DETROIT — A Republican candidate for Michigan governor isn’t backing down from unfounded claims one of his Democratic opponents has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood — and he’s insisting members of his own party are encouraging him to speak out about it.
Michigan State Sen. Patrick Colbeck made national headlines earlier this year when he alleged Abdul El-Sayed, a doctor and former executive director of the Detroit Health Department and a Democratic candidate for governor, has “affiliations” with the Muslim Brotherhood.
El-Sayed would be the first Muslim-American governor in American history if elected, and Colbeck has cited his time as vice president of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Michigan as one reason for his unsubstantiated claims.
Colbeck is one of four Republicans in the race and has been polling at the back of the pack, but when his comments were publicized in April, a spokeswoman for the Michigan GOP issued a statement declaring that while she hadn’t seen reports on the comments, “we categorically condemn any sort of hate speech, regardless of the source.”
But Colbeck claims some within his party want him to continue to speak up.
“They’re more than willing to have me as the spokesperson for this,” he told VICE News this week, when asked if other Republicans had asked him to quit talking about El-Sayed’s religion.
“Nobody else wants to do it because of all the fireworks,” he added.
A Colbeck spokeswoman later clarified that the candidate was referring to encouragement from Republican operatives and “one or two” individuals who are either term-limited elected officials or running for office, but they wouldn’t identify any of the individuals.
No Michigan Republican lawmakers or party officials have endorsed Colbeck’s claims, and a spokeswoman for the Michigan GOP pointed to the party’s first statement on the issue when asked about his latest comments.
But at the time they were first published, the public response from Colbeck’s opponents was muted. Two of the three other Republican gubernatorial candidates — Attorney General Bill Schuette and physician Jim Hines — issued separate but similar-sounding statements that emphasized the value of the Constitution and included nearly identical language affirming that “all people should be treated with dignity and respect.” Neither statement referenced the substance of Colbeck’s claims.
El-Sayed is the son of Egyptian immigrants who was raised primarily by his father, an engineer, and stepmother, a nurse practitioner, in the suburbs of Detroit. He has repeatedly refuted Colbeck’s unproven claims, emphasizes the need for a separation between church and state in government, and is progressive on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
A political newcomer who completed his MD at Columbia University in 2014, El-Sayed is the progressive pick in the three-way Democratic primary for governor, polling behind entrepreneur and first-time candidate Shri Thanedar, and former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer.
El-Sayed is hoping to ride the same progressive grassroots energy that helped Bernie Sanders topple Hillary Clinton in Michigan’s 2016 primary to a win of his own, and focuses on many of the same issues that galvanized Sanders supporters in his own campaign: universal healtcare and keeping corporate money out of politics.
But El-Sayed’s religion is never far from his mind — the candidate addresses it during nearly every speech, cracking jokes about it being the “elephant in the room” off the top of his remarks at a small-business forum in Lansing this week. Even in Michigan, the state with the largest Muslim population in the U.S., El-Sayed openly admits it can be a challenge for his campaign.
At the time Colbeck made his comments, the Michigan Democratic Party and one of El-Sayed’s Democratic opponents, former State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, both sharply denounced Colbeck’s claims — but his other opponent, Indian-born entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, declined to weigh in.
And underscoring the difficulty El-Sayed faces as he works to get voters to look past his personal background, Thanedar — the front-runner in the polls who’s spent millions of his own money on television ads boosting his name recognition — refused to denounce the comments when asked this week.
Speaking to a reporter at a small business forum in Lansing this week, Thanedar offered non-sequitur talking points to repeated questions on the comments, eventually ending the interview and backing away from a reporter after being asked four times his opinion.
“I think leadership is really critical at this time, and I think my business background and my worldly experience that I have as an immigrant, my background as a scientist, is very critical in solving and taking Michigan to the next level,” he said, when asked first his thoughts on Colbeck’s claims.
Asked if it was appropriate for the Republican to raise the issue of El-Sayed’s religion in the race, Thanedar said “I am focused on my race and I am focused on my candidacy and my focus is taking Michigan to the next level and what we need to do,” and that his “expertise is jobs.”
Asked again why he wouldn’t denounce Colbeck’s claims, Thanedar replied: “I’m focused on taking our state to the next level. I think the important issues are that we talk about education, we talk about infrastructure, we talk about, how do we create that skillset.”
Asked finally if he didn’t in fact think Colbeck’s comments were inappropriate, Thanedar put up his hands and began to back away, offering only: “I gotta go, because I have a thing and then we have a meeting.”
Cover image: Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed is seen during a debate, Wednesday, June 20, 2018 in Grand Raids, Mich. (Michael Buck/Wood-TV8 via AP, Pool)