Gov. candidate calls for culture of accountability
HOUGHTON — Contrasting his public health experience with the CEO-style leadership he said has hurt the state, gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed spoke with Houghton County Democrats Monday night.
Abdul El-Sayed spent two years as executive director of the Detroit Department of Health & Wellness Promotion following its privatization under an emergency manager. He said he built a culture of accountability, transparency and collaboration at the program, which grew from five city employees and 85 contractors to a 220-person department.
“When we make mistakes and things go wrong, leadership stands up and says, ‘That was was my fault, we’re going to fix it,’ he said. When things go right, we give it to folks who are doing the work on the ground and say, ‘That was your win.'”
El-Sayed acknowledged skepticism about his age (32), as well as his being Muslim. He grew up in a “multi-faith, multi-ethnic” family, he said. His parents, both Egyptian immigrants, divorced; his father remarried a white woman whose family has been in America since before the American Revolution.
El-Sayed was shaken when he found out one of his uncles, a hunter who had learned to prepare venison in the halal method for his family, had voted for Trump. But it wasn’t Islamophobia, he said, but the feeling of being unheard.
“We are doing our homework,” he said. “We are working to understand the issues. We are listening to everyone. I think there’s something fundamental about humanity that allows us to see beyond the color of people’s skin or the way they pray to ask about who they are and what they pray for. I pray for my family, and I pray for my state, and I pray for my country.”
El-Sayed studied biology and political science at the University of Michigan. He said he was motivated to enter public service by his realization of how much where a person lives determines their access to health care, clean water and other essentials.
“If you looked in Detroit, where I worked, versus Oakland County, which is where I grew up, there’s a nine-year life expectancy gap,” he said. “…That has everything to do with failures in our politics.”
El-Sayed criticized Gov. Rick Snyder’s approach of bringing companies to Michigan using large tax breaks. He said he perceived his job as “selling Michigan to Michiganders” by making sure students want to invest in Michigan and opening up opportunities for residents to build small businesses.
“A lot of them are just leaving, so we’re losing our best talent, trying to pull in some corporations that we know are trying to automate their labor force out anyway and they’re only coming because we’re giving them such dirt-cheap tax rates that they don’t end up paying anything to the economy anyway,” he said.
El-Sayed also took questions on topics like the Affordable Care Act. He supports using the state’s ability under the ACA to create a public option for insurance into which all state residents could buy.
“A lot of folks will say, ‘It’s going to be so expensive,'” he said. “Actually, what tends to happen is when you introduce a public insurance option, it forces the other insurers to compete against the public option, which brings everybody’s rates down.”
On education, he called for “dual-track training” in K-12 schools that prepares students both for college and for vocational careers.
He said emergency managers have been bad for the state, pointing to the experience of Detroit Public Schools, which incurred almost 50 percent of its recently forgiven debt under an EM. Under that system, he said, curriculum and infrastructure were pared back to focus on financials. He compared it to teaching a child to ride a bike by either kicking a child who crashes and walking away or walking away with the bike.
“What we need is a system that helps the kid back on the bike and actually walks with the child on the bike until that kid is riding in the Tour de France,” he said.
In the case of Flint, he said, emergency management also should have focused on operational efficiencies rather than cutting costs. And once they started shipping in water to state employees, he said, they should have notified the public.
He told a story about his time in Detroit where two residents tested positive for hepatitis A after cleaning sewage water out of their basements following a flood. The department set up a clinic where anyone potentially exposed could receive shots, despite state opposition, he said.
“That’s what being accountable looks like,” he said. “It’s standing up before everything is already over and saying, ‘This could be an issue. What are the things we can do about it right now?'”