Q&A: The man running to be US' first Arab American Muslim governor
By Ryan Rifai
Egyptian American doctor Abdul El-Sayed could become the first-ever Muslim governor in the United States in 2018.
El-Sayed, 32, was appointed as the chief of the health department of Michigan’s city of Detroit in 2015, and – after making a serious turn to politics – is now running to be the next governor of the state.
He would inherit major water and economic crises in Detroit and Flint, which are the two poorest cities in the US.
Although Michigan has one of the largest supplies of fresh water in the country, tens of thousands of Detroit residents lost access to water in the homes after major hikes in prices left them unable to afford the basic need.
Furthermore, nearby Flint faced a lead-poisoning water crisis that affected most of its 100,000 residents and prompted a state of emergency.
Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder has received the bulk of the blame for the water crises for his part in privatising many key state institutions, including the water department, and for allegedly ignoring crises that have hit the underprivileged most.
El-Sayed is also running at a time when hate crimes have been at an all-time high in the country, seen by many as being inspired by Donald Trump‘s presidency.
El-Sayed talked to Al Jazeera about what inspired him to run and why he believes he is the right candidate for the job.
He also talks about how being an Arab and Muslim plays into the election, especially in a state that voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Al Jazeera: What inspired you to run for governor?
Abdul El-Sayed: I was appointed health director for the city of Detroit in 2015 and my job was to rebuild the health department after the 185-year old department had been privatised during the municipal bankruptcy, when the state came in and appointed an emergency manager.
We were facing one of the greatest public health crises in the country. So we got to work on everything from providing every child a pair of glasses in Detroit who needed one, building programmes to fight asthma, and standing up to corporations that had spent decades polluting the city’s air. Our goal was to really focus on the health and well-being of the most vulnerable people in our community.
Meanwhile, I watched as Governor Snyder and his team of accountants were cutting costs and cutting corners. Their inattention to communities ultimately poisoned thousands of children – and those children were the very ones that I was serving at the helm of the health department.
I realised that the poisoning of 9,000 kids in Flint was really a result of running government “like a business” like Governor Snyder had – more focused on cutting costs than on ensuring that essential and basic services make their way to real people who rely on them to survive.
And that’s something I didn’t believe in. I believe in government as something we do in this country for the people and by the people. I believe in a government that focuses on people, their opportunities, and their promise. As a doctor, educator, and public servant, I see my responsibility as refocusing on the dignity and prosperity of working people, whether they are black Americans in places like Detroit or Flint, or white Americans in places like Cheboygan or Ishpeming.
That is why I am motivated to run for governor. My abilities are uniquely well-suited to the type of challenges we face, whether its public health, education or building an economy and the kind of place where millennials and young people want to invest in and raise their children in.
Al Jazeera: How has your level of support been?
El-Sayed: People are really excited about this. Letters, phone calls, and shows of support have come from all over the state. It’s overwhelming and humbling.
Michiganders showed in the 2016 election that they are done with government as usual. They are fed up with establishment candidates who are out of touch and dynasties that put forth candidates for coronation rather than election.
I want to provide Michiganders with an opportunity to support a candidate who both has real government experience and whose skill sets are really focused on bringing communities together. Someone who can bring exciting and innovative ideas to state government.
I have gotten really heartwarming messages from all over the state – even from some folks who have never voted for a Democrat. Some of my supporters have said they have never voted for a liberal, but would vote for me because they value authenticity and a focus on people and their well-being. That is what matters to them as Michiganders.
Al Jazeera: How has being an Arab and Muslim played into the election?
El-Sayed: It is something that comes up. For me, religion isn’t about how or if one prays, but rather what they pray for and what they hope for. And for me, personally, I pray for my family. And I pray for my state and my country.
El-Sayed says Michigan is ready for fresh ideas and new energy [Courtesy: El-Sayed]And I believe in the fundamental decency of people who can come together across traditional boundaries, as we have in the past. We need to reject this notion that we’re different and can’t see across a religious or ethnic divide.
I know this is possible, because I have seen it every single day at my family’s dinner table. My family is extremely diverse, and includes Christians, Muslims, and atheists. And they come from all over the world.
I’ve seen them come together because they believe in their shared future: their children. And I know we, across all corners of Michigan, can do the same.
Al Jazeera: Michigan voted for Trump, so how has that affected your chances?
El-Sayed: It is pretty clear that people all over the state are starting to have buyer’s remorse after they have watched what he has done in the White House, including the scandals that have followed him, the decisions that are at odds with deeply held American values, and the distractions from real issues.
But they are still asking themselves: “What does the future look like?” Because it is clear that politics as usual has not done what’s necessary to provide real opportunities for real people. And it’s clear that Trump is not going to either.
So, I believe the future needs to be about new energy, new ideas, and new skill sets that people can believe in.
The results of Trump winning have less to do with Trump’s character and ideology and more to do with the fact that he was the only one talking about jobs and about challenges and real issues people face.
I don’t think his diagnosis of the challenge was correct. But I know that people in Michigan don’t either. They’re interested in fresh thinking and new ideas that moves us forward rather than forces us to pine for the past.
Al Jazeera: How will you tackle the water crises in Michigan?
El-Sayed: The water crisis was prompted by – and persisted because – of Lansing’s inattention to – and disinvestment from – communities.
We are living in a state that is surrounded by fresh water. There is no reason aside from negligent government policies that keeps people from having water that they can drink that is affordable.
To me, it is about rethinking the state law that said we cannot give people who don’t have the means of paying for basic clean and affordable water. It means rethinking how we pay for infrastructure. It means sponsoring legislation to alter the state law that says we can’t give people who are struggling to pay for their water a rate that allows them to actually have basic access to water.
And it means being able to build a public health system that is going make sure we do not cut corners when we cut costs, or try to reduce government spending on the backs of communities that deserve better.