Gubernatorial candidate holds town hall meeting

Democratic candidate for governor Abdul El-Sayed, a 32-year-old physician, epidemiologist and former public health commissioner for the city of Detroit‚ speaks at a town hall event hosted by the Northern Michigan University College Democrats at the University Center Monday evening. (Journal photo by Mary Wardell)

MARQUETTE — As the implications of a recent nurses’ strike reverberate in Marquette and surrounding areas, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a Democratic candidate for governor, found a receptive audience for his message about health care at a town hall event on the Northern Michigan University campus Monday evening.

El-Sayed said he is “dubious” of for-profit health care and promised to make a statewide single-payer system a priority of his administration, should he win in 2018.

Hosted by the NMU College Democrats, the event had to be opened up to neighboring conference rooms at the Bottum University Center to accommodate the group of about 150 attendees.

El-Sayed — a 32-year-old physician, epidemiologist and former public health commissioner for the city of Detroit — also talked about improving education, economic opportunity, labor, the environment, clean energy, infrastructure and “dignifying the lives” of all Michiganders regardless of identity.

El-Sayed admitted he’s an uncommon leader for this movement.

“A lot of my more established political friends tell me, ‘You know, Abdul, you’re relatively young.’ What they don’t always say is you’re also relatively brown and relatively Muslim,” El-Sayed said to laughter. “But I’m a physician in a state that has suffered the single greatest man-made public health disaster in recent memory, I’m an educator in a state with a failing public school system, I’m a public servant in a state that is among the least transparent and least accountable in the entire country, and I’m a young person in a state that’s got to figure out how to create economic opportunities for young people.”

El-Sayed received multiple standing ovations and numerous bouts of applause during his presentation.

A group of nurses in red shirts filled out one section of the audience.

El-Sayed on Sunday released a statement condemning what he called retaliation on the part of Duke LifePoint against the nurses at UP Health System-Marquette for bringing in outside nurses during the recent two-day strike. He said in the statement he is “deeply disturbed” by what he called “union-busting” and that better working conditions for nurses “translates into better care for their patients.”

Tammy Sustarich, an intensive care RN, thanked El-Sayed for the statement.

“You were one of the first to stand up publicly in support of us, and more importantly, you were the first to speak up after the cameras went away and all the attention went away. You put out a statement condemning DLP’s response to not letting us go back to work and we thank you very, very much,” Sustarich said to a standing ovation.

El-Sayed said his grandmother and mother are both nurses, and nurses are the reason he got through medical school.

“The work that you guys do is God’s work,” El-Sayed said. “At the end of the day, the real providers in a hospital are nurses, and so it was my honor and my privilege, and let’s be honest, you guys are fighting to be able to preserve the right to the kind of health care the people in your community deserve.”

El-Sayed added that the reason he didn’t pursue a clinical career is in large part due to what he called the “business of health care.”

“I wanted to be the kind of provider that really took care of my patients first, and frankly, while I was in medical school, I realized that oftentimes the business of it trumped the quality of patient care, and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” El-Sayed said.

El-Sayed also condemned for-profit schools and prisons, and said he believes the work of government should be about “justifying the confidence a 3-year-old should have in the life that’s in front of him.”

He said anecdotally, many of his fellow University of Michigan graduates, educated on the taxpayer dime in Michigan, are now “building the futures of (other states’) economies because they don’t believe that our economy has a future.”

As far as potentially becoming the first Muslim governor in the U.S., El-Sayed said he’s not interested in being the first in anything, but in being “a great governor for the state of Michigan.”

To pay for programs, El-Sayed said he would look for creative revenue sources and think “outside the box,” by “taking what we have and turning it into what we need.”

He also cited tolls on highways with the highest international truck traffic, legalizing and taxing marijuana and a more progressive system of taxation.

“Let’s be clear, everyone knows that in Michigan right now, we are making the poorest folks pay and we have to stand up to corporations that are demanding these huge tax loopholes and make sure they’re paying their fair share and then make sure we’re investing that into things like schools and infrastructure,” El-Sayed said.

In the Upper Peninsula, he said traditional industry jobs need to be preserved, along with the ability to compete globally, while a long-term, lasting and equitable economy is developed locally.

In a state where Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders won the primary and Republican President Donald Trump won the election, El-Sayed said, “People in Michigan are just really good people who want solutions to the problems that they face.”

He said the political climate in Michigan has been “paralyzed by a culture of fear,” in which it’s easier for politicians who can’t see eye-to-eye to “just retreat to their echo chambers.”

He pointed to his family — immigrants from Egypt on his father’s side and from Poland on his stepmother’s side — as a model of how “disparate people from different places can come together around a shared future.”

“So I am standing up with my team, I am standing up with the 10 million people in this state who are sick and tired of a politics that has told them that they cannot have solutions to the problems we all see,” El-Sayed said.

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is