Shahid Buttar has denied accusations of sexual harassment from a former colleague and misogyny from former staffers.

Shahid Buttar arrives for an interview at a corner cafe carrying a small stepladder. He will, hours later, be hanging art for the official launch of his campaign for Congress in 2020. But it’s a fitting allegory for a man with quite an obstacle to surmount.

Buttar, 44, isn’t just running for any old seat in Congress. He’s running a Democratic Party primary challenge for the seat held, for quite some time, by Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi. The Speaker of the House, the nation’s preeminent political tactician, a prodigious fund-raiser, and the lady who condescendingly golf-clapped at Donald Trump during the State of the Union address after humiliating him in a cringe-worthy televised exchange.

Fair enough. He thinks he can take her.

“We don’t have the indices yet to demonstrate the earthquake across our national body politic — a generational transition is happening,” says the Democratic Socialist. “Young people radicalized by the financial crisis of 2008 are not arrayed on any political map.” They are too far to the left to be registered, he holds. These are his people, and his potential voters.

The political spectrum is sliding to the left. I am here to recapture the Democratic Party for labor and the left. Under the Clintons, with Pelosi, the party was co-opted by capital.”

Buttar is a tall, thin man with long salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a bun, a drooping Kevin Durant beard, and a propensity for scarves. He speaks quickly and uses lengthy, complex sentences perhaps more befitting the Stanford-educated Constitutional lawyer he is than the aspirational politician he also is.

And while Buttar’s life story is different from any politician you’ve ever heard of, it is, when you think about it, a compelling life story for a politician.

Shahid Buttar amassed some 18,000 votes in his 2018 run vs. Pelosi. But he was a late entry into the race. With four times as much time to campaign leading up to the 2020 race, he thinks he can do better.

Buttar’s parents emigrated from Pakistan to Great Britain before he was born to escape religious persecution (the family belongs to a sect of Islam called Ahmadiyya that Buttar says is the Muslim equivalent of Unitarianism). The family then left Britain to escape post-colonial racism in 1976, when Buttar was two, and moved to the rural American Midwest: Rosebud, Missouri, population 320, a no-stoplight town. And that was great.

“People there were, frankly, lovely to us,” he recalls. “There was a literal welcoming committee coming to our front door with baked goods.”

Buttar feels his childhood memories are of America at its best. His subsequent experiences were not as idyllic. His family’s home was foreclosed upon when he was a freshman at the University of Chicago, and he spent the better part of the next decade bouncing around jobs by day while amassing university courses at night. He did graphic presentation work for Merrill Lynch, Saloman Smith Barney, JP Morgan and other captains of industry. These were eye-opening experiences, and, not coincidentally, he would write an undergraduate thesis about “radical redistribution in the market economy.” This won a statewide prize, and Buttar caught the attention of Stanford law school.

And that put him on his current trajectory: A young attorney defending the mayor of New Paltz, New York, who opted to marry same-sex couples; staff counsel for a Muslim advocacy group combating FBI infiltration into activist groups, and, for the past four years, an advocacy director with the digital civil rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It’s partly this work against big-government surveillance that spurs Buttar in a political quest he laughingly likens to public immolation. For while Pelosi demonstrably — and theatrically — kneecapped the president in his quest for a Medieval border wall, Buttar claims she’s hardly countered him on something he considers more insidious: “the surveillance net across the country that corporate Democrats accept and even embrace.”

If, by some alchemy, Shahid Buttar dispatched a 17-term Congresswoman at the apogee of her political power and popularity, what would he push for?

Well, for one, he’d advocate for Washington State Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Medicare-For-All legislation. He’d champion the Green New Deal. And he’d move to end mass surveillance.

Pelosi, in her 16 successful defenses of her seat, has faced some unusual competitors. There was anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who chalked up the 2008 fiscal meltdown to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush “leveraging things.” And there was Libertarian John Dennis, who may or may not have wanted to privatize your sidewalk and released a Crazy Eddie-quality commercial of Dennis throwing a bucket of water on a Nancy Pelosi Wicked Witch of the West.

A decade ago, Shahid Buttar was counsel for the group Muslim Advocates. He describes then-FBI boss Robert Mueller III as “my principal nemesis. … I knew him as a right-wing affectuator of authoritarianism.

Running for office against Nancy Pelosi is crazy. But Buttar is not crazy. His advocacy for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal probably hews closer to what most San Franciscans would want than Pelosi’s own positions. Buttar accuses the speaker of being not a climate denier but a “climate delayer.” To him, this is the worse crime. Rather than being a fool or anti-science, she is intelligent and understands science — and is still not moving for sweeping action. “That,” he says, “is the most damning indictment of a representative.”

Buttar, too, is no fool. He knows the monumental task at hand of unseating a 17-term Congresswoman who raises cash with the skill Jimi Hendrix displayed at strumming a guitar and may be the nation’s premier political general. But there’s winning and there’s winning. And if some of his positions force the Speaker to modify hers, there is some solace in that.

But a lot can happen between now and 2020 and, hours before his ceremonial entry into the race, Buttar is in no mood to talk about moral victories. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knocked off 20-year Congressman Joe Crowley, after all, and he was seen as unbeatable, too. If Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise continues and if Bernie Sanders is atop the forthcoming  Democratic ticket — who knows? Maybe Buttar’s quest won’t be so quixotic after all.

A man can dream.

“Look, I’m no sycophant to the founders. But the Constitution and Bill of Rights — they mean something,” he says. “My family moved here to be free. I don’t want to see freedom slip through my fingers on my watch.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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25 Comments

  1. A very interesting profile, thanks. This is how democracy works and I wish him the best.

    I’ll be proudly voting for Nancy Pelosi but I do appreciate his enthusiasm and now know to keep an eye on him.

    1. I hope you change your mind. I don’t think Pelosi deserves to represent SF constituents anymore. She’s invested in the expansion of surveillance capitalism, has primarily committed to restoring the Paris Agreement when it relates to the Green New Deal, and still supports the private insurance system. Sigh.

      1. I am impressed by his background. I believe the Democratic Party needs to get a new and vibrant vision for the Country and this person may just be that

    2. Proudly voting for N. Pelosi who remains utterly silent in the face of Murdoch’s
      innuendos for a violent approach to Omar, a progressive Democratic. Perhaps
      this sits well in your book. Perhaps, it is okay for the leader of the Democratic
      Party to utter not one peep to cut short Murdoch ordered infamy. Perhaps, it
      is just fine with you that the leader of the Democratic Party does not publicly
      shame such repugnant dangerous verbiage. Perhaps, it is meaningless to you
      that Pelosi – rather than creatively working with the Progressive wing – is instead
      passive aggressive in sniping about Ocasio=Cortez. Perhaps, open mindedness
      and a passion to support the needs of tomorrow’s children is of no import for
      you.

    3. What kind of an interview was that? There is but one relevant question to ask of Yoda the Grey: Are you a Communist?

  2. Pelosi has been ripe for departure for years now. The only issue, as you noted, was getting a credible candidate to challenge her. Buttar may be the guy. While Pelosi has had a successful career, it is not clear what she’s done for SF. For years now, she has defended and protected the “intelligence community” including the WMD debacle and as Buttar points out, she’s been a major facilitator in the creation of the surveillance state. She was also a key figure in gutting the Public Option from the ACA, once again protecting Insurance Company profits over health care. It’s not Pelosi’s age which makes it time for her to go. And it’s not her “ideology”. It is her “pragmatic” politics that have undermined progressives and liberals for a generation.

  3. Joe,

    You forget Krissy Keefer who got more votes than any of Pelosi’s
    challengers.

    Around 17%?

    Pelosi, of course, never campaigned.

    The Cohens lent the Keefer campaign their motor home and they
    loaded on the whole company of ‘Dance Brigade’ and we stole
    a copy of Newsom’s venue and arrived just ahead of him at each
    stop.

    Clever, huh.

    Ever try to park a motorhome in major neighborhoods on Halloween?

    It was cool.

    We’d pull up at the next site on Gavin’s list just before Newsom and
    the dancers got out with their conga drums and danced and played
    and it worked for Gavin too.

    Night ended with pro-longed gunfire within the block where we
    were parked …

    And, that was the end of Halloween in the Castro.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  4. I am so hopeful he will unseat Pelosi. Her support for private insurance companies, minimal commitment to just restore the Paris Climate Accord and helping surveillance capitalism to expand do not represent the majority voices of San Franciscans. Pelosi’s got to go!

  5. The Affordable Care Act, the signature legislation of the Obama Presidency and the most significant public healthcare legislation since MediCare, was going down in flames in 2010 and would have never ever ever passed if it weren’t for the experience, tenacity and the leveraging of lifelong political relationships by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

    Ditto regarding the substantial political defeats delivered to Trump with the rise of the 116th Congress.

    Pelosi is by no means perfect — but she’s damn good.

    I’ll vote for her as long as she’s willing to serve.

    1. We can recognize her leadership and achievements, and acknowledge the successes while also critique that she no longer represents what the people want, right?

    2. How could it go down in flames when the democrats controlled the white house and both houses? Pelosi has benn beholden o big corporate donors and works against the will of the people. Democrats lost over 1000 seats around the country with her as speaker. She’s been the most effective REPUBLICAN representative since she took office. WTF has she accomplished, more war? bigger tax cuts for the wealthy? She’s got to go!

  6. I knew Shahid many years ago as a poet and activist and am thrilled to see he is running to unseat Pelosi. Shahid has been a dedicated activist for decades and is an intelligent and conscientious many who isn’t afraid to stick to his principles. As someone who was gentrified out of San Francisco years ago I can’t vote for him, but I just made a donation to his campaign and will be letting everyone I know who still lives in SF that they need to take a serious look.

  7. That the House leader of the Democratic Party is passive-aggressive (sniping) towards Ocasio=Cortez
    is bad enough. Isn’t a leader one who passionately working for inclusiveness? Worse, is her Silence
    in the face of attacks by Republicans and nastiness by Murdoch’s minions on Ocasio-Cortez and Omar.
    A true leader would not go Silent but sharply indict those who mess with Democrat members of the
    House. Why? Because of the low impulse control, suggestability and mental instability of White Supremists
    whose brutality the People have already witnessed. Pelosi’s and Hoyer’s Silence in lieu of Truth telling
    allows an even bigger space for such nastiness, indeed, colludes with it. Is Pelosi’s Silence okay with you?

  8. Here’s a thought. There are a number of Congressional Republicans still in California. Run again them. They’re the ones we need out, NOT Nancy.

  9. Pelosy much like Biden, is more Republican than Democrat. She has been sliding the party right for so long, It is basically one one party now… owned by the 1%!

  10. there is this language reporters perpetually ascribe to nancy pelosi that is both counterfactual & undeserved: “the nation’s preeminent political tactician, “a political general,” & “at the apogee of her political power & popularity.” besides getting romney-care legislation (the aca was based on a proposal from the conservative, paul weyrich-founded think tank, the heritage foundation) passed with a democratic super majority, name 1 piece of legislation pelosi was the driving force of that didn’t end up a center-right/right-wing concession to the gop & american plutocracy (of which she is a member, being a multimillionaire herself)… stumped? that’s because there isn’t one — pelosi is not the “master legislator” nor political tactician the media makes her out to be. she’s a neoliberal democrat who advocates for & institutes policies that have decimated the middle & lower classes of america. even when the democrats are in power, they engage in an incessant campaign of preemptive surrender to the gop & donor class under the guise of “getting things done” (the same b.s. biden is currently espousing as his preeminent credentials for the democratic presidential nomination.) additionally, this declaration of pelosi’s “popularity” with the democratic base is exaggerated — she’s primarily lavished with praise by her fellow elites in the microcosm of the d.c. establishment. this unmerited worship also stems from the establishment+legacy media disseminating, without reservation & healthy skepticism, this deceptive mythology about her political skill. so please media, spare us these endless attributions of pelosi’s prowess as a politician — it bears no resemblance to her actual record & her real positions on policy. she’s a wealthy neoliberal who, when juxtaposed to the legitimate insanity of the right-wing, enables her to maintain the facade that she’s on the left of the political spectrum. her fundraising skill, the “she raises cash with the skill jimi hendrix displayed at strumming a guitar” descriptor, is the lone genuine observation about pelosi as a politician, but the inherent meaning of that isn’t mentioned here, or in any article. pelosi embodies political corruption — we have a system of legalized bribery & her singular, politically savvy attribute is her aptitude at maneuvering the corrupt political landscape. for the d.c. establishment, that’s not the bug, that’s the feature with nancy pelosi. if san francisco voters have any semblance of our country’s urgent need to change this grotesque, barbaric, dollars=votes system, they’ll support shahid buttar in the primary & serve this dino-saur (dino = democrat in name only) walking papers she should’ve have been handed over a decade ago.

    postscript: pelosi has refused to even commence with an impeachment inquiry… she’s not the “resistance,” she’s the “assistance.” & remember this: if we as citizens continue to abdicate our civic responsibilities by electing neoliberal dinos like pelosi or biden (or harris or buttigieg, et. al.) & their ilk to the presidency & congress in 2020, this “anybody but trump/gop” attitude guarantees we will not only get the obama “we only look forwards” cowardly justification as the excuse for not prosecuting trump (think it won’t happen? democratic voters also thought obama was a progressive: he expanded mass surveillance & drone warfare, prosecuted more journalists under the espionage act than any other president, didn’t prosecute bush administration war crimes, etc., etc.) but risk authoritarianism becoming a permanent american fixture. trump is a symptom & a consequence of our corrupt political system, not the cause — failure by democratic voters to acknowledge & internalize this fundamental fact will either ensure trump’s reelection or the election of a competent authoritarian 5-10 years from now.

    1. Wow that is quite a mouthful. I love your vocabulary however this will never fly in the USA Today. Bottom line is she is a rich bitch getting richer in her power position of govt. She cares not for the underdogs except maybe she can buy their votes with quarters while she rakes in thousands or millions. She has no conscience and is just willing to put it out there more than others. Vote the dog catcher …just not her

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