Former gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed launches PAC

Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - 3:20pm

Though Marsh is currently Southpaw’s only paid staff member, the PAC has an advisory board of about 30 people from across the state.

Though Marsh is currently Southpaw’s only paid staff member, the PAC has an advisory board of about 30 people from across the state. Buy this photo
Ryan McLoughlin/Daily

Abdul El-Sayed, Democratic runner-up in the Michigan gubernatorial primary last month, announced Monday the launch of his new political action committee, Southpaw Michigan.

Southpaw Michigan PAC aims to continue the progressive movement ignited by El-Sayed’s campaign for governor and seeks to promote progressive candidates in local Michigan races. On its website, Southpaw pledges support to six main issues: ethical campaign financing, universal health care, environmental justice, full civil rights and liberties, criminal justice reform, and equity in education. Southpaw Executive Director Aarica Marsh, a 2016 graduate of the University of Michigan, said Southpaw intends to spread the enthusiasm produced during El-Sayed’s gubernatorial run to down-ballot races across the state.

“I think Abdul just wanted to make sure we did something with the momentum and volunteer base we built on the campaign,” Marsh said. “We had thousands of people making calls, texting, knocking doors … We want to make sure we’re electing local progressives, just because politics really starts at the local level, and if we build that foundation, it will only better the top.”

When Marsh joined his campaign in March 2017, El-Sayed had little name recognition — a stark contrast to the packed rallies and selfie requests she witnessed at events toward the end of the campaign. El-Sayed’s campaign quickly gained national attention as he was praised by progressive stand-outs such as Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Congressional Candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez due to his refusal to accept corporate PAC money and reliance on small donors.

According to a poll The Daily conducted in October 2017, 32 percent of University student respondents planned to vote for El-Sayed in the gubernatorial primary. El-Sayed received 30.2 percent of the Democratic vote Aug. 7, while Gretchen Whitmer won with 52 percent. 

Many of El-Sayed’s supporters, including LSA junior Sharif-Ahmed Krabti, a former El-Sayed campaign intern, were drawn to the former candidate’s willingness to address issues that many politicians avoid, such as corporate influence in politics.

“No one really talks about issues like that,” Krabti said. “No politician you’ve ever heard really speaks, I think, to the issues to that level and with that degree of expertise. To me, that’s what really sold me on him, is that he really understood things at a fundamental level about why things are the way they are.”

Though Marsh is currently Southpaw’s only paid staff member, the PAC has an advisory board of about 30 people from across the state. Comprising mostly former El-Sayed campaign supporters, advisory board members review potential candidates and choose Southpaw’s endorsements. Currently, the PAC is endorsing Megan Cavanagh and Sam Bagenstos for the Michigan Supreme Court, as well as Dana Nessel for Michigan attorney general and Laurie Pohutsky for Michigan state representative of Livonia.

“Mostly, right now, we are just focused on the Nov. 6th election, so we’re endorsing campaigns, working with their advisory boards and working to get those candidates elected,” Marsh said.

Candidates seeking endorsements can fill out a questionnaire publicly available on Southpaw’s website. Though El-Sayed has personally expressed support for top-ticket candidates such as Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic nominee for Michigan governor, Southpaw as an organization is channeling its efforts toward down-ballot races.

“We’re focusing on smaller races because those are the races that could actually use our support and organizational apparatus, which is super exciting,” Marsh said.

Crain's Detroit reported both Whitmer and Republican nominee Bill Schuette, the state's attorney general, benefitted from large sums of dark money. Schuette's primary campaign reportedly recieved $1.2 million in untraceable funds. 

Though El-Sayed was recently vying for the state’s highest-ranking elected seat, Marsh said their team believes in the power of local grassroots politics to grow the progressive movement.

“If we won, we’d be thinking of changing top-ticket government in Michigan and leading from the top, but also, working from the bottom is very effective,” Marsh said. “Having those local candidates supporting the platforms and our values that we believe in will transfer to the top and hopefully each office across the state.”

LSA senior Hoai An Pham, former El-Sayed campaign intern, never intended to work on a political campaign, but the commitment of El-Sayed’s team to listening to constituents drew her in. Pham especially highlighted the work of El-Sayed’s Policy Director Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who met with organizations and activists in Detroit to ask them what they wanted to see in policy.

“So I think when you’re looking a lot of times at how politics has a very top-down approach, and how they don’t often center the voices of marginalized people, something his campaign I think tried to do was do that for some people the very first time,” Pham said.

Echoing the mission of Southpaw, Pham believes staying in touch with local needs and opinions is essential for any politician.

“I think it’s really important to be connecting with people in the places you live and building power that way,” she said.