The challenge in front of Shahid Buttar, Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic Socialist challenger for CA-12, is steep.
Pelosi, beloved by liberal meme-makers, enjoys record national popularity (46 percent). However, from her opposition to Medicare for All to her lack of a housing platform on her campaign website, the Speaker seems, after 34 years in Congress, to be more in touch with the Acela Corridor than with the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of the Mission or Bayview-Hunters Point in her district. On top of that, Pelosi has made a point of casting doubt on progressive and Democratic Socialist candidates, both nationally and locally, dismissing their accomplishments and paying little heed to their momentum.
How does Shahid Buttar plan to launch a challenge against the out-of-touch but still extremely wealthy and influential Nancy Pelosi? Nobody can deny that Pelosi is a “fundraising powerhouse,” who raised $5.9 million in 2019. But, in a sign of the times, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) held her own with the Speaker last year, raising $5.5 million with the majority of her donations coming in at under $200. (It’s worth noting that, in order to beat AOC’s haul, Pelosi had to transfer $1.4 million from her joint account shared by her PAC and the DCCC.)
The same energy behind AOC is powering Shahid Buttar’s campaign in his second attempt to unseat Pelosi. In the month of January 2020 alone, he raised $60,000 from about 2,000 unique donors, nearly matching his unsuccessful 2018 campaign’s fundraising total of $65,000 from 600 people.
Nationally, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and AOC have paved the way for this kind of people powered-politics. But locally, the credit goes to the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America.
“Here in San Francisco, the victories we’ve won at the ballot box feel like the start of something really exciting,” said Matthew McGowen, Co-Chair of Democratic Socialists of America San Francisco (DSA-SF). “We still have to fight for the future we want, but the past few years have shown that we’re able to contend with power, we’re building a movement that can make lasting change, and we’re not going away anytime soon.”
DSA-SF has been a constant presence in all of the Left’s recent major wins in San Francisco. Its members worked tirelessly to power socialist-endorsed candidates and initiatives to victory, including Prop F (Tenant Right to Counsel), Democratic Socialist Dean Preston for District 5 Supervisor, and the restorative justice-focused Chesa Boudin for SF District Attorney. They even were able to prevent San Francisco law enforcement from obtaining tasers by killing Prop H (Tasers for Police Officers), with a budget of only $80,000 against the Police Officers Association’s $439,000 war chest.
Kaylah Williams, the campaign manager on a hot streak who managed both Chesa Boudin’s victorious 2019 DA campaign and Commissioner Alison Collins’ 2018 election to San Francisco’s Board of Education, had this to say about the recent electoral success of socialists and progressives in San Francisco:
“When we get a big win for the left at a local level it helps to signal to state and national politicians that there is a real desire for actual change. San Francisco is thought of as one of the most progressive cities in the nation, but I think of SF as a precursor to what can or will happen to the nation as a whole. San Francisco has the nation’s largest income gap inequality, skyrocketing rents, and an economically forced mass migration of people of color further and further outside the city.”
Having managed Boudin’s campaign to victory, Williams knows what it takes to sell a leftist vision to voters in all of San Francisco’s 11 districts.
“So many San Franciscans are tired of hearing the same bullshit,” she said.
“They want real answers about why they’re being forced out and what their local representatives are going to do about it. The last citywide race where the progressive candidate won was in 1988 (Art Agnos for Mayor). Since then, San Francisco has been controlled by the moderates and conservatives who have continuously divested from public good and cuddled up to corporate interest.”
“With wins for the left in SF, residents are now seeing material good come to the working class of the city. This immediate good is seen with Chesa Boudin ending cash bail and racist gang enhancements on day one, and Dean Preston making real headway towards opening a navigation center in District 5. Folks are seeing these changes and become less disillusioned with the entire political system and start to have higher expectations from their representation. We don’t just want crumbs; we have the power to demand the whole loaf.”
That’s why Shahid Buttar’s campaign thinks it’s time for Nancy Pelosi to go.
“Theater is no substitute for governance,” said Buttar. “Speaker Pelosi is ‘brand resistance.’ That is, entirely theatrical. It has been from the get-go: the finger-pointing in the Oval Office, the clap back last year at the State of the Union, the walking out of the office with the shades and the red coat. All of those things are theater. And she gets lauded for theatrical resistance, while at every point when it actually matters what she does, she’s paving Trump’s path.”
For the left, outside of her notable decades of LGBTQ+ advocacy, Nancy Pelosi has continuously failed to meet even the lowest of standards to call herself “a left-wing San Francisco liberal.” As an activist with two decades of experience in the Bay Area and DC— beginning as a Stanford Law student organizing anti-Iraq war protests, then combating racial and religious profiling with Muslim Advocates and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and most recently at the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)—Buttar had a front-row seat every time Pelosi supported the right’s agenda.
“At every discrete point that Pelosi has, sadly, empowered his agenda, I would have made other choices,” he said. “Pelosi whipped the Democratic Party to support Trump’s trade deal. She whipped votes to support his foreign policy and the right-wing coups in Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela in the last year alone. She whipped votes in favor of funding Trump’s concentration camps. And, on every one of those issues, I’d be on the other side, actually on the side of We the People of the United States and the Democratic Party, instead of its corporate donors.”
But Pelosi’s tendency to walk the conservative line didn’t start during the Trump years. For decades, the Speaker has nurtured a bipartisan blindspot around civil liberties. As a Muslim law student at Stanford during the 9/11 attacks, Buttar watched terrified as the Democrats, with Pelosi as an enthusiastic member, willingly participated in the post-9/11 decimation of American’s constitutional rights. It was all too familiar to Buttar as the son of immigrants who fled Pakistan for Great Britain (where he was born) to escape religious persecution, only to move again to the United States in 1976 to escape post-colonial racism.
“9/11 kicked off a sustained, ongoing dissolution [of] the Democratic Party as a guardian of the people’s interest,” he said. “I’ve come to see it increasingly as a corporate authoritarian party, wielding a false claim to civil liberties as a pretense for legitimacy. I’ve seen a wholesale failure of the center-left to acknowledge the civil liberties that have long made this country great. The civil liberties that created the set of opportunities that draw people from around the world here. It’s that set of liberties that drew my family here.”
For Buttar, the Democrats and Pelosi cannot call themselves “liberal.” At least not honestly.
“It’s not liberal to support mass surveillance. It’s not liberal to condone indefinite detention. It’s not liberal to look the other way on torture, to cover it up. It’s not liberal to accept paramilitarization of the police or the metastasis of mass incarceration. Liberals have done every one of those things,” he said. “Those are authoritarian positions.”
Arguably the most worrisome move of them all—Pelosi’s continued support of the Patriot Act—spurred his organizing into action. While balancing his final year of Stanford Law School with a teaching assistant position in constitutional law, Buttar organized more than 500 students to join the historic San Francisco protests against the invasion of Iraq.
Unfortunately, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, Buttar saw the government move to suppress protest movements and undermine civil liberties.
“The contemporary designation of activists in the Movement for Black Lives as ‘black identity extremists’ by the FBI is COINTELPRO 2.0.,” Buttar said. “I see the thread through here and [through the way] that 9/11 is used as a pretext to deny my neighbors the opportunity to organize simply for the right not to be shot by our own supposed public servants arbitrarily, with impunity. It demonstrates how authoritarianism—in the same way that rights and oppression are intersectional, authoritarianism is intersectional, too.”
Intersectionality has been one of the primary drivers of Buttar’s career advocating for LGBTQ+ and international human rights, privacy, the right to encryption, government transparency, and police accountability. During one of his last major campaigns at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights organization, Buttar was able to combine many of the issues he had worked so hard on over the years, advocating for San Francisco’s ban on facial recognition technology, the first in the nation, and fighting for local restrictions on police surveillance all over the Bay Area. As a result of the work of Buttar and many other activists, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Board passed EFF-endorsed anti-surveillance measures.
Of these efforts to collect more data, Buttar noted that “It’s that pattern of police taking liberties to execute powers that they don’t have beyond the law. And then never facing accountability for it on the rare instance that they’re caught is also not only a pattern, but you can think of that as a one-way ratchet to aggrandized executive power from the local level to the federal level.”
Professional experiences like these, as well as personal ones like growing up the son of Pakistani immigrants in the tiny town of Rosebud, Missouri, are why Buttar is so vocal about the ways our government has failed immigrants who came to the United States searching for a better life. Pelosi, in particular, draws his ire for her misuse of the powers at her disposal to the detriment of immigrants and the values San Franciscans hold dear.
“This is a sanctuary city, but she supported federal policies that shred immigrant rights,” he said. “This is a city [where] the United Nations was founded, but she swept CIA torture under the rug, and this is a home of the peace and justice movement, but she’s funded wars for 20 years. This is a bastion of the global climate justice movement, and she opposes the Green New Deal, deriding it as ‘the Green Dream or whatever.’ In every one of these areas, I see Nancy Pelosi taking positions vastly to the right of San Francisco. San Francisco deserves a full-throated champion of human rights. That’s what this city stands for. That’s what our representative in Congress should stand for. She has been nothing of the sort.”
It’s this sharp critique that Buttar and his campaign believe will win them a victory. In fact, the campaign says they have more resources on hand at this point in the campaign than in any previous effort to unseat Pelosi. With 1,200 weekly volunteers in the city and remote support from thousands more all over the country, the campaign is ready for the fight.
Many talented San Franciscans have joined Buttar’s campaign. Jasper Wilde, Buttar’s campaign manager, has been a big part of Buttar’s success so far. This is the first campaign she’s managed, but Wilde has worked or volunteered for many of San Francisco’s major progressive candidates including Jane Kim’s run for mayor in 2018, Li Miao Lovett’s run for school board in 2018, and, of course, Dean Preston, District 5 Supervisor, and Chesa Boudin, District Attorney. After more than a dozen years working in specialty coffee (and even recording a feminist coffee podcast called “Boss Barista”), she decided she was ready to switch to politics full-time.
The opportunity came faster than she anticipated. Brandon Harami, a friend of Wilde’s from the Jane Kim campaign, reached out to see if she’d be interested in running Buttar’s 2020 campaign. After a strong showing in 2018, Harami said he knew that Buttar has what it takes to unseat Pelosi.
“What people really like about Shahid is the fact he’s a real, working-class person running to represent the average San Franciscans,” said Harami, the co-chair of San Francisco Berniecrats, one of the organizations that has endorsed Buttar. “Pelosi is a wealthy, white woman living in a mansion in San Francisco’s most affluent area, while Shahid is a working-class, Muslim renter living in the Haight. The differences are huge and if we want to ensure we have a government that represents the working class, then we need to elect working-class representation.”
Wilde knew from the beginning that she supported Buttar, but she wasn’t sure if she was ready to lead a campaign.
“Brandon reached out to me and he said, ‘Shahid needs a campaign manager. Are you interested?’ I thought, ‘Oh, absolutely not. I don’t even know what I would do. But I will meet him.’ And, I met him, and we hit it off so well. He’s a lot of fun and he’s encouraging, optimistic and hopeful, and I wasn’t expecting that.”
She added, “He had the energy that needed me to win.”
After meeting him, Wilde took a month to do some soul-searching and decide if Buttar was the right candidate for her to take this step with. Ultimately, she decided it was the right time and the right campaign.
“This race is the second most important race in the country,” she said. “It’s Bernie first, and then it’s Shahid. It’s so important for us to recognize what we have to do, and working people know this. Sometimes you have to stand up to the boss. Sometimes, you have to say you know what, I’m not going to take this, this is not working for me. [This isn’t] the kind of party I want, not the kind of city I want. And that’s why we’re in this race.”
When asked what she liked most about Buttar, Wilde responded that “Shahid is always hopeful…He is always seeing things for the potential benefit. That’s very inspiring to work for. And it’s definitely needed when you are a scrappy campaign where no consultants will touch you, even quote-unquote progressive[s] won’t bother answering your calls, and you are going up against the most powerful Democrat in the country. You have to have that optimism that says, ‘We can do this because we have the people. We can do this–it’s not just him, it’s the people–because there are many of us. And there are a few of them.’”
Wilde might be onto something; that optimism is spreading. So far in this cycle, his campaign has raised more than $475,000 from 10,000 people—already close to 10 times their 2018 totals in both metrics—and they are confident they’ll cross the half-million mark before the March 3rd primary.
This is helped in large part by Nancy Pelosi herself. Any time the Speaker makes the front page for another paper-thin protest against Trump’s agenda, Buttar’s campaign breaks fundraising records.
“We made $8,000 the day Pelosi started texting constituents,” Wilde said. “We see this over and over again whenever Pelosi is in the news. Whenever the American people are reminded that Pelosi exists, they want to replace her.”
Buttar is confident he and his team are the ones to do it, in no small part due to the wins of local progressives and socialists before him.
“I have certainly benefited from [this] growing body of socialist movement here in San Francisco,” says Buttar. “I think that the wave of socialism is bigger than any of us. We’re figureheads, but we’re nothing more. I feel strongly that movements make the figureheads, not the other way around. So I would say that I was produced by that same primordial soup.”
That local movement has grown over the last four years thanks in part to Senator Bernie Sanders and the revitalized left, and he hopes the streak continues.
“Between the air war” (TV ads), “the ground war” (volunteers), “ the endorsements, the discourse, the dissatisfaction of the city, I think all of those things are going to come together, and if Bernie’s at the top of the ticket in November, Pelosi will not stand a chance,” Buttar said.
He does see one hope for the Speaker to retain her seat: if she brings a Medicare for All bill to the House floor. But, in this one instance, he’s not optimistic.
“I think [a Medicare for All bill] might protect her seat, but she’s been a tiger for 30 years. I don’t expect her stripes to change in the next eight months.”