I have largely avoided writing about Michigan’s gubernatorial this cycle. We interviewed both Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed on The Sit and Spin Room podcast early on but I have been watching the primary unfold without saying much. Partly because it’s so early and partly because I haven’t been “wowed” by any of the campaigns.
However, this week, the campaign took an ugly turn when Abdul El-Sayed’s campaign took an article in Bridge raising questions about his eligibility to run for governor and turned it into an opportunity to attack his fellow Democrats with what I find to be shockingly offensive hyperbole.
Before I go any further, it’s important to know two things. I have been agnostic and largely undecided on how I will vote in this primary. In other words, I’m not pulling for any specific candidate at this point. Second, whether or not Dr. El-Sayed is eligible to run is completely irrelevant to what I am writing about today. Very smart, thoughtful, knowledgable people have weighed in on this issue and they do not all agree. At the end of the day, this is a matter to be decided by the courts should a complaint be filed once Dr. El-Sayed submits his paperwork to run of governor.
What had pushed me to break my silence is the response of the El-Sayed campaign, including the candidate himself.
The El-Sayed campaign’s response in the original article was to say this:
“Let’s be clear, this is a political attack, and nothing more, and it falls in line with a long history of attacks on certain kinds of people when they aspire to leadership in our democracy,” Joseph, the spokesman, wrote in a statement.
The statement likened the eligibility questions to those raised by Donald Trump and others about Barack Obama’s birth certificate when he was president.
“While we knew the attacks were coming, we didn’t think they would come in the form of insider Democrats using Trump’s birther tactics,” the statement read.
The following day, his campaign sent an email titled “Baseless attacks on Abdul”:
When we started this campaign, we knew we’d face attacks. But here’s something we didn’t expect: establishment Democrats resorting to the kind of birther tactics that opponents to Barack Obama used to discredit his run for the presidency.
Now an article just released last night is using birther-like tactics pushed by our opponents to try to smear Abdul’s run for governor.[…]
When you start gaining momentum – that’s when they pounce. But if our movement steps up to fight back against these attacks, we will leave their brand of bought-and-paid-for politics in the dust.
Yesterday came two more emails. The first included this:
There are those out there who are worried about what the success of our movement means for their chokehold on political power. Rather than do the work, they’re pushing backroom coronations and deals to promote candidates that fall in line around the usual ‘bought and sold’ brand of politics they’ve always pushed. But, this time, it’s not working. Only one campaign is building the momentum of a grassroots movement, and that’s worrying them. This is how the establishment reacts when they don’t get their way and someone spoils their plans.
Let’s be clear: this is a political attack, and nothing more. And it falls in line with a long history of attacks on certain kinds of people when they aspire to leadership in our democracy. We knew attacks like this were coming since day one – it happened when Barack Hussein Obama had the audacity to run for President, and his opponents questioned his belonging too. While we knew the attacks were coming, we didn’t think they would come in the form of insider Democrats using Trump’s birther tactics.” – Adam Joseph, Communications Director, Abdul for Michigan
The second had this:
I played sports growing up — and one of the things I learned is that the other team only starts playing dirty when they know they can’t beat you fairly. On the very day that our campaign released our comprehensive Urban Agenda, we were hit below the belt with a slew of negative attacks. The powers that be in Michigan politics hate that they can’t beat us at the ballot box.
They can’t beat our ideas, so they call us ‘outsiders.’ […]
Our opponents don’t have the ideas, and they sell out their ideals by taking bribe money from the corporations and lobbyists who’ve corrupted our politics in the first place.
Finally, last night Michigan Radio spoke with El-Sayed who had this to say:
This is unfortunately a political smear that I think is very consistent with what we’ve seen. I mean I watched Barack Hussein Obama run for president and this is very similar to the kinds of attacks that he got. […]
I think the worst case scenario for democrats is that we watch as insiders knee-cap the best possible candidate for office, the only candidate who’s exciting people around the state and having conversations about real rigorous policy and then we have a sub-standard candidate who carries our flag and loses yet again.
This is some very serious rhetoric. El-Sayed is taking reporting by a non-partisan, independent media source and claiming that it is smear job by “insider Democrats” and “establishment Democrats”. The same guy who uses the descriptor “insider” like it’s a epithet rails against being called an “outsider” when that word never even appears in the Bridge article.
The most offensive part of all of this, of course, is the repeated reference to “birther-like tactics”. The Birther movement, led by bastions of political derpitude like Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio, was an effort to take an unassailable fact – that Barack Obama was born in the USA – and claim it was a concocted hoax and that he was an illegitimate president. It was completely based on racism in its purest, rawest form.
In this situation, an independent media organization has pointed out an issue that smart, informed people disagree on and the El-Sayed campaign is using it to paint his opponents as racists. Only one of his opponents has even made a public statement about it: self-financed candidate Shri Thanedar who is himself a racial minority. Another of the four top Democrats in this race, Bill Cobbs, is African American.
Based on this, the only assumption one can draw is that El-Sayed is blaming Gretchen Whitmer for the publication of this newsworthy story and that he considers her to be a “sub-standard candidate.”
There is also one other discrepancy in this story which is pointed out in the Bridge piece and that is what appears to be a blatant lie El-Sayed told about voting in the 2016 Democratic primary. The Detroit News spells it out:
In an April interview, The Detroit News asked El-Sayed for whom he voted. He responded by saying he “was a Bernie guy,” but his campaign later clarified that “crowding at the polling place prevented him from voting for Bernie, but he was an avid supporter.”
El-Sayed told a similar story that month on WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record,” saying he tried to vote “several times” that day but was met by long lines he could not wait in on a work day.
But state voter registration records show El-Sayed was not registered to vote in Detroit at the time of the March 8 primary.
He had been registered to vote in Ann Arbor since 2008 but changed his registration to Detroit on March 29, 2016, according to the state. He reapplied for a Michigan driver’s license at that time and voted in the November general election.
In his Tuesday video message, El-Sayed re-iterated that he twice tried to vote in the primary but was unable to due to long lines and a busy work schedule.
“Turns out had I actually made it to the front of those lines and waited that one hour and a half, I probably would have been given a provisional ballot because I was registered to vote in Ann Arbor and not here, or I would have been sent to Ann Arbor.”
He not only lied to several media outlets in the past about his voting status and actions in the 2016 primary, he doubled down on it just this week.
[UPDATE: It’s been suggested that El-Sayed didn’t lie, he just didn’t know where he was registered to vote during the March Democratic primary, something easily checked in about 90 seconds on the Secretary of State’s website. I’ll concede the point with the caveat that a candidate for governor surely ought to know where he or she is registered to vote and their not knowing raises other concerning questions.]
There are ways to handle bad news when it hits a campaign. El-Sayed could have come out, explained that election laws can be complicated but that his supporters shouldn’t be alarmed, this would be resolved soon, etc., etc.
Instead El-Sayed decided to use the bad news to baselessly attack his chief opponent, Gretchen Whitmer, call her a “sub-standard candidate”, and ascribe actions to her and her campaign that are patently false. The Whitmer campaign did not write that article. It was written by Bridge journalist Joel Kurth who did extensive investigative work and presented the facts. The eligibility question is legitimate and it is decidedly newsworthy.
Publishing this article is not a “birther-like” tactic and the accusation is offensive. People of color in this country face real racism every single day of their lives. To claim racism in this instance is to equate that real pain and harm to a cheap political stunt.
Judging by the response I’ve seen in my circles, this is a terrible move by Abdul El-Sayed. I have had numerous people who have considered themselves El-Sayed supporters reach out to express their shock and dismay at this development. The entire response reeks of desperation and is entirely a self-inflicted wound.
[NOTE: An earlier reference to the Michigan Democratic Party’s April 15th Endorsement Convention has been removed. I was mistaken in my understanding about that convention. At this time there are no plans to endorse in the gubernatorial race at that event. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused.]
[CC photo credit: Tamekia Ashford | Wikimedia Commons]