On a recent Monday afternoon, in an almost empty office in downtown Detroit, the youngest and least politically experienced candidate for governor of Michigan is tossing a lacrosse ball against the wall. Abdul El-Sayed is full of nervous energy, fueled partly by lack of sleep because he was up late observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and partly because for the past couple of hours he’s been welded to a phone doing tedious but essential fundraising calls. But the thing that has him really keyed up is the big goal for the afternoon and the reason that he is standing in front of two campaign aides in a room decorated with nothing more than a couple of “Abdul for Michigan” posters: He needs to learn how to get his message across to large crowds, specifically large crowds of people who he knows are more likely to vote for Donald Trump than a progressive Democrat, and a Muslim one at that.
At 32, El-Sayed has amassed an impressive resume. He was a three-sport athlete in high school and then played on the lacrosse team the University of Michigan. He won a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, got his medical degree at Columbia and then taught at the university’s Mailman School of Public Health before returning to Detroit to serve as the executive director of the health department for the city of Detroit, the city’s top public health official. But he’s got one big gap on his CV: He has never held elected office. Energetic or not, he knows he has a lot to overcome if he has a prayer of winning the Democratic primary in August 2018. Hence the public speaking lesson.
“Let’s pretend,” El-Sayed tells the two staffers, “that I’m speaking to Democrats in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District.” If there is a district that demonstrates the challenges ahead for a political novice with a Muslim surname it’s the 11th. Predominantly white collar and affluent, (it includes Bloomfield Hills where Mitt Romney grew up), the district is reliably Republican. But it’s the kind of place where El-Sayed knows he will have a hard time making the case that his progressive economic agenda can win statewide. Setting down the lacrosse stick and projecting over the heads of his campaign staffers sitting in front of him, El-Sayed launches into his stump speech.
“I want to tell you about what people are telling me are the challenges in their lives. They talk about feeling locked out of their economy. They talk about knowing that their children are getting a substandard education in their public schools. They talk about their fear for the Great Lakes and whether or not they’re going to just have clean water to drink. They worry about whether or not they’re going to lose access to their health care,” he says.
El-Sayed is just getting warmed up when Adam Joseph, his communications director, pulls a little surprise. He hits play on a Youtube video of Trump supporters chanting loudly, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” El-Sayed’s features harden. “And those are the challenges that people focus on all over our state,” he continues, his voice rising just enough to remain audible without coming off as angry. “Let me tell you a little bit about my background. I was the health commissioner of the City of Detroit. In that role I tried to solve for my city some of those challenges…” As Joseph continues to goose the volume, El-Sayed runs through his resume—how he gave students glasses so they had “the best opportunity to see the blackboard,” how he stood up against corporate polluters, and that how his department took precautions to prevent another Flint water crisis from happening in Detroit.
There’s an earnest but youthful naivete to this practice session—and really to El-Sayed’s entire campaign. The idea of speaking before a packed arena, much less a crowd filled with chanting protesters, is somewhat wishful thinking for a candidate who has almost no name recognition. And a loud video on a laptop doesn’t really prepare you to outwit a heckler. But this session does speak to a certain self-awareness—that in a state that surprisingly embraced Trump’s nationalist, anti-immigrant message, being an observant Muslim might present challenges that most candidates don’t have to deal with.
“The biggest challenge that we face right now is a politics of fear, a culture that tells us that we cannot reach across racial or religious or regional divides and come together as a state to face the problems that we face,” El-Sayed says.
“That’s good,” Joseph says to El-Sayed, shutting off the video. But El-Sayed isn’t entirely satisfied though. “So one of the thing we have to start doing is we have to start getting hecklers, like interns that come in” and make a ruckus, El-Sayed tells his aides.
If El-Sayed has received any heckling at all so far it has been from the political class, including from within his own party, that guffawed at his audacity when he announced his candidacy on a chilly February morning in downtown Detroit. Too young, too inexperienced, they said. But since then, El-Sayed has established himself as an unlikely factor in the Democratic primary. Polling is still scant because it’s early, but El-Sayed is moving out of the single digit zone while undecideds remain high and frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer’s support has been roughly constant at around 20 percent. And on Tuesday, a prospective heavyweight in the Democratic primary, University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein, decided not to run for governor, throwing his support to Whitmer. It’s unclear though if voters hopeful about a Bernstein run will follow his lead or look to El-Sayed. El-Sayed’s base, if he has one, is probably located inside the city limits of Detroit, but he has a lot of work to do in the farther reaches of a state that tends to get more conservative the farther you get from its biggest cities.
“It’s easy to point at him and laugh, but I think you laugh at your own peril,” Democratic strategist Joe DiSano, who is not affiliated with the campaign, said of El-Sayed. “Because this guy has more actual real world experience than almost anyone.”
El-Sayed is hoping that he can model his campaign on another candidate who was mocked early by the party establishment: Bernie Sanders. The Sanders vibe is obvious everywhere: His staff is made up of former Sanders campaign workers (who still wear Bernie 2016 stickers and clothing), a bunch of college-age interns and campaign manager Max Glass, a veteran of a number of come-from-behind congressional campaigns. Jef Pollock, a Democratic pollster who has advised New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, recently started advising the campaign as well. He even got a shoutout on Twitter from actress Eliza Dushku who has 1.85 million followers: “this guy is a star, check him out.” (But Larry Cohen, chairman of the Sanders-aligned Our Revolution, conceded: “Don’t know much. Great record.”) On a whiteboard in the campaign’s main office is a Sanders quote that reads: “You only go around once, you may as well make history as you go around.”
The goal, Glass explained, is to replicate how Sanders’ insurgent campaign simultaneously energized anti-establishment Democrats and also bring in outside voters to the party’s primary.
For that to actually happen though El-Sayed can’t just focus on safe Democratic voters. He needs to attract and retain the support of swing voters and voters who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary at all–voters who picked Trump in 2016.
And that means getting out of Detroit.
On a recent Monday afternoon, as the weather toggled between rainstorms and sunshine, El-Sayed and his team drove out to a suburban cul-de-sac in southern Michigan. Oakland county is predominately white, wealthy and very narrowly went for Sanders in the primary before sticking out as one of the few counties that went for Clinton in the general election. There are no campaign signs outside the one- and two-story houses. Folks look inquisitively as three young brown-skinned men (the candidate, Joseph and a reporter) walk from door to door. El-Sayed, dressed in dark blue suit jacket and dress shirt, sporting a silver University of Michigan class ring (where he got his undergraduate degree in 2007), knocks on the front door of a one-story suburban house—the kind where you raise your two kids and a dog for two decades.
Tim Wardle, a retired home delivery manager for the Detroit News wearing a Michigan State shirt and an oxygen tank hooked up to his nose, comes to the door. He and El-Sayed makes small talk over the Michigan State-University of Michigan rivalry. When discussion turns to Wardle’s two sons, El-Sayed notes that he comes from a half-white, half-Egyptian household and describes his time as Detroit health commissioner as he hands Wardle a campaign pamphlet with his policy positions. Wardle, an Irish-Catholic who says he voted Democratic in 2016, would be a helpful vote to get. Even better would be his two sons who voted for Trump. After they talk, Wardle says he’s open to El-Sayed.
“I was impressed. He has his stuff together,” Wardle said. Wardle contrasted El-Sayed with Whitmer who, to him, didn’t offer a galvanizing message or energize him on policy. “I saw her in an interview and she just said some stuff that I didn’t care for.”
El-Sayed’s heritage and youth don’t bother him. “Goddamn, I’m an Irish Catholic, too. We got off a boat and we were discriminated against 150 years ago,” Wardle said.
This tendency to back an underdog is something of a hallmark of Michigan’s recent political history, especially its gubernatorial races. Jennifer Granholm was hardly the favorite in the Democratic primary before going on to become governor. Rick Snyder, the current term-limited two-term governor, had no political background before but running on his “one tough nerd” moniker he ascended from the rear of the Republican primary.
At the next house, El-Sayed has similar success, talking to Cheryl Willette. Willette, who is white and a community activist, quickly contrasted El-Sayed favorably with Whitmer. She’s still open to Whitmer but El-Sayed’s offered another viable option so now she has to decide, she says.
“It’s so important to me that we have diversity in our government, that we don’t have all white men anymore. That was one of the reasons that I was eager for Gretchen. And then I see Abdul and that’s interesting to me too. When I hear of his background and the thing that he’s done and the success he’s had in Detroit now I’m very intrigued,” Willette tells me after El-Sayed finishes pitching her.
A few doors down, a 20-something blond man in a raglan baseball shirt and flip flops eyes him cautiously as he puts hockey gear into his car. With some prodding from Joseph, the young man walks over and asks what’s going on. El-Sayed explains that he’s running for governor and collecting signatures to get on the ballot. The man, who only gives his first name, Scott, tells El-Sayed he’s worried about Michigan losing its place as an automotive manufacturing hub to the West Coast and driverless cars. El-Sayed concedes it’s important, points to the importance of integrating Michigan manufacturing driverless cars. Handing a policy pamphlet to Scott, he asks if he would sign his petition to get on the ballot. Scott declines.
It’s unclear what Scott’s political persuasion is, if he’s interested in voting for Democrats at all, or whether he’s ever been politically active. El-Sayed senses that this exactly the kind of voter he wants to bring into the fold, so he presses gently, assuring Scott that signing doesn’t commit him to voting for El-Sayed. It’s just to get him on the ballot. “I have to do some research first,” he said, shaking his head again. He folds the pamphlet in half and goes back to packing up his gear for his hockey game.
Not so long ago Michigan was regarded as reliably blue, but in recent years Democrats have seen a decline in power. Besides Snyder’s two terms in the governor’s mansion Republicans control both the state House of Representatives and state Senate as well. Republicans have won five of the last seven gubernatorial elections, have held a majority in the state senate for more than 30 years, and control nine of the state’s 14 congressional seats. Nevertheless, in 2016 Michigan was considered one of Hillary Clinton’s firewall states that Democrats expected her to dominate in both the primary and general election. In another sign of the state’s penchant for defying predictions, Clinton didn’t win Michigan either time. Now, Michigan Democrats are obsessing over how to recapture voters who are electing Republicans throughout the state in areas that Democrats once controlled.
“Look, I agree with the analysis that Democratic candidates really need to show a vision in an energetic way that connects authentically with disgruntled voters,” said former Rep. Mark Schauer, the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor, who lost to Snyder with about 51 percent to 47 percent.“It’s a balancing act because we do have to connect with our traditional base and we’ve seen in the 2012 turnout a significant portion of our base has gone down. So we’ve got to rally our base while making the case of why we understand the economic plight that a huge swath of the electorate are going through. That we understand it, care about it, and we have ideas that are compelling, that help people with the challenges that they face every day.”
El-Sayed is trying to walk an especially precise balancing act—offer specific liberal policy positions to tap into liberal grassroots energy without alienating more conservative potential voters outside the party. He wants to expand the field of voters beyond the currently registered Democrats and attract people who don’t usually vote. Most of his online fundraising pitches focus more on policy rather than offering a compelling biography. But earlier this month he also sent out a fundraising pitch that noted his campaign had received threats because he’s Muslim. Other times he highlights his public health expertise by warning about Republicans’ Obamacare repeal efforts.
“The vote for Trump was not a vote for hope or a vote of inspiration, it was a vote of cynicism and frustration with the status quo,” El-Sayed said while riding in the campaign’s Ford Explorer to knock on more doors. Later, in a separate interview, El-Sayed noted that he has family who voted for Trump. “They didn’t vote for Trump because of some animus for Muslims, they voted for Donald Trump because they felt that he was at least speaking to an experience that they faced. For a lot of people they’ve been told that, statistically, our economy has gotten better, it’s recovered. But actually if you look at over the past 10 years you’ve seen this increase in corporate profits, the stagnation in labor participation and an overall decline in wages. And that speaks to peoples’ real experiences.” It’s a somewhat counterintuitive strategy: validate the underlying reason voters picked Trump but critique their choice.
A day later he knocked on doors in the suburbs of Detroit, he delivered a speech to a group of liberals in Spring Lake village in Ottawa County, in the southwestern part of the state that isn’t as essential in the primary but very important to a candidate trying to tap voters outside reliable Democrats in the general election. To these voters, El-Sayed makes his unusual personal story the core message of his appeal.
He told the crowd of 150 about how his father, the first of six children to a vegetable salesman and a homemaker, emigrated from Alexandria, Egypt. He describes Thanksgiving at his dad’s, who is married to a woman whose family has been in Michigan since before the Civil War.
“You’ve got the turkey on the table, you’ve got the Lions losing on TV and then you’ve got my family,” El-Sayed says, mentioning his Grandma Judy, a deacon at her Presbyterian church, and then the “complete wildcard,” his uncle Piotr, a professor of Slavic languages and an avowed atheist. He calls his family “wholly uncommon and highly American.”
“We’re having conversations about all kinds of things. And you can imagine that these people come from fundamentally different walks of life. They have known different histories but they see a common future,” El-Sayed says.
“I’m relatively young, I’m relatively brown, and I’m relatively Muslim,” El-Sayed says, sparking laughter from the audience. “And so to a lot of people those would be disqualifying. But I also know that I’m a physician in a state that has suffered one of the single worst man-made public health disasters in recent memory. I’m an educator in a state with a faltering public school system. I’m a public servant in a state that is one of the least transparent and least accountable nationwide and I’m a young person in a state that has struggled to create economic opportunities for young people.”
When he’s done, the crowd gives him a standing ovation. Skeptical voters left the event perhaps not less skeptical but a little more curious.
“I just dragged myself over here because Joanne, my wife, persuaded me to. I was very skeptical and I was just blown away,” said Don Sheill, a physician.“I’m just so hopeful that he can get traction.” “Hmmm,” Sheill’s wife Joanne Patterson, a retired teacher, said pausing before pointing out that Barack Obama won conservative leaning cities in Michigan in 2008 “If the city of Holland voted for Barack Obama…”
Asked if being Muslim will hurt him in the most conservative parts of the state, Sheill and Patterson pause. “I think once people hear him though you kind of just forget,” Patterson said. To which Sheill added: “I think there’s some Trump voters that would vote for this fellow if they get a chance to understand.”