Shahid Buttar Wants to Take Back San Francisco For the Left

The underdog candidate running against Nancy Pelosi says the House Speaker is rich, entitled and out of touch.

Hamilton Nolan

Santiago Mejia/ The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

As a pandemic-wracked nation hopes desperately for Congressional Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, to negotiate a new relief package, it can be easy to forget that the House Speaker is in the midst of a reelection race as well. Her opponent is Shahid Buttar, a Muslim immigrant, attorney, and activist who says that Pelosi is not a true progressive, and that his own leftist politics — embracing Medicare For All, the Green New Deal and defunding the police — are more suited to the San Francisco district. 

(Buttar’s campaign has been hobbled by accusations of mistreatment and sexism by members of his former staff, which he vehemently denies. A detailed dive into those issues can be found here.)

We spoke to Buttar about the election, pandemic relief and the future of the Left in the Democratic Party. 

Some progressives, like Ro Khanna, have called for Nancy Pelosi to take the stimulus bill that’s on the table now, given the urgency of the times. What are your thoughts on how she’s handled the negotiations on this relief package? 

Shahid Buttar: I connect it to the preceding failure. It’s hard to extricate from the last nine months of the House basically, under Pelosi’s leadership, failing to meet the needs of the American people. It’s been nine months that this can’s been getting kicked down the road. There’s an eviction wave sweeping the country. People, even the lucky ones who aren’t dying alone gasping for breath, are hit with massive medical bills around the pandemic. Families are in crisis. People don’t know how to feed themselves. This is not the time to be delaying the relief that people so desperately need. 

So what do you think her best move is, strategically? 

Buttar: I certainly think that urgency requires taking what’s available, then fighting for more. To be clear, she’s done exactly that before. This spring [with the CARES Act], she took what was available at the time. It was pennies. She did this before, accepting the fast deal that frankly included very little relief for the American people. As it was reported a few days ago, the latest offer from the administration was $1.8 trillion. That’s three times the amount of stimulus after the 2008 financial crisis… $1.8 trillion is nothing to sneeze at. And that’s what the Speaker has been doing while people are challenged and their backs are to the wall. I think one of the big issues is that the Speaker, as a wealthy person, is effectively insulated from the pressures that everyone else confronts. Yes, she’s the head of the Democratic Party, but she also has class issues and class perspectives that seem to blind her to the reality that so many of the rest of us have to confront. 

I’m sure you saw Wolf Blitzer’s interview with Pelosi last week on CNN, when she seemed to dismiss his urging to take the money on the table. Do you think she doesn’t grasp the gravity of what’s happening? 

Buttar: I think the thing that we saw in that interview was simply entitlement. And I would say that it was positively Trumpian. And I’ll get sharper with that: The last time Nancy Pelosi debated anyone, Ronald Reagan was the president. The internet had not been invented yet. For someone who refuses to defend her ideas in public to then grow indignant on the rare occasion that someone asks her a challenging question just reveals the deep-seated entitlement, and frankly disrespect for democracy, that characterizes the Speaker’s tenure. 

You’ve spoken about Pelosi embodying the brand of resistance,” but not the substance. What do you mean by that, and what do you see as your most substantive policy differences? 

Buttar: The Speaker’s rhetoric rarely matches her record. In terms of defining substantive differences, she’s committed to for-profit predatory health care that places the profits of corporate health insurance companies before the needs of patients, and before public health. She’s committed to the fossil fuel industry, and derides the Green New Deal as a dream”… I was clamoring for impeachment [of Trump] from the day I entered the race. It took her a year to show up, and when she did finally show up for impeaching the president, she did it like a boxer throwing a fight. Because she limited the process to a single charge that was the weakest one available. And the result of that process was entirely predictable. [A piece I wrote] made the point that we have to impeach the president specifically for corruption. That’s the way to bring him down — emoluments clause violations. 

As we think about Justice Ginsburg’s legacy, and Pelosi’s — she might claim to support Ginsburg, but this year, while Ginsburg was still on the bench, Pelosi endorsed two different Democratic incumbents who oppose reproductive rights: Dan Lipinski in Illinois, who lost his primary to Marie Newman, and Henry Cuellar in Texas, who won his primary against Jessica Cisneros. So in two different races, Pelosi protected anti-choice incumbents against challenges from women who support reproductive rights. That is directly contrary to Justice Ginsburg’s legacy. 

[Senator Dianne] Feinstein also comes from San Francisco. She’s the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She’s taken a lot of very appropriate heat for failing entirely in the recent confirmation hearings. It is striking to me that between one Senator paving the road for Barrett, and the Speaker of the House that failed to block the nomination, both from the same city that is a proudly progressive city, and neither of them have been held to account for it. 

It seems to be hard to dislodge Pelosi by attacking from the left. Is San Francisco’s progressive reputation in electoral politics somewhat overblown? 

Buttar: Our federal voices are decidedly, at least in the cases of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Pelosi, conservative, at least relative to the city. Another way to put this is that the self-described progressive establishment in San Francisco places its fidelity to power before its own principles.

Biden is obviously not a leftist candidate, but the left is more or less forced to support him. What do you think a Biden administration would look like in terms of the priorities of the left? 

Buttar: I’m assured that whoever wins the presidency in this election will be decidedly more conservative than the country. I see Biden’s legacy on everything from judicial nominations to policing as deeply problematic, and I frankly don’t have a great deal of hope for progressive motion through his administration. That’s one reason it’s so crucial to send to Congress voices from the left who will hold his feet to the fire, and hold him accountable… I’ve often said that the most important thing is post-election engagement. And I’d love to see, frankly, a general strike happen in this country, whether it’s Trump or Biden in the White House. We need to have a long-overdue assertion of worker power. And the political parties have failed to even meaningfully represent those issues, let alone pass policies that address them. 

What was your analysis of Bernie Sanders’ loss in the primaries? 

Buttar: One that emerges for me was the rallying of millions of people around the country, who didn’t have a voice in politics before, around his candidacy. I dare say that Bernie Sanders revitalized democracy in America. I shed tears the day that he suspended his campaign, not only because he inspired me to run… but also by seeing his campaign reflect a movement allegiance before a traditional political one. I saw a cabal of centrists effectively coalesce in what would frankly be an antitrust violation if it happened among companies. There was collusion among every one of the centrist candidates who dropped out to endorse Biden. I’ve often said that one of the things I want to do in Congress is to extend antitrust laws into political markets. 

The last dynamic I observed here was the unfortunate role of what I’d describe as campaign staff in the decision for him to suspend his campaign. I thought Bernie’s decision to suspend his campaign was unfortunately probably the worst decision he made of the entire campaign… Ultimately I think it was compelled by staff who had their own interests. 

How have the disputes you’ve had with your own staff, which led to the Democratic Socialists of America withdrawing its endorsement, affected your campaign? 

Buttar: I’ve basically been the target of a politically motivated and racialized smear campaign in which the city’s entire progressive establishment participated… for press outlets to run those stories in the first place is unethical, biased, inaccurate and racist. 

What do you think a second Trump term would mean for America?

Buttar: An unending parade of horrors. I mean it. I can see a very likely possibility of hammer-fisted authoritarianism. Rounding up political enemies. They’re already rounding up migrants, and detaining them en masse, subjecting them to forced sterilization. Human rights abuses are normalized. They’re in plain sight. 

Covid infections are already catastrophic. I can see it growing worse if Trump is reelected, if only because he seems so hell-bent on doing everything he can to spread the contagion and drive people into their graves. I can see a Trump administration particularly accelerating a global climate catastrophe. To be frank, this is another area where I don’t think Biden is going to help as much. The climate chaos is already killing Californians, and it’s almost as if nobody in Washington cares. Particularly our city’s voices in Washington. Feinstein and Pelosi both come from San Francisco. The skies here were blood-red at high noon a month ago, on September 9, because of the particulate matter in the atmosphere from the wildfires. And yet we can’t find someone in Washington to back the Green New Deal. 

You’ve been involved in all facets of left politics, from nonprofits to law to activism. What has your foray into electoral politics taught you about winning power for the left? 

Buttar: One would be to look at receipts — when you’re voting, look for people who’ve done the work before running. Two, I would encourage our movement to stay focused on issues and not personalities… Maybe another way I’d put that is that the movement has seemed to grow distracted by identity issues that undermine our ability to project power on behalf of classes and populations that are abused by weaponized military industrial capital, and the sordid self promoting interests of people who perceive politics as opportunity or career, as distinct from a liberatory exercise to stand in solidarity with timeless principles and marginalized people.

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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