The city’s former health department director is making a historic run for governor—at age 33. And he’s got ideas about why Amazon just spurned the Motor City.
Hours after Amazon announced its HQ2 shortlist, Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed took to Twitter to express how he felt after Detroit didn’t make the cut: “We’ve been too busy cutting corporate taxes and spending $1BN in corporate welfare,” he wrote, “so we don’t have the resources we need to invest where it matters.”
El-Sayed’s diagnosis of the city’s maladies is built on two strains of first-hand experience. The son of Egyptian immigrants, El-Sayed was born and raised in metro Detroit; he’s a Rhodes Scholar and former public health professor who, in 2015, became director of Detroit’s Health Department. At 30, he was the youngest health official of any major American city.
Now he’s running for governor of Michigan in an effort to succeed the term-limited GOP incumbent, Rick Snyder, in November. His candidacy is drawing attention beyond Michigan not only for his youth and shiny resume (don’t get him started on all the “new Obama” comparisons he gets), but for his faith and family background: Should he win, El-Sayed would be the first Muslim governor in U.S. history—a distinction that he’s asked about frequently.
“I'm not really running to be the first Muslim anything,” he says. “I'm running to be the best governor for my state.”
To pull that off—in a purple-hued state that Donald Trump carried (by a whisker-thin margin) in 2016—El-Sayed is leaning heavily on his experience in Detroit, and his prescriptions for turning the troubled city around. We caught up him to learn a little more about why he’s running for governor, why Millennials are getting into politics, and what he believes makes for healthy and equitable urban development.
What do you make of the fact that Detroit didn’t make the shortlist for Amazon’s HQ2?
I was never a proponent of trying to go after the Amazon bid in the first place. But the fact that we didn’t get it speaks to the fact that we have fundamentally disinvested from our schools, and we have fundamentally disinvested from our infrastructure.
There was a time when Michigan used to be one of the most innovative states in the country. Unfortunately, that was at the turn of the 20th century, and Michigan for a long time has played by an old beaten-up script: Cutting taxes for large corporations to get them to pick us. Politicians feel happy about it because it gets put in the paper that they bought 500 jobs to Michigan. [But] as soon as those corporations come here, they have no real allegiance to Michigan, so they offshore, or they automate out their jobs, and the 500 jobs that they promised become 350 or 250 or whatever it is. And then you cut corporate taxes for another corporation that comes here and does the same exact thing.
Over time, you have lost the ability to actually empower your own local community by investing in education and infrastructure, which are the only things that have ever created organic job growth in the first place. You’re back to square one.
So as corporations like Amazon become key players in urban development, how should cities be approaching this?
We have to start investing in education and infrastructure again. If you invest in those two things, you’re going to grow organic jobs, and you’re going to have a far more diverse economy. And companies come, because they want to be a part of it.
Because urbanism has been such a force over the past decade, you’ve got these winner-take-all cities, like San Francisco, New York, and Boston, which sort of represent what cities have to offer in terms of a dense economic climate, a sort of new gentry. But they also have the same kind of urban poverty that you might see elsewhere.
In Detroit, we’re well behind. Michigan has about one in five of the poorest 20 cities in the country. We're talking about cities that are just now turning around. Now, we have an opportunity to rethink the way we do this. If we do it the way that other cities have done, we are going to be faced with a deep level of inequality, like other cities face. So there’s an opportunity for us to really ask ourselves: What does equitable, sustainable, locally oriented growth look like, and how do we incentivize that to happen?
I think workforce development is critical. One of the things that we need to be thinking about is building the kind of economy that is far more robust to automation. What are the kinds of jobs that are less likely to be automated out, and how do we train people in those jobs? Look at the sectors that we know are more resistant—things like research and development; human care, whether that's early childhood care or elderly care; construction and land development; and artisan and craft manufacturing.
In many states there’s a growing gap between what voters in cities support, and state-level policy. Your agenda pushes what you call “community ownership.” Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by this, and why it is important?
One of the biggest challenges that we’ve had in Michigan for a really long time—and a big reason that our cities have been so hobbled—is because our state-level policy has largely taken away the ability to make localized decisions by cities. Whether it’s the ways that taxes are collected—there’s no such thing as a city sales tax in Michigan, they can’t pass it because of state law—or decisions about things like rent control, those are all preempted at the state level. I think we need state-level leadership that empowers cities and also empowers groups working within cities to promote equity.
Housing is a really good example. You’ve got a lot of vacant and blighted housing in cities, and then you have this tax-foreclosure-driven housing crisis, where you have external speculators who feel like they can make a buck off marginal revenues on housing that is continuously being foreclosed upon, because the city doesn’t have the means, or the incentives, to be able to keep people in their homes. If you want to stabilize a neighborhood, there’s a real responsibility to make sure that you’re keeping people in their homes.
I think young people are well poised to take up leadership positions in this moment. You’re seeing a lot of young people look at where we are right now and say, “You know what? I could do that better.”
This is the largest generation in American history, and Millennials will have to pay for the excesses of the generations ahead of us. When it comes to access to affordable education, for example, there was a time when if you went to a public [university] the state would pay 80 or 90 percent of the cost. You could pay your tuition on a summer job. That's completely gone now. We’ve got young people graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. That has strapped young people in some really profound ways.
Personally, when it came down to running for office, I was in a situation where, as the city health commissioner, I looked at our state leadership poisoning 9,000 kids in Flint, and I saw them failing to deal with problems like water shutoffs, or the fact that our demolitions program that was intended to improve housing was actually potentially poisoning kids in Detroit. And I realized that this leadership was so beholden to an old style of politics that they just felt like they didn’t have to pay attention, despite the fact that the entire point of public service is to empower people’s lives, not to hurt them.
I’m not interested in marginal change in this moment. Right now, people are fundamentally going to have to rethink how we do this thing, because if we continue going forward in the way that we’re going, I really worry about the kind of world we pass on to our kids.