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Checking in with the 2018 gubernatorial candidates: Abdul El-Sayed

dr abdul el sayed behind a desk
Abdul for Michigan

This week, Stateside is interviewing the Democratic candidates for governor ahead of their party’s 2018 State Endorsement Convention. The gubernatorial candidates will face off in the August primaries.

Abdul El-Sayed is the former director of the Detroit Health Department. His campaign has been a little bumpy - late last month, he asked a court to rule if he's eligible to run after some elections law experts claimed he might not be.

He sat down with Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to discuss his experiences at the Detroit Health Department and his stance on a variety of issues.

Listen to the full interview above, or read highlights below.

Between 2014 and 2016, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department shut off water in more than 80,000 homes and buildings in the city. These shutoffs caused a lot of outrage, and even got the attention of human rights officials at the United Nations in 2014. You were director of the Detroit Health Department from 2015-2017. Why didn't you do more to halt these shut-offs?

“Well look, I did. This is a Mike Duggan policy. And when I brought this issue up, seeing as these are clear public health issues, when I brought these issues up with the mayor, he did not want to pay attention. Like he didn’t want to pay attention to the fact that Detroit’s demolitions program is poisoning kids with lead up until this year. So, on all of those issues, we did a ton of work to drive the issue forward.

But here’s the thing: I walked into a department that had been shut down when our city was facing bankruptcy. My job was to rebuild that institution, and it was made very clear to me that if we moved too quickly on this shut-off issue, all of the other projects that I was working on would have their budgets questioned. Right? So, our job was to build an institution that fought infant mortality… to make sure that our seniors had the care that they needed because we were coordinating access to services.

All of those projects to me were incredibly important, and I knew that given Mike Duggan’s unwillingness to pay attention to this issue, the ability to stand up and publicly call him out on this is something that would have put all of those other projects at risk. And so I made a decision to really focus on building out our department.

I believe now that the responsibility for me to run is about questioning the kinds of broken attitudes and values that have lead us to situations where the mayor of Detroit can shut off 17,000 people’s water every year. The fact that the governor of the state of Michigan has poisoned 9,000 kids in Flint, and just last week opened the spigot for Nestle while shutting it off for people in Flint whom he’s responsible to poison. And the fact that the current president has no set of values whatsoever.

And so to me, what I saw in Detroit was the entire reason I decided to stand up and run. And if you look at our water policy, where folks can check it out… we are advocating for free access to water for every family to be able to clean, to cook, to drink, and to bathe, free of charge, and we would pay for it with an increasing sliding scale. We’ve put out the most comprehensive water policy in the entire country right now, and we know that we can solve this issue.

But as health director, I was not positioned to do it, it’s a water a sewage issue, and it was driven by a mayor whose values don’t match mine. As governor, I will.”

We reached out to Mayor Duggan's office for a response to Dr. El-Sayed's remarks on the water shut-offs. His spokesperson sent us this statement:

"Now that he is running for political office, Dr. El-Sayed's story about his time at the city has changed, and irresponsibly so. He is misrepresenting the very studies to which he refers and even his own tenure as Detroit's Health Director. When Dr. El-Sayed worked for the Duggan administration he repeatedly praised the city's demolition team in emails for its commitment to public health in the demolition process, specifically around the issue of lead concerns. Shortly before he left the administration to run for Governor, he again praised members of the demolition team and other city departments studying the lead issue, saying it was an honor and a privilege to have worked alongside them. The health of our residents always has been a top priority for this administration and continues to be."

Even if there's a Blue Wave in this election, it's almost assured that the State Senate will remain in Republican hands. When Jennifer Granholm was governor, there was a Democratic House and a Republican Senate and there were two government shutdowns, in 2007 and 2009. What progressive ideals will you be willing to compromise in order to get action and cooperation from the legislature?

“Well, I’ll never compromise on my ideals. What I will tell you, though, is that we have to think about what the process is, right, and the fact is that history and demography are on our side. If you look at where we’re gonna go, we will stand up, we will pass Voters Not Politicians, the ability to continue to put a vice grip on the part of the Republicans on our legislature will fall away. And over time, we will have been there driving the issues at hand.

What I will say is that you’ve got to be able to work with people on the other side of the aisle. You’ve got to be able to understand, how do you inspire people to think about the future that you want built, how do you empower them to see the opportunity to create shared wins, and on the other side, how do you make it really painful to do the wrong thing? Because, in my estimation, a lot of the Republican policies that we’re seeing right now are hurting people in legislators’ own constituencies.

I want to paint a picture for you, though. If I’m elected, Michigan will have gone from electing Donald Trump president by just over 10,000 votes, to electing a 33-year-old Muslim-American doctor governor. That comes with the single biggest mandate in state history. The ability also to leverage all of the pathway that we took to getting there in the general election, this will become a marking election nationwide. To be able to move those conversations into communities across the state, which I’ve already built. The ability to organize, and the ability to raise funds to organize, to get folks out, get them engaged, get them talking to the legislature, I think is pretty critical.

And the thing about politics is we’ve always played it one way in Michigan. We assume that political deals are cut in back rooms. The reality is, that political decisions are actually made in the minds of the voter, per our constitution. Right, we know that all political powers shall be vested in the people. And once you’ve broken the corporate choke hold that exists on our politics because you’re not taking their money - and we don’t take corporate PAC money - and because you’re able to raise focus without them, and raise energy around a campaign without those corporations, the ability then to go in those communities and really organize and get folks pushing their own legislature, that’s what drives decision-making over the long term.

And so, yes, I will deal with a gerrymandered, Republican Senate. But the fact is, is that we’ve got to get things done for the people. And I think at best, we inspire a focus on change and that’s what my mandate would create.

And if not, then what we do is make sure that we’re organizing in those local communities that Democrats have forgotten about for a very long time, to get them talking up about why universal healthcare is good for Michiganders in communities that are traditionally Republican. Why raising the minimum wage is gonna be so critical. Why standing up and dealing with water infrastructure issues matters in rural communities. Those are all conversations that we know are latent and are happening, and our job as a movement is to raise them to the fore and then see what they do in terms of driving the legislation that we want to push.

And my hope is that we can work amicably with anybody to drive forward a Michigan that is more just, more equitable, and more sustainable.”

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