It's standing room only in the large ballroom of this northern Michigan resort as people eagerly await the arrival of a young, well-spoken, charismatic Rhodes scholar seeking to reach Michigan’s highest elected office.
“When I graduated college, Bill Clinton asked me why I was going to med school, and he asked me if I ever considered running for office. And at that time, I thought that was off limits to me,” Dr. Abdul El-Sayed told VOA.
Muslim American El-Sayed grew up in Michigan, where he often faced prejudice.
“I was the captain of my football team, and I was a junior in high school. And the week after 9/11, the games were canceled that week, but the week after, we were back on the field. And I remember that football game. For the first time, people were calling me names that I would hear for the rest of my life: ‘Raghead.’ ‘Osama.’ " he recalls. "Funny thing is, my brother’s name is Osama. And I used to say, ‘You’ve got the wrong El-Sayed.’”
But he could be the right El-Sayed to make history as Michigan’s — and the nation’s — first elected Muslim American governor. One of his biggest challenges is convincing enough voters to support him in a state that narrowly helped Republican Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016.
About 90 Muslim Americans are seeking elected office throughout the United States during midterm elections this year. Many are running as Democrats hoping to be part of a “blue wave” that shifts control of the U.S. Congress.
El-Sayed is among 13 Muslim candidates running for office in the state of Michigan, where his faith and ethnicity have been important facets of his life that are now also fueling attacks and accusations by political opponents.
A welcome change
For those in Michigan’s large and growing Arab American community, the fact that El-Sayed is a viable candidate at all is a welcome change in politics.
“In the last 10 years, things have changed dramatically for Arab Americans,” said Osama Siblani, publisher of Dearborn, Michigan-based Arab American News. But he explains the path to the governor’s mansion depends on El-Sayed’s overall appeal to a majority of voters.
“When John Kennedy ran, you know, everybody thought, ‘This was the first Catholic, would he make it to White House?’ And he did,” said Siblani. “When Barack Hussein Obama ran, they said, This is the first African-American. Will he make it? Are there enough African-American voters to elect an African- American?’ No. But did he make it? Yes. Twice. So, is there a chance for a Muslim-American to win the governorship? Yes.”
El-Sayed said he isn’t focused on the potential of such a historic moment. He simply wants to give back to the community that shaped him.
“My grandmother was illiterate and never got to go to school. My grandfather had an eighth-grade education. My cousins — just as smart as whatever, as I am — they never got the opportunities that I got. They drive cabs in Egypt, and that’s not my life,” he said. “That’s not my life, because of the opportunities I had here. And I’m watching as we have leaders, whether it be at the city level in Detroit or at the state level, who are making decisions that are taking away access to those basic goods and services from people.”
Water and politics
El-Sayed, who gained recognition as Detroit’s top health official, seeks to lead a state still dealing with a water contamination crisis in the city of Flint that began during current Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s tenure.
“The responsibility is to promote justice, whether it be with my hands. And if not, then with my mouth. And if not, then at least with my heart,” he told VOA. “That promotion of justice, to address racial and ethnic inequalities, social inequalities, regional inequalities, and access to the basic goods and resources that people deserve in their lives. That has been the work that I’ve committed myself to as a doctor, as an epidemiologist, as a public health practitioner and now as a public servant.”
El-Sayed is among several candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for governor in Michigan’s primary election August 7.
He’s considered a progressive and has the backing of many Michigan voters who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in his bid to win the Michigan presidential primary in 2016.
If Democratic voters ultimately choose him in August, he will have to garner enough statewide support to defeat a Republican opponent in the November general election.