Meet Shahid Buttar, Nancy Pelosi's challenger from the left

"I see [Pelosi] support our criminal president [w]hile mounting a largely theatrical resistance," Buttar told Salon

By Nicole Karlis
Published March 7, 2020 2:00PM (EST)
Shahid Buttar at a rally (Shahid Buttar 2020 Campaign)
Shahid Buttar at a rally (Shahid Buttar 2020 Campaign)

After the primary election in California this week, Shahid Buttar is exactly where he wants to be. By placing second in the primary vote in California's 12th Congressional District primary, Buttar has earned himself a spot on the November general election ballot as a challenger to incumber and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Speaker Pelosi received 72.5 percent of the vote while Buttar came in second with 12.7 percent. Thanks to California's primary system — where the top two winners make it to the general election— Buttar's second-place finish means that he has garnered enough votes to make it on the ballot in November.

On Twitter, Buttar described the victory as "planting seeds." "Now, we have 8 months to win our race," he tweeted.

That's certainly true. As one might expect from the highest-ranked Democrat in government, Pelosi is likely not to be easy to beat, even if her centrism and cosigning on Trump's imperialism has rankled many San Franciscans. Yet Buttar has a long history of activism and organizing that has him poised to be a formidable challenger to Rep. Pelosi. One might draw a comparison to Virginia State Senator Lee Carter, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant — similar left-populist candidates whose redistributive policies were widely popular, enough to upset or defeat centrist or right-wing opponents.

We previously reported on Buttar's campaign before the California Primary; in light of the recent results, we are printing the interview in full.

A lot of your campaign is centered around talking about what Pelosi has done wrong. I'm curious how you would respond to those who might say that the Democratic Party right now needs to be united in an effort, collective effort to get Trump out of office.

Yes, I would agree. It's precisely why we have to remove a conservative who imposes Republican policies from the leadership of the Democratic Party.

I'll press on that. We must be united to stop Trump, and that requires uniting around a progressive agenda. Uniting around corporate centrism is the equivalent of ducking into a punch. Anybody who thinks that Pelosi, or Buttigieg, or Biden, or Bloomberg represents the path to beating Trump ignores the 2016 election and the lessons we have to learn from it, and that lesson simply is that centrism cannot beat right-wing populism — especially now with the momentum that white nationalists and white nationalist extremists have gained under this current president. We either embrace a left-wing populism to meet the needs of working people and future generations or we abdicate the political system to the right-wing zealots. Centrists cannot hold on their own.

I'll develop that even one step further. That's the same voices who might see a Pelosi, or a Buttigieg, or a Biden, or a Klobuchar as providing the pathway to Trump. They ignore the ultimate reality that candidates don't win elections. Movements and volunteers win elections. There is one candidate in the Democratic field who has demonstratively vastly more volunteers and donors than any of the rest of them. His name's Bernie Sanders, and if he's not the nominee, Democrats are basically telling all of those volunteers to take a hike, and that's the surest way to ensure that the Democrats lose the election to Trump. Unity looks like nominating a candidate supported by the most people.

Maybe one last way I'd put that is that San Franciscans have a choice between a federal voice in Washington that's either aligned with our next president or aligned with our last president. You see Speaker Pelosi supporting Trump's foreign policy, his trade policy, his fiscal austerity rules. You see her opposing Medicare for All and Green New Deal policies supported by Bernie. I want to make sure that when there's a Sanders administration in Washington that San Francisco is represented by an ally of that administration, not an intransigent opponent.

It sounds like, what I hear from you, is that you don't think Nancy Pelosi captures the voice of San Francisco right now. Can you speak more about that?

Sure. One of the things that's long-defined San Francisco is intersectionality, and its commitment to human rights. The United Nations was founded here. This is the sort of epicenter of a lot of different communities, from the peace and justice community to LGBTQ community to the environment rights, all have their deep roots here. None of those movements have representation from San Francisco's elected voice in Washington.

Just to take a couple of those examples, some of the communities that see her having stood with them in the past include, for instance, LGBTQ folks. There was an era in her career when she showed up, particularly for funding for AIDS research for instance under Reagan. My political memory of her absence on LGBT rights really inheres in the 2000s through the 2010s, when I was fighting for marriage equality in the courts as a cis-hetero Muslim lawyer from the Midwest; while Nancy Pelosi, with all the institutional privilege of the Speaker of the House, couldn't even accept the equal rights of my neighbors. She gets a lot of support from LGBT folks who don't recognize her record.

Say the same thing on Democratic Party partisans concerned about our criminal president. [Pelosi] gets some love from people who see her fighting Trump because they see photo ops, her pointing across a table, or her ripping up the speech, or her putting on sunglasses while wearing a red coat. None of that frankly matters. It's all symbolism, and I see her support our criminal president in policy while mounting a largely theatrical resistance — and theater is not enough.

If you were in Pelosi's position leading the impeachment in the House, how would have you handled it?

I wrote an article last year sort of laying out particularly the basis for impeachment grounded in the president's violations of the Emoluments Clause. It is a constitutional violation to enrich one's self at public expense. That's all this president does. He doesn't even make a pretense of governing. He's only there to enrich himself.

The impeachment process that Nancy Pelosi brought, in addition to being a year late, affirmatively excluded his corruption from the process. It focused entirely on a political crime inviting foreign interference in a US election, and that is a crime. It should be impeachable, except impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. What would be the most ... the surest way to not win GOP votes in the Senate would be to bring an impeachment based on a partisan charge. That's exactly what she did. It wasn't in any way unpredictable that the process that she supported would fail in the Senate. I warned that it would the day that she started when it was clear that she wasn't going to include emoluments.

Just to sum that up, I laid out the case that would have won. She refused to embrace it. She showed up six months later with a limited process that I said would fail and has failed. I would like to, instead of being in a position to say, "I told you so," I would like rather to help my neighbors, and this city, and the country not fall into the same pits that we repeatedly find ourselves in under the unfortunately failed leadership of the Speaker.

I am curious if you can speak to how, if elected, your work in Congress would contribute to the end of systemic inequality in America?

Hell yeah. Thank you for that question. There are lots of different dimensions of inequality. It's what we mean by intersectionality. We have people face marginalization along a lot of different dimensions. Just to pick off a couple of them and then I'll try to stitch them together. One of the sharpest to me is criminal justice. It's so obvious the pervasive biases that degrade the legitimacy of our criminal justice system and frankly have railroaded millions of people into jails and prisons.

I see in the criminal justice system ... Well, first we should help to fix it. The first thing we do there, and this again is in the category of easy going up to hard, the easiest thing we can do is remove cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act. In California and many states, we have access to recreational or medicinal cannabis.

Right.

It's not true in many states, and in each of those states it's still a pretext for police to search, harass, arrest, detain, charge usually young people of color, often who are doing nothing intrinsically wrong.

Removing that pretext is sort of the baseline. Other things we can do here include for instance enacting the End Racial Profiling Act. This is a law that I've backed for the better part of 15 years. It almost passed Congress 19 years ago with the support of the Bush administration before the 9/11 attacks knocked it off the congressional table and it's never been seen or heard from since. President Obama refused to support it when he was a president, which I found, suffice it to say, disappointing. That measure, as much as anything else, would ensure that police interactions with the public are based on suspicion of offense and not skin color, or religious presentation, or national creed.

At the moment, we can have frankly no confidence at all in our criminal justice system. It's one reason why we see reform-minded DAs like my friend and ally Chesa Boudin, like Larry Krasner, Wesley Bell being neglected around the country. It's because there's an expanding awareness that the pretense of criminal justice is nothing more than a pretense, and it tends to be a grease trail for executive abuses.

Outside the criminal justice context, and I have a 30 point criminal justice reform platform. It includes creating a national registry of killer cops. It includes statutorily amending the qualified immunity doctrine, which lets cops get away with violence with impunity. Let's set all that aside for a moment.

Union support is at the forefront of national conversations today. What policies, in your opinion, do you think actually work to provide healthy environments for unions to thrive in this country?

Yeah. One of them just passed the House, the Protecting Right to Organize Act. Speaker Pelosi for months had opposed that bill. Just last week, she reversed positions, brought it to the floor, it passed the House, and now it's pending before the Senate. That measure would among other things prohibit right to work laws in states. It would be the most frankly transformative labor reform of a generation.

I describe the Speaker shifting with respect to it as reflecting a bunch of things. One, I think her team's awareness that our campaign is gaining ground. Two, I think an awareness in the broader Democratic institutional establishment and leadership that the populist voices of the activist base cannot be suppressed. Kind of taking us back to that thing we were discussing about like Doctor King and the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the tech industry. The tech industry in San Francisco has obviously been a big influence on the national economy as well and I think work culture. Locally, these companies have caused immense inequality though in part to their tax breaks that they receive and the fact that they aren't really regulated. I was curious what you make of big tech companies in America. Do you think they should be regulated, nationalized, turned into worker owned enterprises, or something else?

Fascinating. I'm a big fan of antitrust enforcement. Again, I'll give a sort of set of escalating answers. Antitrust enforcement is the baseline. It's an existing set of laws. The enforcement agencies are basically out to lunch. This is not a new phenomena. I was offered a job in the Justice Department's antitrust section in 2001, and my antitrust professor at Stanford told me, "Don't waste your time," because the Bush administration had shut the section down for all intents and purposes. It's never been open for business since.

You can see the abdication of the antitrust enforcement all over Silicon Valley. If I were to offer a paradigm example, I would say Facebook's acquisition on Instagram and WhatsApp both reflect anti-competitive consolidation that undermine both consumers and competition, and it made the internet worse. I think it's a perfect example of how we need to at least check and balance corporate consolidation. Antitrust law could do that if the regulators showed up for work and if Congress held them accountable and provided the robust oversight that they need.

You wrote a few years ago about bringing Burner values into the day in, day out politics of our society and that it's a challenge. I'm curious, well, first if you think if Burning Man has been gentrified, and then also what of these Burner values would you want to bring to national politics?

Wow. Great questions. The first, I struggle with how to answer it because there's different layers of what Burning Man is. There's an organization. There's an event in the desert. There's a set of surrounding subcultures. The organization, frankly, is kind of whatever. I mean it's an organization. I think it's a couple hundred people, so it's not the relevant comparison.

Has the event been gentrified? Maybe. It, at least, has shifted, but it's also small to me. It's not the event that I particularly identify with. It's the set of countercultures that comprise it. That's much bigger than the organization. It's much more expansive than the people who've gone to the event. It's global. I would say it even stretches back across time long before Burning Man started. It's counterculture ultimately is what it is.

I would say running to represent San Francisco in Congress, for me the role of counterculture is a huge part of that, because this has been the counter-cultural capital of the country for well over a century. Whether you go back to the 1850s and the rule of the counterculture here, whether you think about it like the turn of the century, it was very present, in the 50s and the beat culture, the 60s, the people challenging the war in Vietnam for instance, punk culture in the 70s, the LGBT culture of the 80s and 90s. Burning Man comes up after all that. I see it as basically to some extent amalgamating all of those preceding countercultures.

If there's anything I were to say that defines the Burning Man counterculture, it's that it is inclusive of like anybody's version of whatever makes them unique. There is no single counterculture that comprises it, because it collects them. It's kind of like freakniks of the world unite, and that's what I like about it. It's a place for anybody, however they define, however they present. It's not a place. It's a state of mind.

In terms of the Burner values I'd want to take to Washington, one of them, there are 10 principles that the organization and the founder formerly elucidated. They include civic participation, communal effort. I see those are two that are especially critical to for instance addressing the mounting global climate crisis. It's going to take a lot of cooperation, and I see those values reflecting that.

At the event that happens once a year, there is a novel approach to resources of the gift economy, and that's another of the principles that informs the counterculture. I would say that that principle of sharing at root is one that I find very compelling. I find it very essential in the sense of constructing the socialist alternative. Medicare for all is sharing. That's a social policy that reflects a shared commitment to pooling our resources so that we all can have access to a thing that we all need. I see that principle as essential in all of these things. The Green New Deal I think reflects all of those remixes. It's a lot of communal effort, it's a lot of civic participation, and it's going to take some sharing.


Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a staff writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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