Michigan Candidate Hopes to Become First Muslim American Governor

24 July, 2018

Abdul El-Sayed grew up in the American state of Michigan. This year, he is hoping to be nominated as the Michigan Democratic Party's candidate for governor.

But he did not always think that such a goal was possible.

"When I graduated college, Bill Clinton asked me why I was going to med(ical) school, and he asked if I ever considered running for office. And at that time, I thought that was off limits to me."

El-Sayed is Muslim America. He remembered facing anger after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States.

"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.' Funny thing is, my brother's name is Osama. And I used to say, ‘You've got the wrong El-Sayed.'"

Now, he is trying to make history as the first Muslim American governor in the country.

El-Sayed told VOA his religion and ethnic roots have been important in his life. Yet both have fueled attacks by some of his political opponents.

More Muslims seeking office across the country

El-Sayed is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in a state that helped to elect Donald Trump president. Trump was the Republican Party's candidate in 2016.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed high-fives supporter Sonique Watson in Detroit, Aug. 8, 2017. Perhaps no state has embraced the political outsider as much as Michigan. But El-Sayed, a 32-year-old liberal doctor, is putting that affinity for newcomers to the test by mo
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed high-fives supporter Sonique Watson in Detroit, Aug. 8, 2017. Perhaps no state has embraced the political outsider as much as Michigan. But El-Sayed, a 32-year-old liberal doctor, is putting that affinity for newcomers to the test by mo

This year, about 90 Muslim Americans are seeking elected office throughout the United States. Many political observers are using the term mid-term elections because the 2018 vote comes halfway through the president's four-year term.

Americans will be electing a new U.S. Congress, as well as state and local officials in November.

El-Sayed is one of 13 Muslim candidates running for office in Michigan. The state's large and growing Arab American community has welcomed his candidacy and the change in politics.

Osama Siblani is the publisher of Arab American News. He said that, "in the past 10 years, things have changed dramatically for Arab Americans." But he notes that El-Sayed's chances depend on whether he can appeal to a majority of voters in November.

Siblani compared the chances of a Muslim candidate to John F. Kennedy, who was the first Catholic to serve as president, and Barack Obama, the first African-American president.

Abdul El-Sayed said that he is not thinking about history. El-Sayed said he just wants to give back to the community that supported him.

He notes that he has received much more education than members of his extended family, who drive taxis in Egypt.

"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," he said.

From medical student to public health official

El-Sayed gained public recognition after he was appointed as Detroit's top health official. Public health grew into an important issue in Michigan after the discovery of polluted water supplies in the city of Flint in 2014.

El-Sayed told VOA, "The responsibility is to promote justice...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."

The former health official is among several candidates seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for governor in Michigan.

He has won the support of many Michigan voters who supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in his presidential campaign in 2016.

During the summer, another candidate getting a lot of attention is expected to offer her help to El-Sayed. Democratic New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will appear in Michigan at several campaign events for him.

But if El-Sayed is to compete against the state's Republican governor, El-Sayed must first win the nomination of his own party.

The Michigan Democratic primary election is set for Saturday, August 7.

I'm Mario Ritter.

Kane Farabaugh reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted the story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

captain – n. the leader or head of something

junior – n. the second to last year in a high school or college

opportunity – n. a chance

access – n. rights to something; admittance

graduatev. to complete a study program at a school

epidemiologist – n. the study of how disease spreads and can be controlled

promote v. to help (something) happen, develop, or increase