NOTE: This article was published before public allegations that Shahid Buttar engaged in sexual harassment and sexism toward female staffers. We have left the article up for the record but are linking to the allegations as they are important and must be taken seriously.
I ask Shahid Buttar, who is running as a progressive congressional candidate against Nancy Pelosi, to explain why he wants to unseat a leader of the Resistance. What would he say to a Democrat who wondered if she was all that bad? It’s simple, he says. “She funded Trump’s concentration camps, she imposed Republican fiscal austerity rules, she is an architect of mass surveillance, and she opposes the progressive agenda including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal… I have to pick and choose,” he says, telling me he could easily give me 10 more arguments.
For Buttar, it’s simple: A new generation of progressives demands urgent, serious action on climate change, healthcare, immigration, economic inequality, and criminal justice. Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that she is opposed to their agenda. She mocks and belittles them. (“The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”) The stakes are too high to have the leader of the Congressional Democrats be someone who isn’t seriously fighting for the progressive agenda.
Furthermore, Buttar says, Pelosi represents San Francisco, one of the top 10 most Democratic districts in the country. The arguments for centrism that might apply to a swing district don’t hold there. San Francisco, Buttar says, needs someone with San Francisco values: “We’re a sanctuary city, we care about immigrant rights, but we’re represented by someone who is selling immigrants down the river. We’re a city that supports social services but we’re represented by a Speaker of the House who imposed Republican fiscal austerity rules.”
Of course, it’s also the case that the city has gentrified heavily, and I wonder whether the influx of tech workers might make it harder for Buttar to sell a working-class populist message. But Buttar says that tech workers are more left-leaning than the companies they work for, and he believes many feel the sense of “crisis and pressure” that he understands and his opponent doesn’t. “They’re sophisticated enough to know that their economic privilege can’t insulate them from the vagaries of climate catastrophe, so they recognize the need for a transition.” Buttar emphasizes his plans to appeal to young people who feel unrepresented by Pelosi’s brand of big money politics.
There have been primary challenges against Pelosi before, including a brief threat by Cindy Sheehan in 2008 and Buttar’s own previous candidacy in 2018. Nobody has come close to toppling the Democratic “fundraising juggernaut.” Buttar thinks it will be different this time. The victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez against Joe Crowley, one of the highest-ranking House Democrats, showed that well-funded incumbents with a lot of pull in Congress might still be vulnerable, if they have lost touch with their local constituencies. Buttar thinks that’s exactly what has happened in San Francisco.
Buttar has a unique background. Born in the U.K. to Pakistani parents fleeing persecution, he became a civil liberties lawyer and has worked on cases related to: marriage equality, campaign finance laws, racial profiling, and digital rights. After the passage of the PATRIOT Act, he led the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and he has served since 2015 as Director of Grassroots Advocacy for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He has both led street protests and taught at Stanford Law School. Buttar is also a poet and DJ—listen to his mixes here!—and, I can confirm from several days of observing him, tends to sport colorful clothing including paisley scarves (of which I strongly approve).
Buttar is smart, committed, and has a strong record of activism. As someone who has been working to organize immigrants and artists, he is a sharp contrast with the vineyard-dwelling Pelosi. As he says: “I first moved to San Francisco in the 2000s, when she was funding Bush’s wars and I was organizing street protests to try to stop it. I saw her sweep CIA torture under the rug.” (In fact, Pelosi flat-out lied and said she hadn’t been told that torture was being used, then later admitted that she had been, and had failed to do anything to oppose it.) The torture issue, he says, was an important test, and Pelosi failed, by showing an “unwillingness to seek executive accountability even when her partisan interest aligns with the constitutional responsibility and international law.”
I am sure many leftists will be impressed by Buttar as they read more about him and hear him speak. But whether they’re going to believe in him is a different question. Everyone I talked to at the recent DSA convention was dubious about his electoral prospects. Justice Democrats has so far declined to endorse him. Jacobin, even in a sympathetic profile, says it “won’t be an easy fight.” Others seem to think he has no chance at all, saying that the best hope is that “if some of his positions force the Speaker to modify hers, there is some solace in that.”
I think doubt is a serious mistake. One of the chief political lessons of the last few years is that nobody can be certain what is and isn’t politically possible. It would have seemed impossible for AOC to beat Joe Crowley. It would have seemed impossible for Tiffany Cabán to come as close as she did to becoming Queens District Attorney. Unfortunately, doubt about whether these victories can actually occur becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody thinks Buttar can beat Pelosi, so a group like Justice Democrats won’t get behind him. But what if Pelosi is more vulnerable than we think. Buttar points out to me that if he could win, it would be a colossal shift in Democratic politics. He describes it as the “end of corporate rule” in the party. That might be an overstatement, but not by much. Along with Joe Biden, Pelosi is the most visible national representative of the kind of Democratic politics that today’s young left is trying to overthrow. Buttar’s candidacy offers a perfect opportunity.
So I don’t want to hear that he can’t do it, or that he probably won’t win. You don’t know, and I don’t know. What we do know is: Shahid has good values and a strong agenda. Pelosi is an impediment to progress, who has proven herself unwilling to stick up for the left. Deep blue districts need to be represented by candidates with strong left politics, and she doesn’t have those. Even her great symbolic act of defiance—the sarcastic clap at Trump—she insists was actually sincere encouragement. This is not who you want leading your Resistance. This is not who you want in charge of a left party.
The last time Buttar ran, he did not come close. This time is already somewhat different—he says he’s receiving far more donations and support already, and a lot of people who doubted him last time seem more confident. But the main change is that this time around, we know that the Democratic establishment can be beaten, and that it’s therefore worth investing the time and money to try. Pessimism is not acceptable, even if unseating Pelosi feels impossible. Just imagine it: The multi-millionaire who capitulated to Trump on immigration is replaced by the child of refugees, a person who embodies the American Dream.
Think it’s ridiculous? We’ve seen it on a small scale. In North Dakota, a socialist Native woman, Ruth Buffalo, defeated the sponsor of a voter ID law that disenfranchised Native Americans, and she did it in a usually Republican district. A socialist candidate beat the Republican House Majority Whip in the Virginia House of Delegates. A New Jersey county politician who shared a sexist meme on Facebook was defeated by a 32-year-old black female hospital worker who had never held office, but decided to pay him back for dissing the Women’s March. An exact equivalent to what Buttar is trying to do happened in the Republican Party: Eric Cantor, the Majority Leader, was beaten by a nobody from the Tea Party. This is what happens to Republicans when they don’t represent their party base. It can, and should, happen to Democrats too. Powerful leaders are powerful, but they are also toppled regularly, and frequently by surprise.
“[Pelosi’s] record is indefensible,” Buttar tells me, which is enough to warrant a primary challenge. “She’s never had to answer for her politics, and I intend to force her to answer for her politics.” But I want Buttar to do more than that: I want him to win. And fortunately, Buttar thinks he can. He does not see himself as running a protest candidacy—he even describes his victory as “inevitable.” Everyone else should see it that way too: Believe in Shahid. Shahid can win. Shahid must win. Now how do we make it happen?