El-Sayed, the 33-year old former director of Detroit’s health department, was on the national political radar long before Ocasio-Cortez’s upset defeat of longtime incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary in a district comprising parts of the Bronx and Queens. A Rhodes scholar whose work in Detroit had been closely watched by urban reformers, El-Sayed jumped into the governor’s race in early 2017 as state party leaders worked to recruit a candidate who could end their run of statewide electoral losses.
By last summer, El-Sayed had hoped to turn the campaign into a choice between himself and Gretchen Whitmer, a former Democratic leader in the state Senate. That plan was complicated by a challenge to his Michigan residency — which he turned back in court — and by the self-funding campaign of Shri Thanedar, a first-time candidate whose ads called him a “fiscally responsible Bernie Sanders.”
El-Sayed said that bringing Ocasio-Cortez to Michigan would help clarify the stakes in the Aug. 7 primary. The two of them are scheduled to begin their campaign trip in Grand Rapids and continue to Flint and Detroit to highlight how the state’s poorer cities are being served by the state. The next day, they’ll hold a rally in Ypsilanti.
“She’s shown us how it’s done,” said El-Sayed, who, like Ocasio-Cortez, is endorsed by the left-wing group Justice Democrats. “I DM’d her when I started to read about her, when I saw her videos, in early June. I told her, ‘I love what you’re doing.’ And then a day later, my grandfather in Hamburg, Michigan, called me and asked, ‘Hey, have you heard about this Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? She sounds like you!’ ”
Ocasio-Cortez’s trip to Michigan will come one week after a trip to Kansas with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). It will also come after some of the first negative coverage, on the left, of her candidacy in New York.
On the campaign trail, Ocasio-Cortez had been critical of Israel’s response to Palestinian protesters, especially after protests after the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem that ended in the killing of 60 people. At one candidate forum, a surrogate for Crowley was booed for saying that he backed the embassy move; Ocasio-Cortez had opposed it.
But in an interview with PBS’s “Firing Line” that went viral after a conservative Twitter account shared part of it, Ocasio-Cortez suggested that she was not comfortable discussing the details of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue,” she said. “I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution in this issue. . . . I just look at things through a human rights lens, and I may not use the right words.”
El-Sayed, a Muslim whose faith has been attacked by one of the Republican candidates for governor, said that his critics would be making a mistake of they attacked the Ocasio-Cortez visit over her comments about Israel.
“I’ve always believed in human rights, and believed that we are bound to respect the rule of international law,” said El-Sayed. “But as governor of Michigan, I’d be responsible for the people of Michigan. If I was worried about Republicans attacking me, I wouldn’t be running for governor.”
In an interview last week, El-Sayed also said that should he win the nomination, Republicans would go overboard in attacking his faith, and help him turn out more voters.
“I can’t wait until Donald Trump comes here for the Republican nominee, and I’m running against both of them. Everything they say can and will be used against them. I can’t wait until he slips in the fact that I’m Muslim. Go ahead — it reminds people of everything they hate about you.”