Abdul El-Sayed's Campaign Is a Test for Leftism in the Midwest

"People don't believe in government. Every time someone interacts with government it's a shitty experience. So you've got to make it less shitty."(Photo: TedxUofM Conference/Flickr/cc)

Abdul El-Sayed's Campaign Is a Test for Leftism in the Midwest

He’s not quite like anyone else in American politics

Because Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed has been called "the new Obama," it can be surprising to hear the first words of his stump speech: "Who here believes in democracy over corporate domination?" he booms, to an instant cheer from the standing room-only audience at a church in Ypsilanti. "Who thinks that we need new blood in places like Lansing and D.C.? And who believes that when we stand together, when we lift our voices, we will get that done?"

Obama himself might have begun a typical speech by thanking the crowd for coming, saying a few words about the city he was in, then talking pleasantly about challenges and opportunities, innovation and progress. This is not Abdul's style. The former captain of his high school wrestling team -- and the football team, and the lacrosse team -- El-Sayed comes out on offense, telling audiences why it's time to stand up and take back their state from the corporations and elite interests that have controlled it for too long.

Yet it's also obvious why El-Sayed makes people think of Obama. He is young (33), has a multi-ethnic immigrant background, an inspiring family story, and impeccable academic credentials. He can mesmerize a crowd. Like Obama, he can be funny and folksy, then uplifting and inspirational. But unlike Obama, he is also aggressively confrontational. When he talks about the poisoning of Flint's water, or the DeVos family's influence on Michigan education, or the state's billions of dollars in corporate subsidies, El-Sayed is righteously indignant on behalf of the people.

He's a leftist Muslim doctor and Rhodes Scholar pushing for Medicare For All and a $15 minimum wage in a state that voted for Donald Trump.

It's not quite clear who one can compare El-Sayed to. He's not quite like anyone else in American politics. He's more polished than Bernie Sanders and more radical than Barack Obama. He's a leftist Muslim doctor and Rhodes Scholar pushing for Medicare For All and a $15 minimum wage in a state that voted for Donald Trump. And he's somehow packing large halls in every part of Michigan. Over the course of a weekend following his campaign, I couldn't help but ask myself the same question over and over: "Where did this guy come from?

In any ordinary political climate, running for governor would seem like the longest of long shots for El-Sayed, given his age, politics, and religion. But Bernie Sanders' unexpected victory in Michigan in 2016 made El-Sayed reconsider. "I saw the success that Bernie had," he tells me, "and I knew that if we were able to take and build on what he had done, then there would be a real opportunity there." He does not believe that Michigan is natural Trump country, and his interpretation of 2016 is not that there was a wave of racist backlash from the "white working class," but that the Democrats failed to offer their base a energizing reason to go to the polls.

El-Sayed quickly built a following among young people, many of whom are veterans of the Sanders campaign, and his campaign staff is drawn from the same generation as his supporters. At his headquarters, there is hardly anyone to be found over the age of 35. Communications director Adam Joseph is 25; deputy communications director Blake McCarren is 22. The campaign has thousands of volunteers across the state, fanning out to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors. Bernie's Michigan army has become Abdul's.

Every single poll has El-Sayed behind one or both of his opponents. As late as May, less than half the state still knew who he was, and one poll from only a week ago put El-Sayed at only 19 percent of the vote, though he was leading among women under 40. At every event I attended, the majority of the crowd appeared to be around the same age as El-Sayed's campaign staff. And though the crowds aren't exclusively young, all of the older voters I talk to had been encouraged to come by a child or grandchild. To win, El-Sayed is not just going to have to beat the polls, but do it by relying on the most infamously unreliable segment of the electorate.

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed waits to speak at a campaign stop in Detroit, Saturday, July 28, 2018.

There's also a racial question. The El-Sayed crowds I saw were predominantly either white or Arab-American. Even in Detroit, Flint, and at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ypsilanti, far fewer black voters were in attendance. El-Sayed's young crowds comprise only part of the Democratic base. Then there's the money problem. El-Sayed casts his Democratic primary opponents as perfect representatives of the kind of corporate, "big money" politics that the Sanders campaign rose in opposition to. It also means they are funneling tens of millions of dollars into the race. El-Sayed's television advertising lags well behind that of his opponents, and he's relying heavily on social media to spread his commercials.

The favorite in the race is Gretchen Whitmer, a state senator who has held public office since shortly after graduating law school nearly 20 years ago. Whitmer is a long-serving member of the state legislature with a solid, if relatively undistinguished, progressive voting record. But El-Sayed's campaign paints her as being in the pocket of the insurance industry. Indeed, Blue Cross Blue Shield is involved in fund-raising for Whitmer, going so far as to tell its employees just how much they ought to donate to Whitmer's campaign.

El-Sayed's other opponent, Shri Thanedar, is often called the "wild card" in the race. Thanedar has been compared to Donald Trump on account of his business background, inscrutable politics, and memorable hair. On paper, one would not expect Thanedar to do well. He appears to have become a Democrat for purely strategic reasons, yet claims to be inspired by Bernie Sanders. (Sanders has endorsed Abdul.) Thanedar has also had a series of public scandals, including an ongoing fraud lawsuit and a bizarre incident in which he left a hundred beagles and monkeys to die in a chemical testing lab. Yet Thanedar has spent $10 million of his fortune on the race, and is highly visible.

One thing Abdul isn't doing to close the gap between himself and his opponents is consciously pitching himself to moderates. Phrases like "reaching across the aisle" and "ending our divisive politics" do not appear in Abdul speeches. Instead, he talks about how the state's Republican "legislators are bought by whatever corporation has an interest in whatever the local issue is." He's been seen in an "Abolish ICE" shirt and declares that if Congress won't pass Medicare For All, he'll implement his own state-level version.

El-Sayed says he comes from a "social justice" perspective, that he never considered working in business, and that he rejects the rhetoric of meritocracy, which implies that poverty is the fault of the poor and success is the reward of hard work. "This notion that just hard work put you there, the cult of that, I don't believe in it," he says, "because it tells a lie to too many people who just don't have the means of success that somehow they're not working hard enough." El-Sayed mentions a Detroiter named Darryl he met who commuted every day to work across the city: "It's two hours! He takes two buses, and has to walk a mile between the two buses. And he was apologizing to me the whole time about why his life wasn't what he wanted it to be. The idea that he doesn't work hard is bullshit."

El-Sayed says that curtailing the power of big business is critical. When I ask him what he means by "corporate domination," he cites the example of Nestle, which was granted the right to pump hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water a year out of Michigan, while paying the state only a couple of hundred dollars. Even after the Bernie Sanders campaign, it's not especially common to hear Democrats talking about corporations this bluntly. But Michigan is a state simmering with anti-corporate anger. It is run by an unpopular ex-CEO governor and gives out more corporate subsidies than almost any other state in the country. It is also a place where inequality is stark. In his speeches, El-Sayed talks about the fact that one can drive 20 minutes in Detroit and see a 10-year difference in average life expectancy.

El-Sayed says that unlike some other Democrats, he doesn't believe in the good intentions of the other side: "I will not assume that [other politicians] have all of our best interests at heart. And I think there's a lot you can do if you're willing to play hardball, pitch high and inside sometimes ... There's three ways you move somebody: you inspire them to believe in the things you believe in, then you find shared wins, and if not you make it real hard for people to do another thing. And I intend to do all three."

Obama's mistake, according to El-Sayed, was that he used the first two strategies, but failed to use the third.

It's easy, of course, to rail against the system. It's harder to actually change it. If Michigan's politics are as rigged as his campaign speeches say, how much could El-Sayed actually accomplish as governor? I mention to El-Sayed that the oldest story in politics is the one about the reformer that gets into power, only to find himself constrained by forces he can't control. El-Sayed insists, though, that a lot of simple things can be done unilaterally with the existing power of the governor's office. "We could, tomorrow, decide that we're going to give every kid in the state of Michigan glasses. We could tomorrow shut down Line 5 [the controversial oil pipeline that runs across the Straits of Mackinac]. We could tomorrow put a moratorium on water shutoffs."

The first task, he says, is just to improve how the state bureaucracies function. "People don't believe in government. Every time someone interacts with government it's a shitty experience. So you've got to make it less shitty." The philosophy, he says, has to be: "Government under this administration, we deliver. Your wait times will go down when you're engaging with us." That way, "when I say I want [government] to be an important part of health care, we've built the trust." With the help of his policy director Rhiana Gunn-Wright, El-Sayed has also put out a small mountain of policy ideas. They include his signature Michicare single-payer plan, an urban agenda, a rural agenda, and a plan for fixing auto insurance. "People told me hiring a policy director was a waste," he says. But he wanted to have a set of plans he could begin implementing on Day 1, and make up for the "experience gap" between him and Whitmer by generating a "credibility gap."

The weekend I followed Abdul, he was joined by rising star and democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The presumptive House Representative from New York spoke alongside him at six events around the state. At each venue, the reception given to both Abdul and Ocasio-Cortez was ecstatic. Lines to get in snaked around the block. Handmade signs read "Abdul For All" and "Abdul Is #Woke." "Abdul + Alexandria 2024," said one, already envisaging the new leftist fantasy ticket. Abdul El-Sayed may have been the weekend's headliner, but Ocasio-Cortez was the standout speaker.

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed (background) and New York Democrat candidate for Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (sitting, right) speak with a supporter in a wheel chair after the two campaigned together at a rally on the campus of Wayne State University July 28, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.

Having defeated a ten-term Democratic incumbent with far more money, she's there to prove that "long shot" races can be won and the seemingly impossible is possible. Of course, a progressive district in New York City and the state of Michigan aren't exactly analogous, but Ocasio-Cortez also comes bearing a message of working-class solidarity, citing a New York Times article that suggested the Bronx was more properly compared to the Rust Belt than the rest of New York City. "The plight of working people is the same no matter the ZIP code," Ocasio-Cortez says.

El-Sayed and Ocasio-Cortez also provide, between them, a possible answer to the questions "How can Democrats speak to both racial and economic issues?" Ocasio-Cortez says of the "class versus race" debate, "They're not either/or, and as long as we think of them as either/or, we're going to lose." She adds that "so long as we keep pretending that working-class people are not people of color, that they're not women, that they're not LGBT, we have to champion each other as our whole selves and I think Abdul really proves that it's not a choice between one or the other." El-Sayed himself says in his speeches that "the people" are united by "ideas above identities," but identities are still foundational and in his speeches he addresses those who have been told that they were "too young, too brown, too black, too foreign, too female, or too Muslim."

Yet while El-Sayed talks openly about race, his fundamental framework is that of working people versus the rich and powerful, and he is careful not to speak ill of the Michigan voters who helped put Donald Trump in the White House. He even has an uncle who voted for Trump, a decision he attributes to disaffection rather than bigotry. He refuses to believe that his fellow Michiganders would decline to vote for him on account of his religion. "If I lose, it won't be because of my faith," he tells me. Representative Debbie Dingell, whose district includes a large Arab-American population, angered many in the community when she implied that she was supporting Whitmer because El-Sayed's Muslim faith would be a political liability. (Perhaps to make amends, Dingell attended two El-Sayed events over the weekend, though she has not switched her endorsement.)

Can Abdul win? Nobody knows. He has been way behind in the polls, but his staffers say all of the public polls are essentially worthless. They were conducted by calling landlines, and El-Sayed's supporters are disproportionately the kind of millennials who are as likely to answer a landline as they are to dial a rotary phone. (A non-landline poll publicized by the campaign shows El-Sayed much closer.) There's some evidence for a skeptical view toward the polls. On the eve of the 2016 Democratic primary, Real Clear Politics' polling average put Sanders down by 21 and FiveThirtyEight's gave him a less than 1 percent chance of winning. Sanders won by 1.5 percent. El-Sayed and Sanders share a constituency, and many of the reasons that pollsters underrated Sanders also apply to El-Sayed. There is an obvious enthusiasm gap between El-Sayed and the other candidates, and in a primary race, enthusiasm drives turnout, and turnout is everything. No one on the campaign staff seemed to have any doubt that Abdul would pull off a repeat of Sanders' surprise Michigan victory.

If he doesn't win, the progressive left could will receive a significant blow to its morale. There will be multiple interpretations of what an El-Sayed loss means. More centrist Democrats will believe it proves Tammy Duckworth's argument that you can't go too far left in the Midwest. Abdul supporters will see it as confirmation that money buys elections. Either way, it will show that the left politics of Ocasio-Cortez have not yet swept the country.

But if El-Sayed does win, it could change the game in Democratic politics. He will offer unapologetic leftism in a professional package, and will have shown -- like Ocasio-Cortez -- that money isn't everything, and that with sufficient effort and organization, the party establishment can be defeated. Then would come the real test: two years after voting for Donald Trump, can Michigan put a young Muslim leftist in the governor's office? It would certainly give encouragement and energy to the growing progressive left. It would also be without precedent in U.S. political history.

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