As soon as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat incumbent Joe Crowley for New York’s 14th district seat, Democratic politicians across the country began insisting that truly progressive candidates could only be successful in a few communities on the coasts. Asked whether the left insurgency represents the future of the Democratic Party, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth said, “I think it’s the future of the party in the Bronx.… I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”
Abdul El-Sayed is currently running for the Democratic nomination for governor in Michigan, and is out to prove Duckworth—and the mainstream of the Democratic Party—wrong. He’s campaigning on state-level single-payer health care, tuition-free college for working and middle-class families, and a $15 minimum wage. He doesn’t accept corporate money and chastises Democrats who play by Citizens United rules.
He has the credentials of an Aaron Sorkin character: A Rhodes scholar, El-Sayed earned a doctorate at Oxford and a medical degree at Columbia, where he later taught public health. At 30, he became health director of Detroit.
The day of our interview Ocasio-Cortez had just finished a weekend of campaigning for El-Sayed. And the day after, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced he’d join El-Sayed for two rallies just before the August 7 primary. Excitement about the candidate, at campaign stops and in the press, makes one thing clear: Win or lose, El-Sayed has brought the left back to the Midwest.
Joseph Hogan: You just finished a major rally tour where you were joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Videos of these events show huge lines out the doors of packed auditoriums. What kinds of voters showed up: traditional Democrats, say, or new ones?
Abdul El-Sayed: Decidedly not traditional Democrats. These are entirely new voters. These are people who haven’t felt like they had much to vote for in the past—some of them stayed home or reluctantly voted in the general. But, if you think about the audience for an off-year gubernatorial primary: These are new voters, and they represent the fruition of an approach and strategy we’ve had for a long time. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likes to remind us, our swing voters are not people who switch from red to blue. Our swing voters are people who go from nonvoter to voter.
That’s exactly the kind of strategy we’ve taken: We reach out to people most campaigns miss. There are, after all, two ways to win an election, and it’s basically just a ratio. You either try to win the highest portion of the numerator, assuming the denominator is fixed. Or you attempt to expand the denominator and bring new voters in. That’s what we’re doing.
JH: What do you make of the fact that, despite the popularity of your rallies, you’re trailing your more centrist opponent, Gretchen Whitmer, in the polls?
AES: Look, I admit that I’m probably losing the election among people who answer a landline in the middle of the day.
JH: The Democratic Party itself—as a recent New York Times headline put it—is “bracing” for a “revolution on the left.” Some major party leaders have been skeptical of the viability of a real left insurgency, especially in the Midwest. After Ocasio-Cortez won her district in Queens, Nancy Pelosi insisted to reporters that they shouldn’t take her victory as indicative of a broader shift left in the country. Senator Tammy Duckworth said something similar: “I think it’s the future of the party in the Bronx.… I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.” But you’re campaigning on the opposite assumption: that folks in Michigan want single-payer health care and a livable minimum wage as much as anybody else. How do you convince a majority of voters in your Midwestern state to cast their ballot for you?
AES: First of all, Bernie Sanders won his primary in Michigan. Then Hillary Clinton lost the general. All that shows is that our voters are interested in progressives and are done with the centrist moderate Democrat. The economic downturn hit Michigan hard—almost everyone here has the experience of having gone without health care—or knows someone who did—because they lost their job in an economy that is dominated by big corporations. So when I sit down and say, we have start building a small-business-oriented economy; we have to fight for a $15-dollar minimum wage; we’ve got to secure everybody’s access to single-payer health care—that speaks to the visceral lived experience of people in our state.
The notion that we’re aligned on a left-right divide, and that people in Michigan are in the middle, is just ridiculous. It’s not the law of averages. Ideas like Medicare for All—if you sit down and have conversations with people—there’s engagement and understanding. Even if you talk to people who voted for Trump
We’ve got to stop apologizing for what we believe in; we’ve got to go all the way.
AES: I think those labels aren’t useful, because the words don’t have the same meaning for people. If you talk to a young person who didn’t grow up in the Cold War era, and you ask them what they think a socialist is, they think simply of the responsibility of government to provide certain necessary things for people. If you talk to someone older, “socialist” would mean something very different.
I just don’t think the term has enough coherence to be useful. I consider myself an American progressive. That means I believe in a Michigan that is more just, equitable, and sustainable. And that means I believe in a Michigan where the government is not bought and sold by corporations, and a Michigan that empowers people to access a very basic set of goods: high-quality public schools, a clean environment, and access to something as basic as health care.
JH: I want to ask about your vision for single-payer health care in the state. You lay out a plan for it on your website. First, I just wonder: Why do you think there isn’t broad support for it in the mainstream of the Democratic Party? Your main opponent, Gretchen Whitmer, has said it’s “not a real option right now.”
AES: It’s polling incredibly well among Democrats, so there is mainstream support of it among Democrats. There’s not mainstream support of it among Democratic leaders and politicians, because many of them are taking money from corporations invested in the status quo.
My opponent, Gretchen Whitmer, hosted a closed-door fundraiser with Blue Cross Blue Shield, raised $144,000. That bought her silence on single payer. We see this kind of thing across the board. Democrats can’t continue to preach what we say we believe, then take money from folks who oppose it. And so in Whitmer’s case, she’s a perfectly reasonable individual, and surely wants everybody to have health care; she’s just a lot more interested in making sure her campaign has money. And she’s willing to sell her position on it.
JH: Let’s consider a Democratic voter in Michigan who is interested in a more centrist Democratic approach, because they buy the line that, regardless of ideology, achieving something like single-payer health care just isn’t affordable. What do you say to them?
AES: Notice the way you qualified your question. It’s not that anybody says, “I don’t want everyone to have health care”; they just fear you can’t get there. That’s an awful way to live your life. No one gets in their car and says, “You know what, I want to get halfway to work today.” We normally intend to go all the way, and do everything we can to do that.
If you’re willing to cut yourself short, and say, “You know what, if I get halfway there, I’ll be really happy”—it’s just not the way people think about the world. I think that’s exactly why the talking points of centrist Democrats are so awkward, and it’s why we haven’t been winning elections.
I do have some credibility on this issue. As a doctor, former health director of Detroit, and former public-health professor, I’ve learned a thing or two about health care. And what I do know is that if we were to pass single-payer, we’d take 10 percent off the top of the cost of health care immediately, which is the cut that goes to CEOs’ salaries like the one that Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO makes—$13 million bucks every year. We’d start investing in preventive care. We could negotiate down the costs of prescription drugs, and, in Michigan in particular, reduce the cost of auto insurance.
We can certainly afford it. This is doable; it’s not doable if we’re willing to sell our party and people down the river for $144,000 in a fundraiser so a corporate CEO can make $13 million and feel good about himself.
JH: All this reminds me of a phrase you often use: “Democrats tend to play by Republican rules.” What do you mean? And by what rules should Democrats start playing?
AES: We can’t sit here and moan about Citizens United when we want to play by Citizens United rules. My opponent, Gretchen Whitmer, plays by those rules. She has a 527, which is a fancy name for a Super PAC, that has put up $1.8 million in ads for her. One account is something called the Philip A. Hart Democratic Club, which no one has ever heard of, and somehow they have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on the race.
That sounds like Republican rules when you’re moving corporate money through shells into your campaign to push your message. Beyond that, she doesn’t have a ground game because she doesn’t think that talking to voters actually matters. But that’s all right with me. They’re going to outspend us, and we’re going to win.
JH: You haven’t accepted corporate money for your campaign. Sanders did the same in his race, but he had a lot of press coverage, and was already a well-known political leader when he started campaigning. You’re young, and though you’re getting a lot of press now, you had to start out relatively in the dark. How have you managed to run a state campaign on small donations?
AES: We’ve raised over $4 million in individual contributions running our campaign this way. People will support you when they believe that you’re not asking corporations to support you; they know you’re an agent of the people.
We kicked off our campaign with several statewide listening tours, because we wanted to understand the issues at play. You run your campaign that way, people start paying attention, because they’re excited about what you have to offer—because you’re different. You can build momentum.
Politics is at core about who we are and who we want to be. We’re asking and answering those questions in pure ways and in ways that a lot of corporate Democrats have forgotten how to do, because their consultants have told them there’s only one way to win an election.
JH: Let’s say you win the general. As a strong progressive, one whose aim is to secure ends that are anathema to Republican policies, would your aim as governor be to—what?—to seek common ground with Republicans? Would that be at all possible? And if not, how would you expect to lead?
AES: You always want to find common ground with everybody; we’re all Americans, we’re all Michiganders, we all want what’s best for our state, I assume. With that said, we all start out with different premises. Ideally, you inspire people to see the world the way you do. If you can’t do that, you find shared wins. Then, you make it really hard for someone to do the wrong thing.
I make no mistake about the fact that a lot of folks will not agree with my vision of the world. I understand that. So, taking it issue by issue, there are some things we have a lot of agreement on. On others, we’re going to have very different perspectives.
Our Constitution says all political power is vested in the people; if it’s invested in the people, my appeal is to the people who voted in legislators in the first place. I know that when we sit with those folks—beyond the talking points, beyond the fearmongering—and talk with them about the fact that they can save money and have health care, and not worry about what would happen if they lost their job, that’s really appealing. If you sit down and talk with people about why they should be able to harvest renewable energy, and earn a $500 check from the energy company, rather than have to pay $500, that’s appealing. When you talk to people about saving the Great Lakes, that’s appealing. When you talk about holding corporations accountable, that’s appealing—on both sides of the aisle. My job is to have this conversation with Michiganders, and then allow them to have that conversation with their legislators. That’s how we’ll be able to move the state of Michigan.