In the grand ballroom of the Hilton Union Square, in the heart of San Francisco, hundreds of Democratic delegates, campaign members and presidential candidates recently attended the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee.
Among the flurry of party officials and media members was Shahid Buttar, the Democratic candidate for Congress in California’s 12th District. Just outside the grand ballroom, volunteers for the Buttar campaign handed out leaflets to passersby.
Buttar attended the University of Chicago, but was forced to go to work and take classes at night when his family’s home went through foreclosure.
It was all part of a campaign for Congress that Buttar hopes is gaining traction despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
In fact, “seemingly insurmountable odds” might be an understatement: Buttar faces House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Democratic primary. The 12th District in San Francisco is Pelosi’s stronghold. Beating her there would be an uphill battle regardless of the challenger. Undaunted, Buttar believes he has what it takes.
“I often tell people I don’t have aspirations, but I have very deep seated frustrations, and I have freakishly deep preparation for this,” he says.
I first met Buttar in a cafe in the Haight. He was instantly noticeable, with a long beard and his hair tied into a tight bun. He speaks in long, erudite sentences in which he often provides multiple examples to prove one point, or ties together two or three ideas in one swoop. Buttar is an encyclopedia of intersectionality. He introduces himself as an ‘intersectional feminist’, and is quick to make connections between different matters of race, gender, politics, and economics. He tells me that people often say he ‘campaigns like a professor’.
Shahid’s background is as eclectic as his perspective.
He is an immigrant His family came to the U.S. in 1976, having previously emigrated to Great Britain from Pakistan. Buttar attended the University of Chicago, but was forced to go to work and take classes at night when his family’s home went through foreclosure. During this time, he did presentation work at several big-name companies, including Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan Chase, before writing an award-winning thesis on “radical redistribution in the market economy.”
He describes himself as a “culture jammer,” organizer, and “interdisciplinary liberation agent.”
At one point, he unsuccessfully applied to the U.S. Foreign Service, but says he was denied a security clearance because of his ideology.
Buttar later graduated from Stanford law school and proceeded to become a constitutional lawyer. His most notable work includes having defended the mayor of New Paltz, New York, after his decision to marry same-sex couples, and acting as a counsel for a Muslim advocacy group working to combat FBI infiltration of activist organizations.
Buttar is also an independent journalist, and in 2015 was arrested at a Senate hearing when he questioned then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on mass surveillance. Over the past few years, Buttar has worked with the digital advocacy organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He has also been involved in several nonprofit and grassroots advocacy organizations, including the Fund for Constitutional Government, the Center for Media Justice and Defending Rights and Dissent.
Shahid also pursues creative endeavors as a poet and DJ. He describes himself as a “culture jammer,” organizer, and “interdisciplinary liberation agent.” In 2018, Buttar ran a campaign for the 12th District’s House seat, and ended up capturing about 18,000 votes, about 8.5% of the total primary ballots cast; Pelosi won over 140,000.
“She does raise more money than anyone in congress … and she will certainly dwarf me in fundraising.” — Shahid Buttar
Now, Buttar says, he has enough momentum to try again in 2020.
However, there is one big problem: Pelosi.
Nancy Pelosi, 79, has dominated the 12th District for more than 30 years. Pelosi has succeeded in gaining the position of House Speaker twice in her career, and is the only woman to have ever reached that high of an office. Additionally, she is a prodigious fund-raiser and is the most powerful elected Democrat in Washington today.
Shahid acknowledges Pelosi’s fundraising prowess “She does raise more money than anyone in congress … and she will certainly dwarf me in fundraising, but I don’t think it’s going to help her. If we continue at our current pace without escalating we’ll raise about $1.2 million between now and the general, which is enough to mount a city-wide campaign.”
In the 2018 general election, she beat Republican challenger Lisa Remmer by 275,000 votes to Remmer’s 41,000. Pelosi, although under fire from many in her own party for failing to urge impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, remains an especially popular figure in the Democrats’ inner circle. At the recent DNC meeting in San Francisco, Pelosi gave the opening address and was met with not only an impassioned introduction by Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez, but a standing ovation from the crowd.
“I don’t think you can support the Trump administration as much as she has and still win a city-wide election in San Francisco in 2019,” — Shahid Buttar
Shahid looks at things a little differently.
“I’m doing this [running for office] because I can’t tolerate seeing a city this progressive being represented in such a conservative fashion,” Buttar says. In his view, Speaker Pelosi’s leadership has been ineffective in the face of a myriad of issues. When going against Trump, corporate power, the mounting climate crisis, and the present situation at the southern border “this is not a time for business as usual,” says Buttar.
So what is his strategy for defeating one of America’s most powerful politicians?
“I have a great deal of confidence in my neighbors,” he says.
“Our platform is closer to the district’s” he continues. “I don’t think you can support the Trump administration as much as she has and still win a city-wide election in San Francisco in 2019 … It’s not just the fact that the Speaker has been so unfortunately complicit with the kleptocrat, I think also the alternative I present … [embodies] the city’s values and its character in the way that the incumbent doesn’t, and that’s why I think we’re gonna win.”
Shahid isn’t entirely dismissive of Pelosi. He readily calls her a ‘storied leader’ who has “done great wonders for women in terms of breaking glass ceilings.” He cites her work on securing AIDS research in the 1990s as a much-needed response to help her constituency, and is thankful to her for founding the progressive caucus.
He says Medicare for All would not only improve the security of ordinary Americans, but would spark an economic stimulus comparable to the creation of the Internet or the interstate highway system.
But, he quickly adds, when Pelosi became Speaker of the House for the first time, she “slid very dramatically to the right.”
“She has been the constraint of the progressive caucus’s aspirations for the last decade,” Shahid explains “Which is to say as we need to challenge the Republicans, to gain a consensus for progressive policies, we have to remove the impediments within the Democratic party on progressive alternatives to our failed corporate paradigm, and she is the principal one among those obstacles.”
He believes Pelosi’s refusal to launch immediate impeachment proceedings against the president reflects an abrogation of duty, a perception that he believes resonates in the 12th District.
“To me that is disqualifying, it is unacceptable. It is an abdication of an entire set of constitutional responsibilities,” Shahid says, growing impassioned.
Buttar is an ardent supporter of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and an end to the immigration crisis at the southern border.
He says Medicare for All would not only improve the security of ordinary Americans, but would spark an economic stimulus comparable to the creation of the Internet or the interstate highway system, simply because of the relief such a policy would give to employers normally required to provide private insurance to their workers.
“These are fiscal [stimuli] enabled by government investment that have led to any number of jobs. We haven’t done that in a generation, and it’s long overdue. Medicare for All is that as well as an expansion of human rights, an increase of human security, an improvement in our healthcare outcomes, and a dramatic lever to drive down cost,” Buttar says.
He said his campaign has about 5,000 donors, significantly more than he was able to get in 2018. He’s also seeing more press attention. While his 2018 run had sparse press coverage, 2019 has been more favorable.
The same goes for the Green New Deal. Shahid believes that it is a twin solution to two crises facing the country. Not only, he says, would the Green New Deal help to combat the climate crisis, but the federal jobs guarantee included in it would help to increase the security of working people while also building climate resilience.
Buttar is just as passionate about the issue of immigration.
In July he visited the southern border to observe the conditions of the immigrant detention facilities there. Buttar previously called Pelosi ‘complicit’ for her inaction on the crisis at the border, since Pelosi was one of 130 Democrats that voted for a border aid package totaling more than $4.6 billion. That aid package included hundreds of millions for new detention centers and ICE, while having few protections for the immigrant families in question. The decision to pass the package through was seen by some as a major political defeat for Pelosi.
Buttar said his campaign this time around not only has ample funding, but also hundreds of volunteers — with dozens active on any given day. At the time of our conversation, Shahid tells me that he has a crew of volunteers at a farmers market in Richmond, and has plans to go to an anti-ICE action as well as two smaller home gatherings with supporters, all in the same day.
He said his campaign has about 5,000 donors, significantly more than he was able to get in 2018. He’s also seeing more press attention. While his 2018 run had sparse press coverage, 2019 has been more favorable. The Buttar campaign has been profiled by publications like Mother Jones, Jacobin Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and Salon, and Buttar himself has been quoted in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Hill. Additionally, Shahid has been featured on a multitude of online progressive outlets, including the Michael Brooks Show, the Majority Report with Sam Seder, and The Young Turks.
All of this results in “freakishly more visibility” than he had anticipated, which is materializing into some significant support. Shahid says that he is currently receiving support from all fifty states plus DC and Puerto Rico, from every city in the Bay Area, and from every neighborhood in San Francisco. Even at the DNC meeting, with the upper echelon of the Democratic Party present, Buttar was still getting noticed, and the same goes for throughout the city;
“I can’t walk down the street without somebody shouting me out,” he says.
Editort’s Note: Joaquin Romero is a Capitol Weekly intern from UC Riverside.