On October 30th, 2020, United Left invited Shahid Buttar to its first Fireside Forum, a series of roundtable discussions with progressive organizers, activists and thinkers. Buttar is an activist, attorney, and former congressional candidate for California’s 12th district. In this discussion, he answered the United Left membership’s questions about his campaign against Nancy Pelosi, his post-election plans, and his perspective on hyper-citizenship.
Q1: Fellow Californian here. What’s the biggest hurdle during the campaign since the pandemic crisis has started early in the year? What were the problems you faced and how did you overcome it?
Shahid Buttar: The biggest challenge I’d say is the corporate media whiteout. So, you know, we’ve been very fortunate to get a lot of coverage from independent press like everybody from Ryan Knight / @proudsocialist to the Intercept, The Humanist Report, the Majority Report, right? There’s a whole bunch of web outlets that have covered us. But among major media outlets in San Francisco, the only two broadcast outlets that have ever even mentioned our campaign or said my name are the Pacifica Radio Affiliate and the Fox News Affiliate. Which is to say ABC, NBC, CBS, even the local station that airs the NPR program, none of them have ever found it newsworthy that Nancy Pelosi is facing a Democrat in the general election for the first time since 1987. None of them have ever noted that she hasn’t debated with anyone since 1987. None of them have noted that San Francisco has a chance to vote for the Green New Deal or for Medicare-For-All. They report on those policies, they report on the national debate, but most of the district doesn’t necessarily know we exist. That’s one reason why we’ve made over a quarter and nearly half a million phone calls and why we sent three quarters of a million texts.
As you know, we’re doing everything we can to work around that. Online digital advertising, we have a very active social media program, we’ve been active on the street. And the pandemic has limited, you know, we can’t knock on doors, so that was a traditional campaign tactic. We couldn’t host indoor events, which were very frequent. We were hosting bi-weekly happy hours, volunteer appreciation events, very frequent receptions at the homes of supporters. One way we’ve worked around the limits of the pandemic is video conferences to bring me together with the groups that previously we were meeting with in receptions.
Discord isn’t a platform that we’ve used that for before, so again my apologies for my cumbersomeness. But like Zoom in particular, Jitsi we’ve used a few times just to connect. In some respects the pandemic frankly made that particular connection method easier because it just takes the logistics of physical gatherings off the table. Gatherings to that sort we’ve done pretty frequently and grateful for the chance to connect with people through that kind of forum as well.
Another way we worked around the limits of the pandemic, I just came in from what I was doing right before this, […] there’s a street-legal art car formerly known as the Bernie’s van is now the Shahid-mobile. Its creator is an engineer who basically modified an extended cargo van such that it has a deck on top with a full sound system. We put on a bunch of signage and lettering all over it and we tour the city promoting a Green New Deal, Medicare-For-All, Defund the Police, the Pentagon, Abolish Ice and all of the hashtag-able slogans that we can fit on the side of a van. We rock house music and I spit rhymes over-the-top, promoting a visionary policy paradigm with “Defend the future from the past” and… people go bananas actually, it’s super fun, I’ve enjoyed that. Some of my favorite moments actually on the campaign are passing by a park. It happened about an hour and a half ago as I was going by Alamo Square. I think at the time I chant, “De-fund-Pol-ice-and-the-Pentagon-too-together-we-can,” and here was a whole mess of people on their feet. It’s a way to connect with people and stay visible in spite of the constraints of the pandemic.
Really, the backbone of the voter outreach program is phone calls. I would say if anybody’s particularly concerned about the corporate media whiteout, […] https://shahid.fyi/amplify will take you to a toolkit that we put together suggesting for supporters ways that you can influence the discourse and suggest better coverage that would more fairly depict not our campaign, but the opportunities in the choices before our community. I see the suppression of our voice not just through the corporate media whiteout, but also through Pelosi’s response to our campaign. There have been half a dozen times that she’s adopted policies that we pushed her into, but neither has she ever said my name nor acknowledge that she has an opponent from the left. She pretends that she fights Republicans, but her only electoral challenge is from the left. And she hasn’t debated with anyone since the president was Ronald Reagan? I just find that, every time I say it, I can’t believe it. It’s ridiculous. The entitlement is astounding and the idea that she could get away with anything when she hasn’t dained to defend her record in over 30 years. That’s why I’m running for office because like I just find it so ridiculous and I grew tired of waiting for someone else to do it, basically.
Some of those are the challenges. One last one I’d say in the same vein, in terms of Pelosi’s weight and gravity in this space is that, as the head of the democratic party, she imposes a profound chilling effect that discourages dissent and support for our campaign from anyone who has any partisan role or aspiration. I’ll tell you a quick anecdote there. A conversation with a retired state legislator, someone who would serve in a state legislature for 17 years, who’s no longer in office said to me:
“I love you. I love what you stand for. I want you in Congress and I dare not cross her in public or she will end my career.”
I just remember thinking to myself, “Wow.” This is someone who has absolutely no qualms supporting a visionary policy paradigm, but in spite of supporting our platform, can’t support our campaign because they’re beholden, like for instance every labor union in the city, to the figure of the speaker, notwithstanding her policy. That’s a very profound headwind that I hope does not prove inexorable. It certainly does carry a lot of weight and gravity at the end of the day. It is a profound headwind to run in the face. The way we worked around that is to just go straight to the voters. You know, that’s everything from the sound stage I was talking about, meeting voters in Dolores Park, which we do every other weekend, the phone-banking, and the text-banking.
Q2: During the pandemic, essential workers have faced unsafe working conditions, putting themselves at risk of COVID-19, at Amazon and other big businesses. What is your plan to improve worker rights, especially for essential workers?
Buttar: 100% paid sick leave is a public health imperative. It was from the beginning. Congress recognizes it insofar as the first of the coronavirus stimulus packages expanded paid sick leave, but there were so many exceptions to the policy that it only covered 20% of the workers. That’s ridiculous. We need a 100% paid sick leave, not just for work rights, but just as a public health imperative, especially during the global pandemic. Frankly, that’s not even in any way rocket science. You know, it’s senseless that we don’t have it. In fact, I’ve said frequently that, [with] our policy paradigm, you would be hard-pressed to engineer one more likely to drive people into their graves and that’s not just true in our predatory “healthcare system,” but also in construction work force policies. I’m proud to have supported the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. And this is one of the half dozen areas when Nancy Pelosi was pushed, not just by our campaign. I would say primarily by the labor movement, but I also describe our campaign as a lever in a sense that we assert an amplifying force, a force multiplier for the labor movement. She did not support the PRO Act at any point in the past until February 2020, a month before our primary. And I’ve supported it for the better part of a year.
The goal, among other things, would end Right To Work laws in the state, so it preserves space for public sector organizing. It would close loopholes that allow employers to evade labor protections and dial up penalties for evasion of labor rights. If you can compare it with her attitude to the Employee Free Choice Act — that’s another signature labor reform that has yet to pass Congress — that would make it easier to form unions in the first case. The PRO Act would make it easier for unions to enforce their rights later. Add all that to a measure I would like to see in Congress something along the lines of AB5, the bill that passed here in California to protect gig workers. When you add all those together, I think that would go a long way towards giving essential workers greater flexibility and protections in the workplace.
I’d like to go beyond all that too with Medicare-For-All and a UBI. When you add paid sick leave plus Medicare for all with the Universal Basic Income program, what that means is that no one has to put themselves and their families at risk to put food on the table. And that also is not rocket science, especially during the age of the pandemic. Many countries across the industrialized world have followed some version of that mix of policies. Every single one of them has flattened and suppressed their curves. There is a reason. There are policy choices driving the fact that our waves of the covid infections and fatalities continue to increase. Those are policy choices and we are eager to offer a new voice to make some better choices.
Q3: When AOC first came into office, she started challenging corporate Democratic Leadership by doing a sit-in at Pelosi’s office. Since then, she has tempered her approach and has acted more amicable with leadership. Which approach do you think is a more effective way to push for progressive policies? In addition, how would you push for policies once in office?
Buttar: Great question. I remember that moment very clearly. It is one reason why — and I want to just expand the question beyond AOC — I find it striking that Sunrise Movement this time is silent about it.
There are a lot of organizations that talk about climate justice and there are regions into which even they are unwilling to tread.
Anyway, I can’t speak for my allies in Congress, but I will say that, across those approaches, historically what I have always done for the last 20 years is running against a party establishment and shaming them. My earliest political acts were shutting down a Lockheed Martin facility a few months after the war. I have no interest in making friends in Washington. I’m running for office to try to knock the leader of the party out because I’m just tired of gnashing my teeth over the bipartisan corruption that enables this predation and mass targeting our communities. I am absolutely going to be an antagonist to an establishment with which I’m thoroughly disgusted.
Now, I do think I have allies there and there are people who I think that we can certainly work very constructively with. Not only in the squad and across the progressive caucus, there are some members on some issues that are thinking about unwinding the surveillance state for instance or the military industrial complex. There are some members of the freedom caucus, in the far right of the Republican party, with whom there are going to be lots of opportunities to do things from removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act to, if not reinvesting in our communities, at least defunding the Pentagon. Those are opportunities that I think will become available particularly when we have the center of the party shift.
Now here is a point I wanted to make that is at the core of your question. You notice how the squad has proven somewhat more conciliatory with respect to the party leadership reason. I don’t want any way to criticize their strategic decisions, but I will suggest that their strategic decisions at least reflect some degree of capitulation to the political pressure imposed by the particular political figure who I am confronting in an election. Which is to say, if we remove Pelosi, the landscape confronting the squad will look very different and they might frankly have a great many opportunities to be outspoken in ways that they are not at the moment. That’s a point that they are not at liberty to raise. It’s a point that frankly I’m amazed that more people haven’t noticed. I do think it’s fair to say that our election is the second most important in the country, possibly third with the exception of McConnell’s race. I’d feel a lot more excited about it if it was Charles Booker in that election and I frankly think we’d have a better shot at winning if it was Charles Booker in that election. Just like I think we’ll have a better shot at winning policies when we’re promoting a visionary paradigm shift, meeting the needs of the future instead of the stale deference for the past, what Pelosi represents. I recognize the key to unlocking that visionary future is to remove the gatekeepers who hold the past in place. One of them has a name. It starts with Nancy and it ends with Pelosi.
Q4: If you lose your 2020 bid for Nancy Pelosi seat, will you run again in 2022?
Buttar: Strong chance I will. Ro Khanna — the Congressperson who represents San Jose — it took him three Cycles to beat Mike Honda, who was the preceding incumbent representing that district. I ran in 2018 at the end of the cycle, in the same cycle as the members of the squad. Won many votes in our race as Representative Ocasio-Cortez did in hers. I was 1,000 votes short of the runoff that year. I got 17,000 votes. This year we won 33,000 votes in the spring primary, so I am the first Democrat in 30 years to face Pelosi now. The landscape in 2022 might look very very different insofar as — I’ll put it this way — I ran as much to end Pelosi’s career as to get my voice in Congress. Just to be clear, I don’t feel as if serving in Congress is the end all, be all of my life. I just want my city to be represented fairly by someone who will stand for our principles.
I know that a number of center-left establishment are itching for this seat and they dare not run against her. If Pelosi announces her retirement, I expect no fewer than half a dozen of them to jump into this race. I am compelling precisely because I am willing to fight the incumbent and the careerists are not. In a crowded field of careerists, I’m not frankly sure where I line up. There’s a lot more I could say there. I certainly am not going to stop advocating for the needs of our community. I don’t know in what setting that will be. Some people have encouraged me to run in the next Senate opening in California. I think that’s a very long shot. Though, the idea of consolidating support on the left as a longshot candidate among a crowded field of centrists either for the House seat or Senate seat might make sense.
I can’t presume to know what the future holds. I plan to represent San Francisco in the next session. We’ll evaluate alternatives to the extent I need to. One way or another, I will certainly be fighting for the future as I always have. I just don’t know necessarily what shape that will take. Hopefully in Congress.
Q5: If you don’t win next week, will you lead individuals in direct action to move Pelosi toward what she needs to do? What should individuals be doing to pressure Pelosi and other Congress members?
Buttar: Long story short, I’ll support direct action. I don’t think it’s my place frankly to lead anything. I’m auditioning for the chance to represent San Francisco in the national legislature. There is a subtle distinction between leadership and representation, and obviously there’s a helix right? And they entail both. But I don’t presume to lead anything and I wouldn’t insofar as I am here to represent. I am a very effective representative. I do think I embody San Francisco or at least 90’s San Francisco in some way. Not just in my policy paradigm, but even as an immigrant who came here seeking everything from progressive political landscape to counter-culture and as an artist / lawyer / organizer, outside the context of politics. I sort of feel very much I have long been a representative of San Francisco, just not with a seat in Congress. I’m kind of running to formalize that relationship, but I’m very eager in that context to support, amplify, be a part of, and participate in direct action. I certainly have done a lot of that over the years. Not just from the era of the Iraq war, but during the Occupy Movement and in the context of the Movement for Black Lives more recently. I’ll continue to be in the streets absolutely.
What can people do to pressure Pelosi? Now that is a different set of answers. Direct action matters a lot. Where it gets particularly meaningful is when it is sustained and when it claims public space. So when we claim public space on a prolonged basis, that starts to dial up the screws. When we engage in work stoppage en masse, that is the one ring to rule them. And the only way to get there — to a general strike with teeth — is to build that resilience in our communities such that we basically can defect from the market and people don’t need to work. That in turn requires community-based projects. This is another bright lining in the dark cloud of the pandemic. Before I was talking about how in-person gatherings in people’s homes became easier when we moved them online. Similarly, the mutual aid projects that emerge from the wake of the pandemic, those are the gateways to the community cohesion that would enable defection from the market such that prolonged work stoppage would be viable.
Piece of history here that’s relevant — Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. It was enabled not just because people didn’t take the bus. A proactive step that made that possible was that it was a ride network that particularly faith-based communities organized. The ride network is what made the boycott possible. Similarly community gardening helps make a general strike possible. Childcare networks help make a general strike possible. Bike repair collectives. Everything that we need to do for our communities outside the context of the marketplace. And there is another level of this, not just instrumental in a sense of a move toward a general strike. There is a great deal of building the new in the shell of the old that happens in context of that process, that process being effectively the result. And the cultivation of alternative ways of relating to each other and distributing resources, that is a profound act. That is a profound practice and praxis, especially at the scale that it can grow to when it grows beyond small groups of individuals into entire communities and hopefully our country. That is absolutely the direction I want to take.
In addition to those building toward that ring to rule them all, other things at the margin like raising your voice matters. You can do that online. Writing for a public audience. I would double, triple underscore this. If there is any single thing that I would recommend as a tool to empower yourself, as an individual change agent, write for a public audience. Writing will force rigor in your reflections because you can’t frankly teach something you don’t understand, so it will force you to grip what you’re writing about. It will establish a trail of record of your thoughts over time. For me, I think that’s actually been a really crucial part of our race because people can see that I have a 20 year trail of advocacy in writing. Writing for a public audience also can give you a chance to participate in the debate and discourse in the construction of the zeitgeist.
Ultimately, that, for me in the context of the race, is the privilege for which I feel most profoundly grateful. I’m running to represent a city in Congress and I frankly did not dream of to the extent that my voice would catch on as one of the voices representing our movement. I see that as an honor greater than a chance to represent San Francisco in Congress.
Q6: Where do you stand on “reaching across the aisle” and “unity/bipartisanship” vs. only collaborating with people who share your values?
Buttar: I think a lot of freedom caucus members — they’re not going to see eye-to-eye with me on Universal Health Care, they’re not going to see eye-to-eye with me on the Green New Deal, certainly not for federal jobs guarantee… but we can work together a whole bunch of ways. Dismantling prison industrial, policing, slavery complex is one. Unwinding the surveillance state is another. I think the easiest place to start, in terms of trans-partisan collaboration, is moving cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, decriminalizing psychotropics, then moving into unwinding the surveillance state, and then the military budget. Kind of in that sequence.
And as we do those things, I think it will build another wing of Congress. I think there is actually a re-alignment happening underway we haven’t seen complete itself. But people might have thought of the primary division historically being between the left and the right [as] people who favor redistribution and equity versus people who favor accumulation and economic predation, and that pool continues to exist. I think increasingly it is realigning to inside vs. outside, so that you have corporatists in both the Republican and Democratic Party aligning against the populists in both parties, who wish ultimately to drain the swamp. There are different things that we want to build in whatever emerges from that and we will have plenty of time to fight it over and to have that debate. But there is an alignment among the outside voices that the inside voices are fleecing all of us and I think that’s a very ripe space to cultivate.
Q7: My name is Allan Max Axelrod. I am the campaign lead of #NoAmerenShutoffs in Illinois, an all-volunteer statewide campaign with a $0 budget fighting for basic pandemic protections. [Gov. J. B. Pritzker] came to my hometown, lied to the media, got fact-checked by the media, and still has not done anything in this deep blue state. One of the things that I wanted to ask you about is the #WaterIsAHumanRight campaign spearheaded by Food and Water Watch as well as the #NoUtilityShutoffs campaign at the federal level. Because the utility lobbies in each and every state are so overwhelmingly powerful that even with a faux-progressive leader like Gov. J. B. Pritzker, there is nothing that we will be able to do while the body count increases. Will you be able to join the national call for #WaterIsAHumanRight and #NoUtilityShutoffs? And is there anything else that you would be able to do with your platform?
Buttar: Good question and I’m so alarmed. I lived in Chicago for 10 years and to hear what’s happening there — I appreciate you sharing with me — I am disturbed. I absolutely do support both recognizing clean water as a human right, not just within the United States, but around the world. That’s absolutely a baseline human right that we have to stand for in practice and the things that entails, including what it means for our industrial practices and our military industrial complex.
I absolutely favor a ban on utility shutoffs, especially as we’re heading into the wintertime on the east coast to the central plains. We are getting into creating unnecessary vectors for not just public health, but mass calamities here. Like I said, I feel like we have policies that are engineered to drive people into their graves. If you think our government is for, of, and by the people, it might appear not to make any sense and it is in fact senseless except if you put then the lens of capital over the analysis. Because it absolutely serves capital, our policy paradigm places capital before people with entirely predictable and unacceptable results. This is yet another example of that pernicious pattern that I hope to do everything I can to overcome.
When you talked about “Will I be able to help,” the other thing I’d like to do beyond signing on the policies that are proposed, I would like to get the show on the road. And so far, this gets a little bit into the question someone raised minutes ago about method and what sort of squad member will I aim to be. Will I aim to be like the early AOC sitting in Pelosi’s office to the more recent one working constructively within the context of the leadership and whatever it allows?
I am eager to frankly cultivate challengers to any incumbent that stands against the Green New Deal and Medicare-For-All. I don’t have any allegiance to incumbents; I’m running against the head of incumbents here. I want to change the house entirely and I’m eager to be an agent to help spread that movement to other places. I think there are any number of districts where any blue has done, but any blue should not do and I’m eager to remove some pale blue folks who are deeper blue or red, if you think of it from a socialist perspective. I am very eager to make sure that corporate Democrats feel the message and hear the message that they will either show up for us and our community’s needs, or that they will risk the end of their careers. I’m eager to make that threat real for the leader of the corporate Democrats and, when we remove Pelosi, as the most generously funded among them, it will send an unavoidable message to the rest of them if they ever get in line in the future or they should just find something else to do.
Q8: Being that no one challenged Pelosi in 30 years, I wanted to ask, do you believe not enough people are running for office? Context: do you believe if someone is expecting to run, should they first build community work for years first?
Buttar: Great question. I would say that there are plenty of people who run against Pelosi. The issue is that until this year they have always been Republicans. Well there are occasionally independents. Cindy Sheehan in 2008 was an independent. My predecessor Preston Picus in 2016 was a left-leaning independent. So there have been independents who have broken through before, but I’m the first Democrat in 30 years to reach that. And I dare say that, if you’re going to win an election in San Francisco, you have to be a Democrat. It’s difficult outside the context of the party to win a city-wide election.
The second question though that you raise, that’s where the action is at. I hear a lot of people say the messaging they’ve internalized in the recent cycles is that you should run for everything and I would strongly dissent from that. Find some way to be helpful, show up, put your ear to the ground, take direction from the people who you want to stand in solidarity with, and build a body of work. That’s how to be helpful. I didn’t run for office… I’ve written local laws. I’ve organized coalitions. I’ve organized impact litigation projects that help, very early on in the movement, establish marriage equality as a federal right. I’ve led nonprofits, fought for policies at the local, state, and federal level, coast to coast. Multiple members of congress have asked me to brief their staff and their colleagues. I’ve been arrested for an act of journalism in the U.S. senate. And all the articles I’ve written, I feel like that’s why I always talk about writing for a public audience.
I think if you’re interested in running for public office one day — write and organize. Organizing will build your network. It will also ground your policy concerns in communities, which is incredibly important for legitimacy and frankly just to know that you’re going to be doing something that’s helpful instead of… any number of things self-serving perhaps. And the writing is a way to deepen your connection to the issues and leave a trail of what you thought. And those two things together — organizing and writing — are the most critical things that you can do if you’re interested in running for office or, frankly, even if you’re not.
I think of those both as acts of citizenship beyond just voting and ultimately running for office, just like organizing, is sort of an example of hyper-citizenship. I encourage people towards all the different dimensions of hyper-citizenship that are out there from teaching. Teachers are inherently hyper-citizens. Find some way to teach what you learn. Share what you’ve learned. Find some way to share resources with your community. That’s why I was shouting out before community gardens, bicycle co-ops, and mutual aid networks. Whether you are planning just to be a helpful participant in your community or you are considering running for office, it can be helpful for that too because it will build your network.
Everything you might do when you’re considering for office frankly are the same things you might do if you’re not, if you’re just interested in defending the future. I would say ultimately campaigns for office ideally emerge from the community, where you might get recruited from some folks who want to see your voice in a seat. That’s more-or-less what happened to me. In 2018, there were a bunch of people who were dissatisfied with the left-leaning candidates who were in the race. There were some conversations that happened and that’s how I found myself running.
I would encourage people to ground your work and your candidacies in community. I think that’s really, really important. If you’re inspired or enraged enough to run for office, I think the key here is to make sure that you’ve not just done work on behalf of people, but you build a base of people who understand your goals. It’s a critical ingredient that will go a long way. I’m glad to see people interested in that route.
I don’t know quite frankly if I could recommend it in sincere conscience, only because I always thought of electoral politics as a racket and my impressions have only grown stronger over the course of my campaign. Insofar as I see the corporate media whiteout, I see the way Pelosi refuses to debate for 30 years and gets away with it. It does make it hard when I see her and Feinstein in Amy Coney-Barrett’s path to the Supreme Court. And it’s hard to look at this entire sordid enterprise as anything but a corrupt subversion of what aspires to democracy by ultimately capitalism. That notwithstanding, even if it entails going down swinging, I will go down swinging and I’m not inclined to allow the establishment to be so entitled to just coast to victory and I think it is important that we challenge seats, even ones that seem unlikely or safe for the other side — be that side “Any Blue Will Do” or be that side Red and Republican. I think we have to project influence in every contestable sphere that we can as a movement and that becomes incumbent on us as individuals. Not just to run, but as was previously alluded to to do the work necessary to put us in a position to be helpful in our communities.
Q8: A fun question before we go. What is your favorite 80’s cartoon and why?
Buttar: 80’s cartoons… maybe Speed Racer? That’s definitely a 70’s… Is Voltron 80’s? Maybe Voltron because Voltron epitomizes collaboration and I do think that the revolution in a socialist vision will require collaboration. I think that the principle that we are stronger together than when we are one is one that animates my policy platform and certainly imbues any successful campaign. It’s one reason I am so grateful to stand among you this evening.
Learn more about Shahid Buttar by checking out his website.