Challenging Pelosi From the Left

Shahid Buttar, a lawyer and activist, is offering San Franciscans a progressive alternative.

Natascha Elena Uhlmann
July 23, 2019
Photo courtesy of the Shahid Buttar campaign

LAST WEEK, Shahid Buttar, a 45-year-old San Francisco attorney, visited San Diego to investigate human rights violations at the Mexican border—abuses in which, he says, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “has been complicit.” He was shaken by what he saw. “There’s a lottery every day where three people from the hundreds or thousands who are waiting will get a chance to seek asylum, as they are entitled to by a matter of right,” he says.

To understand why Buttar is launching a primary challenge against Pelosi, consider a few other recent stories from the US–Mexico border: a teenage mother at a detention center who begged the guards for something in which to wrap her shivering infant was handed a dirty towel; a twelve-year-old boy who couldn’t sleep from hunger pangs was too scared to ask the guards for more food; a baby was forced to sleep on a cold floor. Child welfare visits across Texas Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) facilities paint a grim picture of life in immigrant detention. Children in CBP custody face extreme hunger, medical neglect, and outright hostility from the guards. 

These are the conditions that Pelosi and 129 House Democrats voted to support in a recently passed, $4.6 billion border aid package containing virtually no protections for immigrant children detained by the Trump administration. 

The bill earmarks $144.85 million for new jails for immigrant families, despite whistleblowers’ insistent warnings that detention presents a “high risk of harm” to migrant children. It also grants ICE an additional $209 million with few restrictions, despite the agency’s documented mistreatment of detainees. Pelosi has cited “private assurances” from Vice President Mike Pence that the Trump administration will “abide by some of the restrictions she had sought.” With childrens’ lives at stake, Pelosi took an administration notorious for its cruelty at its word. 

Faced with Pelosi’s steadfast inaction, many activists in San Francisco are hoping that Buttar can offer a progressive alternative. Pelosi’s approach to the border-funding battle, Buttar tells me, was “preposterously unacceptable.” He adds, “As she stood complicit in this new extension of authoritarianism, we were at her office every day of the next week, at different actions, singing with children, demanding justice.”

Over the objections of the Democratic Party’s left flank, Pelosi bowed to conservatives, ostensibly in order to prevent an ICE crackdown. Having gotten what they wanted, the White House announced plans to resume the raids anyway. Rep. Pramila Jayapal slammed Pelosi’s decision in an interview with Politico, stating: “We can’t say that we have a lawless administration or a president who should be in prison, or whatever people want to say about him, but then cave. You have to fight for what you believe.” 

“It’s not surprising, based on [Pelosi’s] history, but it’s alarming,” says Rachel Silverstein, co-chair of the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America’s Immigrant Rights and International Solidarity Committee. “She didn’t even try to push through a bill with real protections. Her career right now is premised off of fighting Trump. But she plays right into his framing of a ‘border crisis,’ adding to the calls for increased surveillance.” 

“It’s an absolute failure to engage meaningfully with the issue: we don’t want toothbrushes for children in cages, we want no children to be caged in the first place,” Silverstein adds.

Buttar knows firsthand the importance of standing with immigrant communities. Before he was born, his family fled Pakistan, seeking religious freedom, and arrived in England, which they later left in search of respite from racial discrimination. “As an immigrant, I take very seriously the principles in our Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution,” he says. “Because my family came here to be free, having migrated halfway across the globe to get here, I am decidedly unwilling to let liberty die on my watch.”

Winning a primary in San Francisco won’t be an easy fight. Pelosi has near-unmatched fundraising capabilities and has served 17 terms in the House. Buttar himself unsuccessfully ran against her last year, finishing 60 points behind. But as her capitulation in the Senate draws ire even from within her own party, conditions seem ripe for change. The hashtag #ShahidVsPelosi has exploded in popularity in the past few weeks, with prominent figures on the left like Linda Sarsour and Medea Benjamin endorsing the campaign. 

Although DSA hasn’t yet decided whether to endorse Buttar, his policy platform includes support for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and an end to mass surveillance—all of which are key issues for DSA, and all of which differentiate him from Pelosi. While the odds are stacked heavily against him, his run will be a test of the salience of these issues for San Francisco Democrats. 

Notwithstanding Pelosi’s long and storied career, some San Franciscans don’t feel well represented by her. Despite her claim that she’s been fighting for single payer health care for decades, Pelosi argued vocally against Medicare for All—mere days after a top aide assuaged insurance executives’ fears over the legislation. Though she’s called climate change “the existential threat of our time,” she’s been vocally dismissive of the Green New Deal, and has worked to push climate organizing in a far more moderate direction. And while she’s been a vocal critic of the surveillance state, in practice, Pelosi has championed the intelligence community’s dramatic expansion. Pelosi’s pragmatism in the face of the Republican Party’s steady rightward drift has undermined progressives in her district and beyond.

Her refusal to stand up for core progressive principles is what pushed Buttar into the race. Buttar has a track record of confronting the powerful. In 2004, as a young attorney, he defended Jason West, then the mayor of New Paltz, New York, for conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies. West faced vicious opposition, including 19 misdemeanor charges and calls for his removal from office. The charges were ultimately dropped, in what was hailed nationally as “a major victory for gay rights.”

West was quick to support Buttar’s campaign. “When I acted to defend the rights of my constituents, I put myself at legal risk. At a time when few lawyers—and fewer politicians—were willing to embrace marriage equality for same-sex couples, Shahid stood by me,” he wrote in his endorsement. 

In 2015, Buttar was arrested at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing for a verbal confrontation with James Clapper, who served as director of national intelligence under Barack Obama. Buttar demanded Clapper be held accountable for his false statements on the scope of NSA surveillance. Flanked by Capitol police officers, he cried out: “What do you have to say to communities of color that are so hyper-policed that we’re subjected to extrajudicial assassination for selling loose cigarettes, when you can get away with perjury before the Senate?”

Buttar hopes this energy will distinguish him from Pelosi. “Running for Congress is not something that I would feel inclined to do if I didn’t feel the dire urgency of overcoming corporate rule to enable solutions to the climate crisis, and to achieve racial and economic justice in this country,” he says. “I’m an advocate. I would frankly much rather do my job advocating, but I’ve grown used to our calls for justice falling on deaf ears, and I ran out of patience. So my outrage and my frustration ultimately eclipsed my sense of self-preservation.”

Buttar will have his work cut out for him, as not everyone is convinced his opponent is falling short. An enduring mythology attends Pelosi, and recent gestures like sarcastically applauding Trump have been hailed as bold acts of resistance by many liberals. For some, symbolism seems to matter more than substance—weeks after declaring that the Democrats would not pursue impeachment, Pelosi’s approval rating jumped to the highest point in a decade due to her “visible opposition” of the president. 

But to Buttar and many San Francisco progressives, snarky critique is meaningless absent real action. As Silverstein tells me, “People project their good intentions onto Pelosi. They’ll say she’s playing a long game, but there’s simply no evidence that that’s true. It might just be that she’s more moderate than we hope she is.”

Natascha Elena Uhlmann writes on migration and US imperialism. She is the author of Abolish ICE.