more about moving with the times and realizing there are bigger issues we should be addressing, rather than clamping down on weed.
I always related this policy back to the importance of both protecting the civil liberties of our citizens, and the importance of building what I called a “robust social trampoline.” I call it that because while a “social net” might prevent someone from falling to the lowest point of their lives, having a “social trampoline” means that we help those people from both falling as well as helping them get back up—to having a job, to having opportunities, to having a place to live.
You talked about helping others. But who are you looking at as potential blueprints for your own future political activity?
I’m inspired by lots of different folk. In the Democratic Party, people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who have been at the frontline of social justice movements for most of their lives, and to whom we owe a great deal. Also people like Shaun King, who’s done such good work around criminal justice reform, and advocating strategies to help dismantle a police state.
At the same time, I really admire the folks from the Women’s March who are addressing the culture of toxic masculinity, which is an important subject we all need to understand better. There’s a number of other social movements, too—the Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter—that are important. I try listen to folks on all sides. Even on the Republican side, because ultimately we need to recognize the wider issue—that people are suffering.
What about the Democratic Party? There’s been some criticism, from the left of the party, that the DNC isn’t doing enough to counter Trump’s messages, or isn’t providing enough support for left-wing candidates. What should the DNC be doing in the run-up to the midterms and the next Presidential election?
If the Democrats want to be a party for working people, we have to stand up for working people. We can’t be beholden by corporations, like politics has been for such a long time. We need to be fighting for a $15 minimum wage, the right to health care, the right to a good education and to also confront other challenges, like ensuring the protection of natural resources and building a sustainable environment. We need to be a lot better.
As for candidates who want to run for office to make a change, they should do it. It’s about the work, not about the office itself. You’ve gotta put in the work at the grassroots and community level, whether you’re running for elected office, attending community organizing meetings, campaigning online or even donating to a candidate.
Ultimately, though, it’s about making sure you’re having conversations. Our public conversations are broken, and that’s a real problem. We need to have conversations with people who disagree and see their perspective—to look at why they see the world the way they do. I do feel that people like Donald Trump thrive because we aren’t empathic to the people who form his base and who would agree to many of the ideas that progressives advocate for.