Opinion

This 33-year-old Muslim doctor might just be the next governor of Michigan

Meet Abdul El-Sayed

Perhaps the signature state loss of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign was Michigan. It had been the beating heart of the greatest industrial engine in the world and FDR's New Deal Democrats, but was economically obliterated by deindustrialization, enabled to no small degree by Clinton-style policies. Still, President Obama won the state by nearly 10 points in 2012, and liberals confidently predicted that Clinton would manage to hold the line. Instead she lost by 0.3 percent.

Today, a rather unlikely-sounding candidate to become Michigan governor is looking to take back the state for the Democrats.

Abdul El-Sayed, a 33-year-old doctor and son of an Egyptian immigrant, is running an economically populist campaign that would also make him the first Muslim governor in American history. He's competing to replace the term-limited Rick Snyder, the despised Republican who oversaw the infamous lead poisoning crisis in Flint (which was incidentally only recently declared over). It's a major test of whether diverse economic populism can assemble a multi-racial coalition to defeat Trump and his Republican lackeys.

The campaign hit a minor controversy over the last week, as centrist Democrats have alleged he can't legally run. Bridge Magazine quoted several election lawyers and party "leaders" — mostly anonymously, for some reason — arguing that since Michigan law stipulates that any gubernatorial candidate has to be registered to vote in the state for the previous four years and El-Sayed was registered in New York from 2013-16 when he was in medical school there, he's ineligible.

Open-and-shut case? Hardly. Michigan records confirm that El-Sayed maintained his registration in Michigan continuously since 2003 (while obviously voting in two place isn't legal, simply being registered in two places is), as well as an apartment in Ann Arbor. Robert Lenhard, an attorney for the campaign who was previously the chair of the Federal Election Commission, issued a statement Wednesday saying: "We have looked at this question closely and are confident Abdul El-Sayed is qualified to run for governor of Michigan."

A court may still have to weigh in, though El-Sayed's argument appears strong. It's certainly not the first time a Democrat has faced a political opponent who tried to win by working the courts.

So what about El-Sayed's platform? Naturally for a doctor and a former Detroit health department chief, his policy platform emphasizes public health, advocating for state-level single-payer, treating opioid addicts, and lead abatement. While Flint grabbed headlines for lead-tainted water, lead paint is perhaps an even bigger problem; it's the major cause of lead poisoning in Detroit, which afflicts about 10 percent of the population.

More interestingly, El-Sayed has some bold plans to fix the astoundingly horrible housing situation in many Michigan cities. Detroit in particular is a disaster zone, with "36 percent of the homes in Detroit have been foreclosed upon," he told The Week in a phone interview, "and that's largely because of taxes, not mortgage foreclosure." As David Dayen explains, much of the housing market in Detroit has become the playground of predatory financial swindlers skipping taxes and looking to flip property for a quick buck.

El-Sayed would attack this problem by reforming the property tax process to make sure people aren't being overcharged in violation of the state constitution, and revitalizing an exemption for poor people with tax debt. Meanwhile, he would screen out predatory speculators, legalize rent control for cities, and strengthen protections for renters against abusive landlords. It's a sharp break with centrist Democratic Party housing policy under President Obama that was effectively pro-foreclosure.

El-Sayed insists that his race and religion are not insurmountable barriers to victory. "My own uncle voted for Donald Trump in 2016. This is a guy who would take us water skiing in the summers and snowmobiling in the winters, and he learned to prepare venison Halal so that my family could eat it. He wasn't motivated by some racial animus," he says, but instead by attraction to Trump's rhetoric on jobs and skepticism of Clinton's record.

White voters who feel similarly might be, at best, a bit willfully ignorant about Trump's vile bigotry. Nevertheless, they also turned out for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and might easily do the same for a Muslim candidate talking an even better game on economic populism — and also turning out the black and brown voters who were none too enthused for Clinton. That in turn may blaze a trail for future Democrats looking to win back the Rust Belt states that were successfully swindled by Trump.

"Michigan is a great bellwether for the country as a whole," El-Sayed says. "The challenges we face are emblematic of the challenges the country is facing as a whole." If he wins the primary, it will be an excellent test as to whether firmly anti-prejudice populism can win in 2020 and beyond.

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