POLITICS
03/15/2018 05:45 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2018

An Underdog In Michigan’s Governor Race Shows Dems How To Run On Climate Change

Abdul El-Sayed, the 33-year-old former Detroit health commissioner, has a plan to fight environmental racism.
Abdul El-Sayed has laid out one of the most progressive environmental platforms in 2018.
Abdul El-Sayed
Abdul El-Sayed has laid out one of the most progressive environmental platforms in 2018.

Abdul El-Sayed remembers coughing up black phlegm each night after spending the day in the smog-choked markets of Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt, during summer visits to his grandparents, who were poor vegetable sellers.

It was a jolting experience for a kid born and raised in a manicured Michigan suburb. Yet when El-Sayed started working as a doctor in Detroit years later, he realized pollution wasn’t just some distant problem. In the shadow of the Motor City’s infamous trash incinerator ― where some 650,000 tons of garbage is burned annually, much of it from the surrounding suburbs ― El-Sayed saw soaring rates of asthma and lung cancer in majority-black neighborhoods.

That’s part of what inspired the 33-year-old physician to enter politics, first as Detroit’s top health official and now as a Democratic candidate for Michigan governor.

“In the 30 minutes it took to go from the community I grew up in to the city I worked in, you’d see a 10-year difference in life expectancy,” El-Sayed told HuffPost in a recent phone interview. “I see that as the human cost of failing our environment and failing sustainability.”  

He pointed to Detroit’s high rates of asthma; to lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan; to the toxic sludge left behind in Kent County by the company behind Hush Puppies shoes.

“When we poison our air and water, we are poisoning people,” El-Sayed said. “Nowhere is that more clear than the state of Michigan now. When you talk about Flint, when you talk about asthma, when you talk about Kent County.”

In response to those failures, El-Sayed has laid out one of the most progressive environmental platforms of the 2018 election cycle, setting what could be the new standard for a national Democratic Party that has so far failed to rally around serious policies to deal with climate change and water contamination.

He has plans to increase environmental agency budgets, replace lead pipes and establish a green infrastructure bank to shore up funding for renewable energy projects. He has vowed to shut down an aging oil pipeline that is putting the Great Lakes at risk and sworn off all donations from fossil fuel companies. And he has articulated his vision in terms of tangible public health benefits, outlining what some see as a template for a populist approach to climate and environmental issues.

“This looks like a national model,” said RL Miller, president of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, drew the nation's attention to lead contamination issues.
Bill Pugliano via Getty Images
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, drew the nation's attention to lead contamination issues.

El-Sayed will face a crowded field in Michigan’s Aug. 7 Democratic primary. The eight candidates include former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, whose mainstream progressive campaign emphasizing skilled trades and a $15 minimum wage is backed by influential labor unions; by EMILY’s List, which raises funds for Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights; and by former Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard. Whitmer is widely seen as the front-runner and has already raised over $3 million.

El-Sayed may face another challenge as well: whether he’s even eligible to run, due to an obscure state law that requires a candidate to have voted in the state in the four years prior to their run. He was registered to vote in New York from 2013 to 2015, while he attended medical school and taught at Columbia.

His campaign has dismissed calls for a legal test of his eligibility as “a racist, insider smear” aimed at kneecapping the most credible underdog challenger to Whitmer, the establishment candidate.

El-Sayed’s political brand as the young intellectual of color who could become the nation’s first Muslim governor has prompted some ― to his chagrin ― to call him “the new Obama.” But his grassroots support and embrace of progressive policies put him closer to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose 2016 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination helped revive a long-dormant fervor on the American left.

“He doesn’t talk like consultants say to talk,” Sean McElwee, a progressive policy analyst and researcher who hosted El-Sayed at a gathering in New York last October, told HuffPost. “He combines the sort of populist energy people are excited about with Bernie with detailed knowledge of how to implement policy.”

El-Sayed’s proposal to set aside $105 million in his first state budget to establish an infrastructure bank that would fund renewable and energy-efficient projects is the “centerpiece” of his plan to “reinvest in the capital-stock of Michigan,” according to a campaign white paper. His administration would eventually ramp up the institution’s public funding to $1.5 billion, with plans to generate at least $4.5 billion in energy and clean water infrastructure investments over 15 years. The public-private institution, dubbed the Pure Michigan Bank, could generate $3.3 billion in private investment by 2030, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists report.

“We want to put Michigan on the path to 100 percent renewable energies,” El-Sayed said. “What we’d be able to do is empower innovative financing that addresses the insecurity of those kinds of big-picture infrastructure projects and empowers individuals to use those mechanisms.”

The bank would provide low-risk seven-year loans at 5 percent interest for energy-efficiency projects and similar 10-year loans for renewable-energy plans. It would also offer credits to low- and middle-income homeowners to invest in efficiency upgrades, small-scale solar installations and other clean energy projects.  

“We can’t just count on the free market to do it all by itself,” said William Lawrence, Michigan organizer for the climate campaign group Sunrise Movement. “We have to put public money behind this kind of infrastructure build-out and also create smart institutions like this infrastructure bank to get some of the private money flowing in the right direction.” (Sunrise endorsed El-Sayed for governor last month.)

The bank would operate independently of any state agency, reducing its vulnerability to funding cuts under a future administration. To help pay for it, El-Sayed has proposed instituting a carbon tax and diverting some of that revenue to the bank. Another option is to follow the model of Connecticut’s green infrastructure bank and impose a small ratepayer fee.

“The idea of creating an institution, capitalizing it and being designed in such a way that it’s likely to survive even if you have Rick Snyder 2.0 as governor, that’s appealing,” said Jeff Hauser, a veteran progressive Democratic operative, who was referring to the current Republican governor’s history of austerity cuts. “It’s intriguing to me that someone is thinking about how to create change that can entrench and build upon itself. That’s really key.”

It should be a popular platform among primary voters. Democratic voters in Michigan overwhelmingly support new rules raising fuel efficiency standards, giving the Environmental Protection Agency power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and requiring a minimum amount of renewable energy in electricity generation even if that means a small price increase, according to 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies data provided by McElwee. 

We want to put Michigan on the path to 100 percent renewable energies. gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed

El-Sayed also wants a major public investment in clean drinking water. Michigan became the poster child for unsafe tap water four years ago when lead contamination in Flint turned into a long-running crisis and a national disgrace.

As a first step, El-Sayed said he would merge the state’s Department of Environmental Quality with its Department of Natural Resources and raise the combined agency’s budget to as much as $950 million a year. That would include restoring funds for the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance to their 2006 levels of about $16 million a year. El-Sayed has suggested raising money for that budget by closing the state’s corporate tax exemptions and loopholes.

He has proposed spending at least $690 million annually to replace aging water pipes, which would create 13,800 jobs each year, his campaign has calculated based on data from the BlueGreen Alliance. To raise the money, he suggested issuing $600 million in bonds and passing a ballot proposal to expand the state’s Drinking Water Revolving Fund, which offers low-interest loans for up to 30 years to water suppliers. The ballot proposal would increase the fund’s available money from $36 million to $50 million by reallocating $14 million from the Department of Corrections budget. He also vowed to push the federal government for more funding.

El-Sayed distinguished himself on the issue of lead toxicity during his 2015-2017 tenure as Detroit’s Health Department chief, during which he tested all schools and child care facilities for lead contamination. His gubernatorial housing policy would expand on that, by using lead-abatement funds to help renters pay their legal defense in related landlord disputes and to perform full inspections and mitigation on all housing stock, and by fining building owners who don’t comply, as The Nation reported in January.

He doesn’t talk like consultants say to talk. policy analyst Sean McElwee

But it’s his plans for dealing with lead in drinking water supplies that have drawn the most local attention. El-Sayed has vowed to set stricter water quality standards by reducing the “action level” for lead, the threshold for government intervention, from 15 parts per billion to 5 parts per billion and pushing for legislation that bars public projects to replace pipes from only partially replacing lead pipes. Outside of urban areas, where wells for drinking water are more common, he has promised to crack down on agricultural pollution. The Detroit Metro Times called his proposal “the most comprehensive water plan of the gubernatorial race.”

Another key part of that plan is to protect universal access to water. In Detroit last year, the city began the controversial practice of shutting off water to nearly 18,000 residents who hadn’t paid their bills. El-Sayed has suggested a new tiered pricing system, which would force households that use more water to pay higher rates but would ensure that everyone in the state has basic access to clean water.  

“Freshwater is going to become, and it’s quickly becoming, the most important resource in the world,” El-Sayed told HuffPost. “The fact that, as a state that’s surrounded by more freshwater than any place in the country, we can’t figure out how to allocate freshwater to folks in places like Flint and Detroit and protect that freshwater from being poisoned ― that’s a political failure.”

El-Sayed’s other major plan to protect water rests on decommissioning Line 5, a nearly 65-year-old pipeline that carries 23 million gallons of oil per day through the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Huron and Michigan connect. The pipeline is operated by Enbridge, the Canadian company responsible for the second-largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, in the Kalamazoo River in 2010. A 2014 University of Michigan study concluded that the Straits of Mackinac are the “worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes.” A single spill there could pollute more than 700 miles of shoreline, according to a 2016 University of Michigan study.

Environmentalists have campaigned for years to shut down Line 5, but Enbridge has cultivated key allies in Snyder and Heidi Grether, director of the Department of Environmental Quality ― who is herself a former oil industry lobbyist. In November, the governor struck an agreement with Enbridge to replace one section of the pipeline. In January, Snyder rejected a recommendation from Michigan’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board to close the pipeline immediately. Enbridge spent nearly $2.4 million on U.S. congressional lobbying in 2017, more than double its 2016 total. That included lobbying on a federal bill affecting Line 5.

Because he swore off all donations from fossil fuel companies, El-Sayed’s supporters argue that as governor, he would be insulated from the influence of Enbridge and its industry advocates. El-Sayed is one of the first major Democratic candidates to take the pledge against accepting fossil fuel money that’s being pushed by Sanders and progressive groups such as 350.org.

The pledge is “not as material as the other proposals we’re talking about on the table, but ... it’s a very clear way to show where he stands,” said Lawrence, the Sunrise organizer. “He’ll actually follow through on his proposals on Election Day.”

Clarification: Language in this story has been amended to clarify when El-Sayed was registered to vote in New York and what his occupations were during that time.

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