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Great candidate, not so great name

May 17, 2017

I spent an hour the other morning with a newcomer on the political scene, one of the most brilliant and charismatic candidates I’ve ever met.

Let’s imagine for a moment that his name is Andy Smith. Make Andy the son of completely legal immigrants who enthusiastically embraced everything American. As a boy, he went to one of the best public high schools in Michigan, where he was the captain of the football, the wrestling and lacrosse teams, and then played lacrosse in college.

His dream was to become a doctor, and to use that knowledge in the cause of public health. Naturally, he becomes a Rhodes Scholar and goes to Oxford University in England.

He then becomes a Marshall scholar and gets a Masters and a PhD in public health and then adds an MD from Columbia. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan found out about Andy, and asks him to take over and rebuild the city’s public health department.

Andy was then all of 30 years old. Naturally, he took on the job and also took on and fought successfully against polluters. He crusaded to get poor children free glasses. He also takes on, reforms and cleans up Detroit Animal Control.

In his spare time, he pours out an impressive stream of articles and book chapters. But he keeps remembering what President Bill Clinton told him, after both men spoke at Andy’s college graduation in Ann Arbor. “You are a natural. You should go into politics.”

So, wanting to make this an even better world, Andy talks things over with his wife, a doctor herself, and at the age of 32 resigns to run for governor of Michigan. It’s an open seat, and he has plenty of enthusiastic followers. But there is one major problem.

Andy Smith is really named Abdul El-Sayed.

He is a Muslim. His wife Sarah wears a head scarf. Michigan voters have twice voted overwhelmingly for an African-American for president. But with Muslims, it’s a different story. Last fall, Ismael Ahmed, one of the most highly respected people in Michigan, was running for a seat on the state board of education.

He was superbly qualified. Yet he ran more than 200,000 votes behind the other Democratic nominee, clearly only because he was a Muslim. El-Sayed is not naïve about this. “I know that for 95 percent of the people I meet, my name is a liability,” he said.

“But one thing is that they won’t forget the name Abdul.” He figures that if he can talk to voters one on one he can win them over. Having talked to him, I would guess that’s largely right. But it may take four hundred thousand votes to win the primary next August.

Not to mention, close to two million to win the election. But El-Sayed has never seen a challenge he didn’t think he could overcome. His politics and positions might be best described as those of a cheerful, upbeat Bernie Sanders.

If he were to become governor, I wonder how easy he’d find it to deal with legislators who have never been to college, and who don’t care about people not like themselves. I find it hard to believe that Abdul El-Sayed can win a statewide election.

But then, I never thought a guy named Barack Obama could either.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.