He's an outsider with no formal elective office experience, but Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is the upstart candidate in the Democratic primary for governor. He is rattling the traditionalism of the party and its selection process, but he says he's doing it not by reaping cash hand over fist from bundlers and political action committees. Instead, his approach is through small donations from his fervent followers.
He acknowledges the comparison to Sen. Bernie Sanders primary challenge to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that rocked national Democrats, but deftly puts it aside.
"That's nice," he said sitting in a Subway in downtown Lansing. "But I think I am me."
However, in a July report from Politico, El-Sayed's campaign team were eager to acknowledge that they were using the Sanders' handbook, hoping to grab the collective attention of the anti-establishment wing of the Democrats.
His team is a mishmash of Sanders players and supporters, youthful interns with eternal optimism and political advisors with a history of working with the come-from-behind candidate winners.
At 33, El-Sayed is a new father and devout Muslim. He's also Michigan born and raised. He played three sports in high school, went to the University of Michigan, took on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, obtained his medical degree from Columbia University and even taught public health at that institution's prestigious Mailman School of Public Health. He made his way back to Detroit to head up the revitalization of the city's public health program.
There's no question El-Sayed will face a long fight uphill to secure the nomination. He's been attacked on questions about his residency — questions he dismisses, "We have election attorneys who say I qualify for the ballot."
Still, they linger. Like one raised in a Bridge Magazine piece by Joel Kurth this year: Will a professorship in NYC jeopardize his campaign?
And, to add to these doubts, his name recognition is not high. For that matter, neither is Sen. Gretchen Whitmer's — the presumed front-runner in the Democratic race. Sri Thanedar is the only Democrat to have name recognition, according a poll released last week by Epic MRA of Lansing.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University and expounds his political views in commentaries for Michigan Public Radio, noted that El-Sayed has another significant issue to overcome: his own name.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation on LGBTQ issues with El-Sayed.
What role do you see for the LGBTQ Michiganders in any future administration and other appointments if you win the governor's office?
Partners in governance. I'm really proud that when I started the Detroit Health Department, the first administrative hire that I made was of a deputy director — and one of the most incredible leaders I've ever gotten the privilege to work with. She identifies as a lesbian and is raising her two daughters with her wife, Steph. I recognize the critical need to have representation in the governor's office, and in the cabinet when we're having conversations about how best to support the lives of folks. As a cis straight male, I know that I have deep blind spots when it comes to the ways in which the LGBTQ community has been discriminated against. While I'm well aware of the key issues, I just can't appreciate the ways through which all of these issues insinuate themselves in peoples' lives.
Do you support the voluntary guidance that was approved last year by the state board of education to assist schools in creating an environment where LGBTQ students can live, learn and thrive?
It's critical that we're empowering young LGBTQ students. I actually think we need to move beyond voluntary guidance. I think the guidance on its face is a good start. I think we need to move beyond voluntary and start having conversations with school boards. What's going to happen is you're going to have resistant school boards and school districts. I think being able to put some teeth to this is really important in terms of defending young people.
Do you support an LGBTQ-inclusive sex education curriculum? That includes frank discussions on how HIV infection can be avoided. And beyond only talking about abstinence and the use of condoms, because we now know there's a lot of new science.
I'm a doctor and I will support anything that will empower somebody to be their own best protector of their health. Keeping people away from information that can be used to protect them is, to me, just frankly wrong and abominable. I think there's a responsibility to have comprehensive, well-enumerated, anatomically and physiologically correct conversations about sex and sex education — which includes conversations about sexual and gender identity, and includes conversations about being able to protect against sexually transmitted infections. HIV being one of them.
Are you willing to fight at the state level to allow students to use bathroom and sport facilities, and sports teams that concur with their gender identity?
What we know is that people are the best arbiters of who they are. What we've often tried to do, unfortunately through broken social policy, is tell people what they can and can't do as a function of biological rather than individual identities. To me, I think it's really important for us to fight at the state level to protect access to bathrooms, to locker rooms, to sports teams of choice for young people.
The consequence here that we don't appreciate is that not only are you otherizing people who usually have a much harder time in school because of the risk of bullying as a function of gender identity, but also the mental health consequences of this are real. They're tangible. We have a responsibility to protect and to empower young people, whoever they are. That includes transgender men and women.
What would you do in your role as governor to help support Gay-Straight Alliances, and GSA's in Michigan schools?
I think the role of governor is unique because you have both the legislative and bureaucratic platform. You also have a cultural platform, and the opportunity to lead on key issues. Being able to drive a conversation about the importance of unity and solidarity and allyship and alliance at the level of the governor, I think, helps to empower those kinds of movements at other levels.
What's your view on term limits which impact our current and future LGBT legislators? Plus, the dramatic drop in women in our state legislature, and, more importantly, how do we fix it?
I oppose legislative term limits. I think term limits for the governor are good because the ability to accumulate executive power is substantially higher. [Legislators] do whatever it takes to solve short-term problems, but not long-term problems like making sure we're financially empowered and largely building out the kind of infrastructure and the kind of investments in human developments and human welfare that we need as a state. I think the outcomes of legislative term limits speak for themselves. We've seen sort of (the) eliminating out, disproportionally, of minority and of female and of LGBTQ legislators. Unfortunately, it hobbles the progress that so many have made on so many important issues in government.
How will you expand secular adoption options for LGBTQ couples?
I think it's obviously discriminatory policy. Anything that discriminates against Michiganders is something that I will oppose. On this issue I just think there's a responsibility that we have to both amend Elliot-Larsen to make sure that it enumerates the rights of LGBTQ-identifying Michiganders, and then, even beyond, that to enumerate the rights of folks in the constitution.
Beyond those "license to discriminate" laws, what do you think needs to be done to close the chasm between the LGBTQ community and the religious community?
A lot of folks wonder, I'm a devout Muslim. A lot of folks will say, "How can you, as a devout Muslim, be so supportive of the LGBTQ community?" And that's because in my faith we're told that all people are equal. The way that I hope to lead as a function of how I believe as an American, and also personally as a Muslim suggests to me that any system within which we're allowing somebody to be discriminated against is a broken, unfair, unjust system that deserves to be toppled. I think there's an opportunity for us to sit down and say, "How do we heal that chasm by recognizing that baked into these faith positions is the idea that we ought to be dignifying people and empowering them?"
Would you support the decriminalization of HIV? Specifically, would you support Jon Hoadley's legislation that would create two levels of misdemeanors for infected people — when it can be proven — who had the intention of transmitting the virus, and engaged in behavior that's demonstrated to transmit the virus?
Of course, I'm a doctor I treated patients with HIV. One of the big things that we have to recognize about HIV is that no disease can be illegal. The continuing forward of these laws on the books stigmatize people with the disease.
More information about El-Sayed's campain can be found online at abdulformichigan.com.