Progressives Spearhead Nationwide Movement in Michigan

Voters decided today on a plethora of candidates and issues in 5 states. While the votes are tallied, The Highlander examines how the national progressive movement manifested in Michigan. 

Written by Asher Leukhardt— August 7, 2018


Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT, campaigning with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed on August 5th at Cobo Hall// Asher Leukhardt for The Highlander.

DETROIT— Hopeful Democratic Nominee for Michigan’s 7th U.S. Congressional District Steve Friday, a former worker in the service industry, stands next his wife, Pam, who sports a blue “Abdul for Michigan” t-shirt along with him, at Cobo Center’s Grand Riverview Ballroom on Sunday awaiting the start of gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed’s rally, at which U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders spoke.

Friday is just one of many Michigan candidates touting themselves as progressive, part of the surge of liberal Democratic candidates, fully or partially, running on and espousing the anti-corporation democratic-socialist principles of U.S. Senator and 2016 Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, I-VT.

Among those candidates is the Democratic nominee for state attorney general, former prosecutor Dana Nessel, who describes the general objectives of the progressive movement.

“It has to do with making certain that every person has value. It means everyone getting their fair share,” Nessel said. “It’s realizing that we have to do things in a different way than we ever have before in order to ensure basic fairness.”

These ideals are shared by voters too, including Jousef Shkoukani, a 23 year-old law student attending the University of Michigan. Shakoukani, who volunteered for El-Sayed’s campaign, details the appeal of progressive candidates while explaining why he gravitates towards El-Sayed.

“Mr. El-Sayed, for me, is the one candidate who’s running [for governor] who’s not bought out. He’s not an individual who’s willing to set his rights on a hidden agenda by corporate backing or corporate funding,” Shkoukani said, continuing to say that El-Sayed is, “instead somebody that’s actually going to stick up for the little guy, stick up for the underrepresented and do it all through the people.”

Progressive candidates have come to present themselves as the left’s crusaders for the underprivileged and ignored. Democratic nominee for New York’s 14th U.S. Congressional District Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned last week with El-Sayed, told The Highlander that the progressive movement represents the marginalized and forgotten coming together to push for their representation in government.

“There are a lot of people in this country who are counted out of everything. They’re counted out of being seen as qualified, they’re counted out in all sorts of ways and manners,” Ocasio-Cortez, who famously ousted a long-serving incumbent in her June primary, said. “I was counted out. Abdul was counted out. But when people who are counted out come together, that’s power, and that’s why I’m here.”


Democratic nominee for New York’s 14th Congressional District Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at an El-Sayed event at Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti, Mich. on July 29th// Asher Leukhardt for The Highlander

Progressives aim to represent the excluded by taking a position firmly against corporate interests. El-Sayed’s Deputy Communications Director Blake McCarren explains that this stance manifests itself in progressives’ major policy proposals like single-payer healthcare and a $15 per hour minimum wage, as well as tuition-free public college for most families.

Democratic 11th U.S. Congressional District candidate and former Department of Homeland Security appointee Fayrouz Saad, 35, a self-proclaimed progressive, argues that electors seek candidates committed to promoting those who feel forgotten and left-behind because they are perceived as firm and devoted to the issues that people, not corporations, care about.

“They see candidates that are ready and willing to take strong issues like Medicare for all, making pledges not to accept cooperate PAC money on their campaigns and things like that,” Saad said in an exclusive interview with The Highlander.

These candidates, for some, are the answer to what voters have desired for long time and end a period of dissatisfaction with their political options, contributing to their popularity. This is true for Andonia Kidd, a 35-year-old Flint woman working as a financial administrator at a hospital, who claims that Democrats nor Republicans haven’t  offered the candidates she’s been looking for, forcing her into a quandary in which she votes for people she cannot fully stand behind or that won’t be elected.

“For too long, people have been voting for the lesser of two evils because they felt they had nothing else to vote for, nobody speaking for them,” Kidd said. “Now people are stepping forward and running for office who are more like them who are going through the same difficulties, seeing the same issues Michigan has [as voters do].”

A general aura of dissatisfaction with voter’s choices is a problem progressive candidates hope to address, some hypothesizing that voters will appreciate the unconventional progressives who offer views they see as nearer in kind to their own.

“Our ballots have lacked candidates that will stand with the people instead of corporate donors,” candidate for the 68th State Legislative District and chair of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus Kelly Collison said. “Our party’s leadership has told us to back their candidates simply because they’re not as bad as Republicans. We’re here to let them know that that’s not good enough,” she said to the crowd at El-Sayed’s Ypsilanti rally on July 29th.

Saad contends that this movement is happening at a time when voters’ attitudes and their options have met at a perfect cusp for a progressive tilt in politics.

“I think it [the desire for progressive policies] has always been there, and not that people, all of a sudden, believe in a thing,” Saad said. “I think it’s that momentum has grown… because of a combination of having candidates who, in the last few years, have been willing to speak up for these issues and then the electorate reacting with support.”

Collison concurs with this notion, adding that the modern progressive movement pivots on that key union of voters and candidates.

“This movement is not about me… it’s not about Abdul or Alexandria, it’s about every one of us,” Collison said. “It’s about bringing people together to wage war on the broken and corrupt politics that have left poor and working families behind.”

Former director of Detroit’s health department Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, 33, joined by other progressive candidates, holds that Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign introduced people to a new kind of politics and caused them to realize that they liked what it provided, allowing for the surge of progressive candidates in 2018. El-Sayed says Sen. Sander’s Michigan win in the 2016 Primaries proves that Michigan is ready for progressive leadership and that he is perhaps poised to fare even better than Sanders did in the state.

“To be quite honest, we’re building off of what he [Sanders] showed in Michigan,” El-Sayed told reporters. “He won this state, but didn’t perform as well as I think any of us wanted in communities in Detroit and Flint, and those are where my strengths are.”

El-Sayed says that the primary victories of Sen. Sanders in 2016 and Ocasio-Cortez’s illustrates that progressives aren’t quixotic figures caught in reverie and shows to voters that winning as a progressive is “not only possible, but that it happens and that it happens, and not only does it happen in Michigan, but it happens everywhere and the movement the we are building on is a national-level movement,” El-Sayed said.


Gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed speaks at Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti, Mich. on July 29th// Photo by Asher Leukhardt for The Highlander       

Given their nation-wide clout, El-Sayed believes that success in progressive races anywhere in the nation validates and, consequentially, bolsters others’ leftist campaigns.

“It’s proof of concept,” El-Sayed said of Ocasio-Cortez’s June triumph. “You’re looking for something that shows you that it’s possible and that was this race. It is the ability to say look, it’s possible— that gut feeling in your heart that tells you is the right thing it’s the right thing.”

El-Sayed has also proposed that progressive politics relies in the ability of candidates to refer to those with a greater likeness to themselves, in terms of their views and/or ethnicity, to fortify their movement forward.

“The reality of it is, when you don’t look like the usual politicians, people… tell you that you don’t belong in the room, and that means you have to find the people who look a little more like you and watch what they’ve done,” El-Sayed told The Highlander.

Ocasio-Cortez believes that the fate of the country’s progressive candidates lies in their success as a group, because their target demographic is the working class. Without nationwide support, she fears, the progressive movement can yield few results.

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“We cannot cross that finish line unless we cross it together,” she told supporters at the Ypsilanti church. “I’m here because we cannot get single-payer in the Bronx until we get it in Michigan. We cannot fight unless we realize that the Bronx, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City and St. Louis are a lot more alike than you think. Wherever there are working class people, there is hope for the progressive movement.”

These candidates, which fall significantly further left than the current Democratic Party, have had mixed experiences with the party.

U.S. Representative Debbie Dingle, a Democrat representing Michigan’s 12th District, who made a brief appearance in the back corner of El-Sayed’s Ypsilanti rally despite endorsing his opponent, Gretchen Whitmer, tells The Highlander that the party is accommodative of the progressive insurgents.

“The Democratic Party is made up of a lot of people and it’s a broad tent and there’s a place for everybody in it,” Dingle said.

Friday, on the contrary, laments that the Democratic Party failed to support his campaign and blames their fear in midst of what has been a troubling year for their identity.

“They’re very uninvolved and not supportive,” Friday said, claiming that they disregarded him “because we [progressives] are seen as insurrectionists— we’re seen as people that won’t play the game like they want us to play the game. I didn’t sit on the bench and do what I was told to before I decided to run.”

Friday asserts that this lack of support is in result of what he says is Democrats’ adamant opposition to admitting that accepting money from corporate donors is wrongful, resulting in his crusade against just that being delegitimized.

Saad, however, has had a more positive relationship with the Democratic party, suggesting a slightly more accepting tenor that what Friday describes.

“I’ve had a good relationship with local Democratic clubs, leaders and activists,” Saad said. “It [the Democratic Party] has been greatly supportive.”

Nessel, who procured the party’s endorsement earlier this year, says that her success took more time and work than anticipated, however she eventually enticed the party to vouch for her.

McCarren suggested that Michigan Democrats quickly aligned themselves behind El-Sayed’s opponent, Gretchen Whitmer, however, he’s still confident that the progressive message coupled with a strong reaction against President Trump can drive them to victory.

Ocasio-Cortez claims that progressive swing voters aren’t from Democrat to Republican, but from non-voter to voter.

Saad agrees, saying that “how we [progressives] are going to win is by inviting those people back… into the electorate and giving them a message they can believe in.”

Despite the lack of support from established Democrats, Friday remains optimistic about the movement’s future.

“The people have spoken and the people will speak louder every time this happens, every election it [the progressive movement] will become more and more powerful and there’s nothing they can do to stop it cause we can’t be bought, we’re not taking any corporate money, we’re not giving up our souls because we want power individually.”

Update: Abdul El-Sayed, Fayrouz Saad and Steve Friday all lost their bids for Democratic nominations. 

Asher Leukhardt, a sophomore, is currently The Highlander’s Opinion Editor and has worked as a staff writer in the past. 

Sarah Patterson contributed to this report.

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