Shahid Buttar, left-challenger to Pelosi, started his campaign with a bang — and ends with a whimper

Nancy Pelosi's opponent was once touted as a west coast answer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What happened?

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published November 15, 2020 1:58PM (EST)

A portrait of Shahid Buttar on Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif. Buttar is running for election to the U.S. House to represent California's 12th Congressional District, trying to unseat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. (Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
A portrait of Shahid Buttar on Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif. Buttar is running for election to the U.S. House to represent California's 12th Congressional District, trying to unseat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. (Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

This year, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced what many San Francisco progressives hoped would be a real challenge from the left from Shahid Buttar, an organizer and civil liberties lawyer who placed second in California's ranked-choice voting in the March 2020 primary. A throng of volunteers canvassed for him in early 2020 as endorsements from progressive groups piled up. Hopeful staff and organizers felt they actually had a shot at Pelosi's seat. The media buzzed; both Rolling Stone and Mother Jones interviewed him, and The Intercept said he posed a "spirited challenge" to the Speaker of the House. The surprising energy that Buttar commanded raised questions — about what Americans thought of their House Leader, and about the tensions between corporate Democrats and more left-leaning candidates. 

That was how Buttar's campaign started. Then, over spring and summer, Buttar lost momentum, endorsements and likely votes, after separate allegations of sexual harassment and of a toxic workplace environment within his campaign. Media interest in Buttar waned afterward, despite the rush to defend Buttar from some prominent figures. In These Times described Buttar's campaign as having been "hob­bled by accu­sa­tions of mis­treat­ment and sex­ism by mem­bers of his for­mer staff" — accusations Buttar unequivocally denies. 

When the dust settled in November, few national newspapers even reported on the inevitable results: an estimated 77.7% of voters in California's 12th District reelected Pelosi for what will be her 18th term in the U.S. Congress.

Before the March primary, and before any accusations of anything surfaced, Salon reported on the momentum behind Buttar's campaign. It was Buttar's second bid to represent California's 12th District in the U.S. House. At that point, Buttar had received donations from 13,000 individuals and amassed over 1,500 volunteers in San Francisco. Progressives hoped that Buttar, if elected, would become a sort of west-coast equivalent to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, who in 2018 famously unseated Rep. Joe Crowley, a nine-term Democrat closely aligned with the party establishment; or Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who unseated 10-term Democrat incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano. Buttar shaped his messaging to reach lefties who didn't see Pelosi as progressive enough. Often his messaging focused on the criticisms and flaws of his challenger. 

Yet his campaign was also topical to what was happening in America. Buttar penned a 20-point criminal justice reform platform that included, as he explained to Salon in February, "creating a national registry of killer cops" and defunding and disarming the police; this was before the death of George Floyd sparked nationwide civil rights protests calling for police reform. Buttar's campaign also focused on immigration reform — appropriately so, given his background as a civil liberties lawyer, and a Muslim immigrant himself.

In February 2020, when Buttar's star was untarnished, Salon interviewed him in a noisy cafe in San Francisco's Haight neighborhood; no masks, no social distancing — just the excitement of the beginning of a year marking an extra important election season. In the middle of the conversation, a young man approached Buttar like he was a celebrity.

"I really think one of these days it'll happen, and no one will see it coming, where it's like, 'Oh, yeah, this dinosaur lost by a huge margin,'" the stranger said, referring to Pelosi. The energy and enthusiasm for his campaign was palpable.

Then, almost overnight, Buttar went from local political celebrity to a progressive insurgent candidate people wanted to distance themselves from when allegations of sexual harassment in progressive circles surfaced online. His campaign manager quit during a dispute over his leadership, which she characterized as sexist, and a flood of staffers following her out the door. 

The entire political saga is a complicated narrative that ultimately clashes with key progressive ideals. It's a cautionary tale about how allegations that lack evidence can ruin a campaign. It's a story about campaigning against run-of-the-mill politics, then becoming swept up in them. Few allegations were proved definitively by Salon, and how readers take in the lessons will depend on who they are more likely to trust. But the narrative is as fascinating as it is reflective of the 2020 political zeitgeist, and speaks to bigger issues that Millennial and Gen Z progressives face. Amid debates over the political alignment of the Democratic Party, the rise and role of the #MeToo movement, identity politics and systemic racism, Buttar's campaign — its rise and fall — epitomizes ongoing criticisms of the left, and the Democratic Party in general. An examination of Buttar's campaign turmoil offers some lessons for the future of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but no easy answers. 

* * *

On July 20, 2020, Salon received an email from a comedian and writer named Elizabeth Croydon with the subject line "Shahid Buttar Sexually Harassed Me." One day later, Croydon published a detailed Medium post about an alleged exchange in the early aughts in which she said Buttar verbally harassed her for choosing to be celibate. The post came days after Croydon began been publicly tweeting about the allegations. Croydon also alleged that Buttar "pursued" her for sex "repeatedly." Croydon alleged that in one specific encounter with Buttar, he "cornered" her "with his body and got so close and brushed up against" her breasts, a move she believed was meant to "intimidate" her.

"The left can do better than Shahid Buttar," Croydon declared.

Buttar immediately denied the allegations, while calling sexual harassment "despicable."

Then a series of Medium posts published by Jacqueline Anne Thompson, a blogger and podcaster, put the validity of the allegations into question. An open letter in support of Buttar was shared by journalist Katie Halper, host of "The Katie Halper Show"; in it, supporters of Buttar alleged that Croydon was "well-known" among D.C. activists, including Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, and "has a long history of fabricating attacks against innocent people." (Buttar echoed this allegation months later in an interview with Salon.) In a recent interview with Salon, Croydon said that while she has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), any attempts to paint her as "unstable" are "untrue."

In July, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the Medium post by Croydon but did not offer any secondhand corroboration of Croydon's story. The Bay Area Reporter reported that a person close to Croydon, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Croydon had disclosed the alleged encounters with Buttar to them about seven years ago. But Croydon's allegations weren't the only claims being made against Buttar. Prior to the allegations against Buttar outlined in Croydon's Medium post, the Democratic Socialists of America's (DSA) San Francisco chapter had already begun the internal process of distancing themselves from Buttar's campaign on July 18, 2020.

Unlike in many cities, San Francisco's local chapter of the largest American socialist organization wields considerable political power: they were a major organizing force in propelling progressive city supervisor candidate Dean Preston to a victory in 2019. The local DSA chapter's political power comes from its volunteer army of organizers, who are called on to phone-bank and door-knock for endorsed politicians — and who would no longer be mobilized to help Buttar.

On July 22, a local organization of socialists of color called the Rose Movement rescinded their endorsement on Twitter, followed by Preston, who rescinded his endorsement the same day. The San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters, which endorsed Buttar in 2018, said said on Twitter they were taking them into consideration. (Ultimately, they didn't endorse Pelosi or Buttar.; "Given the various summer 2020 revelations about Buttar's campaign management and personal conduct, he does not have our endorsement," the San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters stated on its 2020 "cheat sheet").

Buttar complained to Salon about the rescinded endorsements and how quickly some media outlets were to report on Croydon's allegations.

"Everyone presumed the allegations to be legitimate because they were spoken, and that's just absolutely ridiculous," Buttar said. "I'm not the first man of color to be falsely accused by a white woman of having done something wrong; I'm not the first one to be judged guilty."

On August 4, DSA officially rescinded its endorsement via a resolution that cited Croydon's allegations, and also claimed that Buttar demonstrated a "belittling, demeaning, hyper controlling and abusive manner," toward female staffers. On that same day, Buttar's former campaign manager Jasper Wilde published a piece on Medium detailing her experience working for Buttar, and why she, and at least 13 other contractors and staffers, say they left the campaign. "We left because of Shahid's disrespect, gaslighting, public humiliation, blaming, and dismissal of us, women and men alike, but especially the women on his team," Wilde wrote. 

But her exit from Buttar's campaign wasn't new. Wilde gave her notice on March 30; she didn't officially leave the campaign until April 30.

In an interview, Wilde told Salon that her "final straw" came back in the spring after the primary, when, she said, she and other staffers grew tired of Buttar "challenging every decision" in "demeaning" ways that she alleged were sexist and misogynistic. Specifically, Wilde said she and her colleagues were, during the primary, focused on placing second. Then, there was concern that John Dennis, the Republican Party's candidate who faced off against Pelosi in the 2020 primary, was going to win. Wilde said she focused on traditional tactics like knocking on doors — the "basics of campaigning," she said — and that Buttar was often resistant to them. Wilde said it was "incredibly demoralizing" to hear him say that what she and other staffers continued to suggest had no impact on the election.

"He was incredibly disrespectful and hurtful, he lashed out quite a bit at everyone on the team," Wilde told Salon. Wilde said that she and other staffers outlined a list of stipulations, threatening to quit if they weren't met. Wilde says Buttar verbally agreed, but says they didn't stick. "We didn't feel it was ethical to continue taking money from donors to run a campaign that was essentially his vanity project," she added.

Wilde left, which then caused a "ripple effect." Nearly a dozen more staffers left.

In response to Wilde's allegations about mistreatment at work, Buttar told Salon: "My former campaign manager had very strong opinions about how to run the race."

Buttar added he "was doing things that the staff wouldn't do," and said there was a lot of "unfortunate clashing at the strategic layer." Buttar said he was running his campaign like a "social justice movement," and it was important for him to spend his time showing solidarity around the city.

"One point of tension," Buttar said, was attending in-person events. "I built the campaign by being a very frequent face at events, any march, rally, protest, discussion, community meeting about climate change, wars, universal health care over the last three years I've been at, and I go there with people and I recruit them — that was another strategy that my staff didn't understand," he said.

Gloria Berry, who worked on Buttar's campaign and who currently serves as the chair of San Francisco's Democratic Party Black Lives Matter committee, told Salon she recalled a lot of "tension in the office," especially compared to previous campaigns she worked on.

"There were a lot of people saying how things needed to be, how things should be done, and so forth," Berry said. "A lot of the staff did not realize that he was an activist — they wanted him to be more of a politician — but I was actually drawn to him because I was an activist like him."

In July, after her departure, Wilde said she was contacted by current Buttar staffers regarding Croydon's tweets alleging sexual harassment. Wilde said she didn't hear about the allegations until then. A group of former and current staffers discussed the allegations and how to handle them, which is when they got permission from Croydon to share her story with the San Francisco DSA chapter.

"We were wanting to get in front of it before the story came out," Wilde said. But she needed to work on it in secret because she was held to a non-disparagement clause in her consulting agreement. Once she was released of the agreement, which Salon has viewed, she published her piece in Medium in August.

When a progressive candidate's campaign faces allegations of sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace, their response can make or break a campaign. James Taylor, a professor of politics at University of San Francisco who has studied Bay Area politics for over 20 years, told Salon that for any candidate running against a powerful candidate, such allegations are a "death knell," regardless if they're corroborated or not.

"It's like going for the heavyweight champion; he went up against one of the most powerful modern politicians in the American system," Taylor told Salon. Taylor said allegations like what Buttar faced can be a "deal breaker" for campaigns. "They do great damage," Taylor said, nothing that President Donald Trump is the "exception."

Buttar believes that the allegations kept his campaign from a real chance at snagging Pelosi's seat, but he also believes that a "smear campaign" was being coordinated by staffers who left. He said he didn't understand what the spring staff departures had to do with the July sexual harassment allegations and why, in media reports, the two were always linked together. He said that people who described his campaign as "roiled by departures'' were wrong.

"Every objective metric confirmed that we only grew dramatically when I managed to get off my team the people that didn't align with my vision who've now come forward to try and bring it down," Buttar told Salon.

When asked about the smear campaign allegations, Wilde wrote via Facebook messenger: "I think he's just looking for something to stick, and unfortunately it's easy to discredit women who come forward about men in power by calling them attention seeking, power hungry, or liars."

Taylor told Salon that the fact that Buttar didn't get along with his campaign manager was a "rookie error." "He has to find someone who has the same vision as him, and the fact that he ends up fighting with his number two is his fault — Nancy Pelosi isn't fighting with his number two," Taylor said. "That's the bottom line — he's not ready for San Francisco."

Another reason Buttar believed a smear campaign was being coordinated by former staffers was because a text message exchange surfaced of a volunteer allegedly being recruited to join in smearing him. In one text message exchange, viewed by Salon, a volunteer — who asked to be anonymous — was confronted about a rumor floating around the campaign that Buttar allegedly tried to set her up on a date with a donor. The volunteer told Salon that the story was false, and even when she tried to tell former staffers that it was false, she felt her story was being taken out of context and used without her permission as an example of Buttar's behavior. She said Buttar was always professional around her.

In a post-election statement after his loss, Buttar focused on momentum the campaign gained and the challenge they faced in going against such a powerful politician as Pelosi before the allegations surfaced.

"We're the first Democrats ever to challenge the sitting Speaker of the House in a General Election over her entire 33-year career representing San Francisco in Congress," Buttar said in the statement. "Even as underdogs, we've punched well above our weight."

As Taylor pointed out, some politicians can weather sexual harassment allegations. Trump is seemingly unscathed by numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations. Tara Reade's allegations against President-elect Joe Biden didn't keep him from winning, either. Notably, Trump and Biden are white men; Buttar is a man of color, which perhaps changes the social calculus.

In any case, Buttar said he remains profoundly disappointed in how various progressive groups reacted.

"I think that progressive and socialist groups owe it to their own principles and their members to embody those principles, by maintaining some fidelity to the process — otherwise, you're just reduced to being a mob," Buttar said. "The presumption of guilt is the problem." "Millennial entitlement" could have been part of the problem, too, he said.

* * *

As establishment attempts to derail Bernie Sanders in 2016 revealed, those who lean too left in the Democratic Party often find themselves at odds with the party's leadership. Despite what the establishment demands, left-leaning candidates tend to be incredibly popular: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders himself attest to this.

Thus, the 2020 election brought many progressive wins, suggesting Democratic voters are selecting more diverse and younger candidates who embrace progressive policies. Missouri's Democratic Representative-elect Cori Bush unseated Lacy Clay, a 10-term member of Congress. Yet Buttar, who ran in one of the most progressive parts of the country, didn't become part of that narrative.

Men's harassment and abuse of women are systemic issues, and so is racism. In the case of Buttar's campaign, these issues appeared to stack up against each other, instead of intersecting. Even though racism and sexual harassment both arise from the same unjust, biased system, progressive circles have failed to explore the nuances around how different forms of inequalities can exacerbate each other. Should there have been a more proper due process for Croydon's allegations? Or was what Wilde and the other staffers claimed happened enough for progressives to distance themselves? Would this have looked different if Buttar was a white man?

These are questions this reporter can't answer. While many involved are still looking for answers, one that does come to mind is this: politics is still politics. Any nuances between progressive and establishment are lost when allegations around abuse and harassment surface. Like Taylor told me: "In a situation like this where you have an upstart campaign, you can't afford those kinds of allegations."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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2020 Elections California House Of Representatives San Francisco Shahid Buttar