A couple of weeks ago, I was honored to get the opportunity to interview Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the 2018 Democratic candidate for Michigan’s Gubernatorial Election, Former Health Commissioner of Detroit, founder of Southpaw Michigan, author of ‘Healing Politics’ co-author of ‘Medicare For All: A Citizen’s Guide’, and author of the newsletter, ‘The Incision.’ In the interview, we discuss a variety of topics including his book, ‘Healing Politics’, his father’s influence on his life, his interests in college, and his passion to serve and impact the community, among many other things.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Interviewer: How would you summarize your book, ‘Healing Politics’?
Dr. El-Sayed: I tried to get to the heart of what I think is the pathology underlying so much of the challenges we face as society. And I use my skills as an epidemiologist to try and connect the dots and diagnose what I call an epidemic of insecurity; not the colloquial kind of insecurity where you’re insecure about your situation in life, [but] a chronic widespread lack [of] access to the basic means of a dignified life — whether that’s a good job that pays a living wage, a good roof over your head, access to healthy food consistently, or access to good health care or housing. The circumstances of our society have left us without the basic public goods that we’ve sold off to large corporations to the exclusion of the poorest of us and the exploitation of so many others.
Interviewer: I feel like the author of a book always has a different perspective because they were the ones who actually put the thought behind all the text, so as the author of ‘Healing Politics’, what was your favorite part?
Dr. El-Sayed: Well, I really enjoy [storytelling] and I was able to recount a number of stories from my own childhood, my time as health commissioner of Detroit, [and] my time running for governor of Michigan, and I wanted to use those stories to illustrate something a little bit deeper. Being able to share a part of yourself and part of your experiences with other folks, I think that’s a fundamental human thing, and to be able to do it in a book, to tell a broader story about who we are and who we want to be, about where we are and where we want to go, I found really both fulfilling and hopefully meaningful to folks who pick up the book.
Interviewer: After your 2018 campaign, you founded the organization Southpaw Michigan. Could you please talk more about that and what you and your team have done for progressive candidates in Michigan?
Dr. El-Sayed: Our goal was to build off of the movement that we built in our campaign and to drive forward by supporting progressive candidates and causes, and we’re really grateful to have been able to support 35 [of them] across 2018 and 2020. [We] supported them both through fundraising but then, more importantly, through grassroots efforts: phone calls, text messages, and door knocking. It’s only by engaging with people to do the work of politics [together] that we can succeed to change the facts on the ground, so it was a meaningful opportunity to continue forward with the work.
Interviewer: Before running for governor of Michigan in 2018, you went to medical school to become an epidemiologist. What inspired you to become a medical doctor in the first place?
Dr. El-Sayed: Well, I really love people and I love science, and I spent a lot of my childhood summers in Egypt where my grandmother had lost two infants before the age of 1, from 8 to whom she gave birth. And the crazy thing is that it was 15 hours away from where I grew up. I could go 15 minutes in the city of Detroit and cross into a community where the probability of a baby dying before the age of 1 was just as high, if not higher. And I got really interested in what happens not just beneath our skin (to hurt people and take lives), but also what happens above our skin, and that’s ultimately why I went to med school. I wanted to do something about that, and that’s ultimately why I don’t practice clinical medicine now. I came to believe that so much of our healthcare system — driven by the dollars and cents of very very rich corporations — tends to chew up and spit out the people it’s supposed to serve most, and so much of the work I do, rather than being in the system, is about being on the system, trying to build a system out of what we have that is more just, equitable, and sustainable.
Interviewer: With your experience as a medical doctor, how would you have handled Michigan’s COVID-19 pandemic?
Dr. El-Sayed: I have to say that our governor did a great job and considering the circumstances, obviously, I would’ve been the only governor in the country who would have ever actually handled an epidemic response before COVID. And hindsight is always 20/20, and I do think that so much of what we have been able to do has been hampered by the politicization of this pandemic, from where the virus came from to how we prevent ourselves from transmitting it to whether or not we’re willing to take a safe and effective vaccine.
But, in the face of that, the kind of leadership that we’ve needed has been challenging to offer and it has hampered the efforts of anyone, and would have hampered my efforts as well. The advantage I probably would have had is just simply understanding what we were facing a bit earlier and the kind of ‘all hands on deck’ work that was needed to prevent it even when it was small. That said, we are in a situation where more than a year and a half later, 700,000 of our sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters have passed, and it didn’t have to be this way. But, it reminds us that regardless of how advanced our society is and the technology we have, the important [thing is] public trust, when we lose that, the ability to do very obvious things that can fundamentally change and save lives falls away, and we suffer the consequences of that.
Interviewer: I feel like people’s childhood environment and parents and people who they’re around more often when they’re younger affect who they are the most. Your parents emigrated from Egypt, and as a son of first generation immigrants, like me, what do you think is the biggest message that your parents have told you that still sticks with you today?
Dr. El-Sayed: I think it’s not so much what my parents told me, it’s what they showed me. I came to understand very quickly that the life that I got to live was an accident of history. My father’s father was a vegetable salesman, my father’s mother never got to go to school (she was illiterate), and I think about how far my family has come and the opportunities that I had only happened because of a combination of just sheer luck and hard work, and also that so few people have the opportunity to do the things that my dad got the opportunity to do, that I got the opportunity to do. And that is a function of failure in terms of allocating basic resources across societies. It’s the fact that I came front and center with the kind of poverty that crippled and continues to cripple so many in my family, and that I came to recognize the work in front of us is about trying to address that for other people rather than trying to accumulate for one’s self. I think that you can’t grow up in those circumstances without asking what’s my responsibility to this. It’s my responsibility to make sure that opportunities for people aren’t just an accident of history, that they’re a function of a fair and equitable society.
Interviewer: When you were in high school, you played football, wrestling, and lacrosse, and you were the captain for two of those sports. What has that experience of working as both a team and individually taught you about life?
Dr. El-Sayed: I think that’s a really astute observation. I was really grateful to my teammates for electing me captain and as a young person, those things mean a lot to you. I think so much of what I learned about leadership I learned playing sports, because you’re in a momentary circumstance, you don’t have all day. You’ve got to make split [second] decisions and you’ve got to invest in your teammates and they have to invest in you. And oftentimes, you’re playing with people you don’t really like, but you do have to figure out how to work together to accomplish a goal that you guys share, which is really important. It’s also the ability to put yourself out there and say, “I’m going to do everything I can for us and I hope that you will, too.”
It says a lot about what you believe and your character and I think people are more willing to come with you and I’m really grateful for that. Another thing about sports is that I was never really a great natural athlete, but I worked really hard at it and it taught me a lot about hard work and discipline to achieve a particular outcome. Everyday, putting in the work to train, to practice, to build and over time, you see the impact of that, and I think it has really carried through in so much of what I’ve tried to do in my work.
The last thing is that it teaches you how to fail. In life, the ability to fail, to lose and get back up is critical. One of the things I think a lot about with my kid is that I want her to be able to love to win more than she hates to lose. Oftentimes, when you see people in competitive circumstances, they play out of fear of losing, and I don’t think that’s the best way to go about living. You need to enjoy and love working together to achieve the win more than you hate to lose, and don’t get me wrong, a healthy dislike of losing is never a bad thing, but it shouldn’t drive you. You meet people in the world who are super bitter because they have been forced to taste loss and failure and they don’t know how to handle it. I really appreciated the opportunity to learn how to lose in circumstances that, in hindsight, weren’t all that important. You win or lose a football game, it’s not the end of the world. You win or lose an election that you put 18 months of your life in and thousands of people put their money in and 330,000 people put their votes in, that’s a bit more painful, but it’s also you learn to lose and get back up to keep fighting for the things that you care about. So I learned a lot from my experiences on the athletic field about losing and about how to manage and metabolize loss and help it to make you better.
Interviewer: After graduating from high school, you went on to study at the University of Michigan, where you majored in Biology and Political Science. Was there anything similar between them, or rather, something you learned in one that perfectly fit the other?
Dr. El-Sayed: I think you always want to cross-fertilize your brain with different ways of thinking and different means of information. Your brain is a really fascinating thing, it can make connections where they aren’t necessarily obvious and people used to make fun of me by saying, “What do biology and politics have to do with each other and how are you going to put those two things together?” And I couldn’t have told you back then, but I would say that now, what I do is exactly that connection. If you think about it, biology is the study of bad decisions that cells make that make people sick. Politics is the study of the bad decisions that societies make that often make people sick. And while we spend a lot of time and energy focused on the bad decisions cells make, we probably should spend a bit more time thinking about the bad decisions society makes. So I’m grateful to have been able to think about those two things in unison. The obvious connections have made me a better scientist, but [they’ve] also made me a better political analyst and politician.
Interviewer: What’s it like being interviewed by Larry King?
Dr. El-Sayed: He is a legend and he’s a really insightful guy, someone who does quite a bit of interviewing on my own podcast. You can see that he’s just a master interviewer and he’s really good at finding the kernel inside the question and really digging for it. And also, not rescuing you. I think great interviewers know how to use silence and he is phenomenally gifted at that. Obviously, I got to be interviewed by him a couple of times, at the end of his life, but he was still super with it, really insightful, thoughtful, and kind, and I really appreciated all of that.
Interviewer: In your book, you talk about how your stepmother is related to Abigail Adams, the second first lady of the U.S. Do you ever flex about it?
Dr. El-Sayed: The irony of the whole thing is that I have a younger half-brother and his name is Osama, which you can imagine, gave him all kinds of heartache when he was a kid. But he is a direct blood relative of Abigail Adams and so you just think about the irony of that: there’s somebody out there named Osama who is a direct descendant of Abigail Adams, it destroys all your preconceptions about what an American is.
Interviewer: Do you plan to run for office in 2022?
Dr. El-Sayed: I don’t know, I like to tell folks that I occupy the greatest office in the land which is father to my daughter, and I really enjoy doing that. I also know that at some point being a private servant, which is, at best, what you are when you’re a parent, is somewhat mutually exclusive to being a public servant. I think I’ve got to put priorities forward, and I just want to make sure that I’m a good dad and there are a lot of people who can be a Congressperson or Governor and there will always be one, but I’m the only person who can be my daughter’s dad and I really enjoy it, I find a deep meaning in it, and it makes me a better person and hopefully, someday, it will make me a better public servant again. So maybe someday, I don’t know when that’ll be, but for now, I’m enjoying being able to engage in the broader conversation about where we go from here and what we need to do to cure that insecurity that we talked about that has left us so vulnerable to this particular moment and even before COVID.