Meet the Detroit Public Health Leader Who Could Become America's First Muslim Governor

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed has already accomplished a lot in his 32 years. He was a Rhodes scholar, got a medical degree, taught epidemiology at Columbia, and served as the Executive Director of Detroit’s Health Department, where he led a program that ensured kids in low-income families who needed glasses could get them.


Now, he’s adding candidate for governor of Michigan to that list.

Michigan’s 2018 gubernatorial race is a particularly interesting one. It’s crowded, and while the state has been led by Republican Rick Snyder since 2011, it had a long history of voting Democratic in presidential election years before Donald Trump barely edged out Hillary Clinton there in 2016. Snyder is also one of the most unpopular governors in the country, giving Democrats further hope.

El-Sayed’s platform includes developing Michigan’s economy, improving its education system, and providing access to health care. He has also said he is pro-choice and that he wishes to implement “sanctuary” policies to protect immigrants.

He would also be the first Muslim governor in American history if he won.

El-Sayed says his work in public health and platform of protecting the poor and calling for a “more just” world are informed in part by his faith. But in a recent Reddit AMA, he explained that there have been “folks who feel threatened by a Muslim seeking to lead in our society (we’ve been getting the fan mail).” Still, he’s optimistic about his chances.

“As I’ve spoken to Michiganders, it’s clear to me that they’re a lot less interested in how I pray or what language I pray in, but what I pray for,” El-Sayed told me over the phone. “I pray for my family, and I pray for my state, and I pray for my country and the world, that it can be a little bit more peaceful and a little more equitable and a little more generous.”

I spoke with El-Sayed about why he’s running, his experiences in public health, and his faith.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why are you running for governor?

I believe that we need to focus government back on people, and we need to be able to unite around the problems that we face in the state.


[The crisis in Flint]was a big wakeup call that the system of government business where you cut costs on a spreadsheet and then ultimately end up cutting corners ultimately hurts people, and it’s a symptom of an approach to governance that we’ve had that has put elites and corporations ahead of the well-being of real people.

I’m running because I think that government and a government for people and by people should be about people.


Did you always want to run for political office?

No. I grew up wanting to be a doctor, and as I learned about the work of medicine I started to realize that the real pathologies that mattered most had a lot less to do with what was going on in cells and had a lot more to do with what was going on in society. I dedicated my career to public health, and ultimately ended up health commissioner in Detroit, where I realized that there needed to be moral leadership that was willing to create this space within which everybody has equal access to opportunities that are long lasting and sustainable, rather than kowtowing to large corporations to cut their costs, to maximize their profits.


And so it’s been the same set of values that took me into medicine which took me to public health which are ultimately taking me now to elected public service.

How’s the race going?

It’s been really exciting. I think the work of public service is very similar to the work of medicine. Your job is to sit with people, to understand what hurts, to be able to build trust between each other, to articulate a solution moving forward, and then to implement the solution, and it’s been really heartening to me as we walked in and out of rooms all across the state–we’ve been to 25 different counties, 48 different cities–we’ve discovered that the conversations that people are having about the challenges that we face are really the same conversations regardless of demographic and regardless of region in our state.


We’ve been sold this false set of ideas that says we can’t see eye to eye as a state–that regional [factionalism], or race and demographic differences, really mean that we face different challenges–but instead what we found is that the challenges that people are facing are really the same challenges, and we have to unite together to be able to address that. If there is going to be something that’s beyond this moment of fear, it’s going to be a shared future that we can shape together.

It’s been reported that if you win, you could be the first Muslim governor in the U.S. Can you talk about your faith?


I am Muslim, and that is something that, to me, is a source of great inspiration: verses like “he or she who saves a life; he or she has saved all of humanity,” verses that call to a more just world and teach to provide for the poor. But my faith is just part of who I am, like many people of faith or no faith at all.

I think my faith is pretty secondary to what I hope to accomplish for our state and we’re blessed to live in a society that separates between church and state. My responsibilities to our society is to create the most the fairest and most respectable kind of public conversation where anybody and everybody is respected for the lives they choose to lead–of faith, without faith, or independent of faith.


Can you talk about your public health experience and how it would inform your work if you were elected?

When I was health director, I was responsible for the health of 680,000 people. We had a circumstance last July where there was a lot of flooding in southeast Detroit that affected hundreds of homes. There were two cases of Hepatitis A that were plausibly connected to the flooding. The thing about Hepatitis A is that you can give people a vaccine that would prevent more cases of Hepatitis A if they’re within a window of exposure, and you have about two weeks.


We talked to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and they told us “Well, listen, you guys know that CDC protocol says there is no increase in Hepatitis A risk after flooding, and so we don’t think you should actually open up a vaccination clinic and provide this vaccine in Detroit.”

But CDC protocol doesn’t tell you what to do in the circumstance where you already have two cases. So we did the work of acquiring that vaccine. We actually reached out to the manufacturer. We made that vaccine available free of charge in the city of Detroit.


That demonstrates the kind of accountability and the kind of transparency that we did not see in Flint, and that’s an example of being a leader.


How are you feeling about your chances, and what challenges do you anticipate?

It is a long process, but I’ll be honest with you: I think we win this thing. We are the candidacy in the state that is having the conversation about real problems that real people face rather than trying to do this balancing act between trying to be appealing to people and also trying to be appealing to corporate donor bases.


We are in an unheralded political moment where a lot of us are watching as democracy feels like it’s on the ropes. We need people who haven’t thought about politics in the past to be involved because democracy takes work.

I do hope that my candidacy inspires folks to think about how it is that we build this thing together, because in a government for people by people, people have to stand up or else power falls into the wrong hands, and we all suffer because of it.