Tensions between Democratic gubernatorial candidates Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar boiled over Tuesday as each submitted a formal challenge to the other's candidacy.
Thanedar asked Michigan elections officials to determine whether El-Sayed is eligible to be on the August primary ballot, while El-Sayed asked the same officials to determine whether Thanedar successfully met the signature filing requirements for his candidacy.
The request from Thanedar guarantees at least one more month of uncertainty for El-Sayed, the City of Detroit’s former health director, who has been dogged by questions about his eligibility since Bridge Magazine reported in late January that he was registered to vote in New York as recently as 2015.
“This challenge should not be construed as a personal attack — I believe a candidate with standing in this race must step up and challenge Mr. El-Sayed’s eligibility to resolve this issue once and for all,” Thanedar wrote in his letter to the Secretary of State’s office.
El-Sayed, meanwhile,asked the Bureau of Elections to investigate Thanedar's nominating petitions on claims that thousands had "potentially disqualifying errors." Bureau of Elections staff will likely also make a recommendation on this challenge during the Board of State Canvassers meeting at the end of the month.
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The requests came days after a mid-Michigan resident asked the Michigan Bureau of Elections to review El-Sayed’s candidacy. Thanedar told Bridge he submitted the challenge because he feared state officials wouldn’t take that request seriously.
As a candidate for governor, they “better not brush me aside. I need answers, I need this resolved now,” said Thanedar, who is an Ann Arbor businessman.
At issue is a clause of the Michigan Constitution that requires candidates for governor to be qualified voters in Michigan for at least four years before the election.
El-Sayed, 33, has been continuously registered in Michigan since 2003 but was on “cancellation countdown status” because he registered to vote in New York while he was in medical school at Columbia University.
He also got a New York driver license and didn’t re-register to vote in Michigan until 2016, two weeks after the Michigan presidential primary, state records show.
El-Sayed has said he is “100 percent eligible.”
His campaign spokesman, Adam Joseph, called the issue a “manufactured controversy” and “smokescreen” for “hapless and cruel abuses of both people and animals,” referring to recent reports that Thanedar owned a lab where 100 dogs and monkeys had to be rescued.
The request comes as both Thanedar and El-Sayed battle for votes among progressives against Gretchen Whitmer, a former Senate minority leader who has the backing of unions and traditional Democrats.
A recent poll has Thanedar, who has spent $1 million on TV ads, slightly ahead of Whitmer, who has not begun advertising, and El-Sayed far behind at 6.6 percent.
Decision at end of May?
Bureau of Elections staff will review the challenge filings and make a recommendation to the Board of State Canvassers on candidates’ nominating petitions, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.
They expect the recommendation will be made at the next board meeting, which will likely be near the end of May.
Woodhams declined further comment since the Secretary of State’s office had not fully reviewed Thanedar’s challenge.
At the request of the state Democratic Party, El-Sayed filed a request seeking a declaratory ruling on his eligibility in the Michigan Court of Claims. A few weeks ago, state attorneys sought to dismiss the case, calling the issue “premature” because at the time no one had challenged El-Sayed’s candidacy.
Thanedar said he sought a ruling in part because attorneys representing the state work for Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Republican front-runner for governor.
“It is my belief that Attorney General Schuette wants to keep a potentially ineligible Democratic candidate on the ballot as a political tactic that assists his campaign,” Thanedar said.
Andrea Bitely, a spokesman for Schuette, said his office created an “isolation wall” for the case after El-Sayed sought his request. Assistant attorneys general working on the case are reporting to Johnson and not Schuette, Bitely said.
James Rinck, a Grand Rapids area elections attorney, said the Secretary of State is legally obligated to respond to Thanedar.
“They’ll probably have a court hearing, maybe an evidentiary hearing and see if there’s enough evidence to see if this guy should be on the ballot,” Rinck said.
Thanedar said he isn’t sure if he will sue if the Bureau of Elections doesn’t rule on El-Sayed’s eligibility.
Battle for progressives
The request comes as tensions between the two candidates have intensified in recent weeks, with El-Sayed repeatedly labeling Thanedar a “fake progressive.”
Both candidates have similar voting bases, appealing to Southeast Michigan people of color, said Ed Sarpolus, executive director of Lansing-based polling firm Target-Insyght.
Thanedar has better odds against Whitmer if El-Sayed is out of the race, Sarpolus said.
“Shri is very focused. He’s got one direction, one goal, one purpose right now,” said Sarpolus. “That is to win the nomination.”
Three months ago, Thanedar told Bridge El-Sayed’s eligibility “is not really an issue for us.”
So what’s changed?
The gap between Thanedar and El-Sayed is shrinking in internal polling, said Sarpolus.
Thanedar pushed back on that analysis in an interview with Bridge, noting that he might receive political blowback if El-Sayed is determined ineligible due to his challenge.
“To me, a leader does the right thing and doesn’t worry about politics,” Thanedar said.
“Our party needs a closure on this. It doesn’t matter if he’s eligible or not, that’s a secondary thing. The primary thing is that this issue is resolved at last.”
Whitmer, meanwhile, would benefit from El-Sayed staying in the race and splitting votes with Thanedar. When a Lansing-area woman first challenged El-Sayed’s eligibility last week, Whitmer asked her to withdraw her challenge. Her campaign said it doesn’t support Thanedar’s challenge either.
“Gretchen has been proud to share a debate stage with Abdul and believes this race should be decided by the voters of Michigan," a Whitmer spokesman said.
The Secretary of State will rule one way or another, said Sarpolus.
But that doesn’t mean it will be the end of the matter: If officials rule El-Sayed is eligible, Thanedar may take it to court. If they rule El-Sayed is ineligible, he may challenge the decision, Sarpolus said.