August 2018 update: Gretchen Whitmer wins Democratic primary for Michigan governor
Last fall, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed said he expected the endorsement of his former boss, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.
Today, the relationship is so strained that El-Sayed – the city’s former health director – is publicly accusing Duggan of “poisoning kids.” The mayor in turn says El-Sayed is “irresponsibly” engaging in revisionist history and misrepresenting his 18-month tenure in City Hall.
The feud exploded on Wednesday, when El-Sayed went on Michigan Radio and said Duggan ignored his warnings to mitigate the health risks of city housing demolitions and water shutoffs.
“He didn’t want to pay attention to the fact that Detroit’s demolitions program is poisoning kids with lead up until this year,” El-Sayed told Michigan Radio.
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The statements came a few weeks after El-Sayed said at a candidate forum that his clashes with Duggan over the city’s demolition program helped prompt him to resign in February 2017 after 18 months on the job to run for governor.
“I challenged him so much I got kicked out of meetings,” El-Sayed said at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School in Detroit.
The doctor told the crowd he “banged my head against that issue” and is the only candidate who “actively stood up against Mike Duggan.”
El-Sayed is polling third in a four-person Democratic primary behind presumed front-runner Whitmer, the former Senate minority leader, and business executive Shri Thanedar, and ahead of retired executive Bill Cobbs. El-Sayed’s emerging feud with Duggan could raise questions about his ability to win the August Democratic primary without the active support of Detroit’s powerful mayor, much less a bruising general election fight in November.
“It's clear Abdul has completed his transition from man of science to politician because he's willing to say anything to get himself elected,” Duggan spokesman John Roach.
Duggan endorsed Whitmer last month after working with union leaders to recruit another candidate into the race. This week, the mayor’s office released a batch of emails El-Sayed wrote to demolitions officials while he was at the city that the mayor's aides claim refutes the doctor’s assertions.
“It's clear Abdul has completed his transition from man of science to politician because he's willing to say anything to get himself elected,” Duggan spokesman John Roach told Bridge Magazine.
Bridge received the emails – more than 250 pages in all – after reporting on the demolition issue last fall. Bridge secured the communications through the Freedom of Information Act after previous reporting on studies showing a link between elevated blood lead levels among Detroit children and increased housing demolitions.
No one disputes that, while he was at the city, El-Sayed initiated a study that found the link and launched a task force to address the problem. But he and Duggan disagree on whether City Hall resisted El-Sayed’s efforts.
Under El-Sayed, the task force made 18 recommendations on how to reduce the health risk, many of which languished for months until last fall when the city rolled out a text messaging service to alert nearby residents of upcoming demolitions to stay inside.
“The fact that the city has only implemented a fraction of the task force’s recommendations speaks to the city’s reluctance to take this issue on,” El-Sayed spokesman Adam Joseph told Bridge last month.
In March, the city announced it is halting demolitions this summer in five ZIP Codes with the highest rates of blood lead levels: 48202, 48204, 48206, 48213, and 48214.
Until now, Bridge has not reported on the emails because most contained pleasantries or scheduling of meetings. By themselves, they may only prove that El-Sayed wrote polite emails.
But Duggan’s office claims they show that El-Sayed “repeatedly praised the city's demolition team … for its commitment to public health in the demolition process, specifically around the issue of lead concerns.”
Among the examples:
“Thank you for making health a priority in this process,” El-Sayed wrote on Jan. 12, 2016, to Duggan aide David Manardo, who oversees the city’s home demolitions programs.
Another email appears to show El-Sayed counseling officials on how best to raise doubts about a connection between demolitions and child lead levels in a report written months before the city launched its own study.
“We can include an annotation to the effect of: ‘The small increase in EBLL (elevated blood lead level) incidence in Detroit is mirrored in Wayne County, suggesting against Detroit-specific causes (such as Demolitions),” he wrote Jan. 2, 2016, to Regina Royan, who was then working as a public health adviser for the city.
El-Sayed launched the study after lead levels among some children in Detroit began to increase after years of declines. It concluded that demos may be attributable to 2.4 percent of all children with harmful lead levels. That works out to about 200 kids since the start of the demo blitz.
“El-Sayed was very engaged. He took a very active role,” said Stuart Batterman, a professor of environmental health at the University of Michigan, who serves on the city’s lead task force.
Batterman said he participated in a smaller, inconclusive look at lead and demos in Detroit in 2016 that preceded El-Sayed’s study.
He said the city perhaps could have moved swifter to add safeguards, but he said he wasn’t in a position to see if there was any “skepticism” about El-Sayed. All other task force members work for the city.
Batterman said he also credits Duggan for his response.
“I’ve talked to the mayor on several occasions, and Mike Duggan is also very concerned about this problem. I think he believes it is something the city needs to address,” Batterman said.
The emails released by the city include no mention of El-Sayed being barred from meetings or protesting the demolitions, but his campaign said that means nothing.
“The nature of being left out of meetings is that you do not receive an email invitation or un-invitation,” Joseph, the campaign spokesman, wrote Bridge.
Bridge has corresponded with El-Sayed’s campaign for several weeks about the dispute. The campaign did not provide any emails or correspondence showing that El-Sayed, as health director, encountered resistance from Duggan or was barred from meetings.
Through a spokesman, Duggan said “Dr. El-Sayed's story about his time at the city has changed, and irresponsibly so.”
“The health of our residents always has been a top priority for this administration and continues to be,” the statement read.
Bridge reached out to El-Sayed again on Thursday after the emails were released to the media by Duggan. The campaign responded Friday by pointing to a Facebook post from El-Sayed saying the moratorium doesn't go far enough and calling Duggan "yet another Michigan politician willingly putting children in harm's way."
"Nothing will do short of a city-wide moratorium on demolitions during the summer months until all task force recommendations have been adopted and the City can guarantee that it can demolish a home safely without exposing any of Detroit’s children to lead," the Facebook post read.