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.
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.
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.”