Coronavirus forces Nancy Pelosi’s SF election foe to take a different path

Coronavirus forces Nancy Pelosi’s SF election foe to take a different path

Photo of Joe Garofoli

Joe Garofoli April 2, 2020 (SFChronicle.com)

Shahid Buttar is a democratic socialist running against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to represent California's 12th Congressional District in San Francisco.
1of4Shahid Buttar is a democratic socialist running against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to represent California’s 12th Congressional District in San Francisco.Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle
House candidate Shahid Buttar delivered masks to Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.
2of4House candidate Shahid Buttar delivered masks to Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle
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.
3of4A 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.Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

If Joe Biden is having a hard time attracting attention for his presidential campaign during the coronavirus pandemic, imagine what it’s like for Shahid Buttar. The long shot of long shots just saw his odds get worse.

Buttar is the San Francisco democratic socialist trying to unseat Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the House seat she has held since 1987. That’s the steepest of challenges in the best of times, and there’s little indication Buttar was poised to pull an upset even before life turned upside down. In the March top-two primary, Pelosi won 74% of the vote to Buttar’s 13%.

It gets even tougher when Buttar’s volunteers can’t campaign door to door, and when Buttar can’t hold rallies or star at one of the DJ parties the campaign hosted in the Mission District before the pandemic struck. That’s no small loss for him — Buttar is perhaps the nation’s only House candidate who is both a Stanford Law graduate and an accomplished rapper, which he flashed on The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast.

To try to replace all that, Buttar is launching something different for a moment when people have more pressing concerns than politics.

He and his campaign volunteers are calling supporters and others in the district just to check on them. No politics. No strong-arming for donations. Instead, they ask people how they are doing. Are they aware of the services the city has made available?

If they need help, Buttar volunteers give them specifics about how to find a food pantry, get health care or learn how to apply for unemployment benefits.

“We’re not in a position to deliver services, but we can help people find them,” Buttar said.

Buttar says he’s made many of these calls himself — he helped a low-income college student find a food pantry and directed others to local support services. On Wednesday, he delivered 60 N-95 masks, which his campaign bought during last year’s wildfires, as a donation to Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.

It’s a way of trying to understand the emotions voters are feeling during these stay-at-home times.

The idea is to “connect with people,” Buttar said. “A lot of them basically described how they have felt isolated. They appreciated the human connection.”

On Thursday, Buttar will explain his campaign’s reboot with an online gathering on Twitch, a platform popular with younger voters and gamers. At noon on April 9, he will be interviewed during an online meeting of San Francisco’s venerable Commonwealth Club.

But this reboot doesn’t mean Buttar, 45, who left his job as a civil rights activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation to focus on his campaign, is abandoning his critique of Pelosi. He said she didn’t get enough for working people in the $2 trillion stimulus package that President Trump signed last week.

Buttar said Pelosi should have done more to thwart the $500 billion “slush fund” for corporations that will be administered by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Congressional Democrats inserted a provision for a federal investigator to report to lawmakers on how the money is spent, although Trump already is pushing back on the idea.

The package did little to address the wealth inequality gap, which the pandemic has only widened, Buttar said.

People who have to work during the crisis, such as grocery store employees or transit drivers, are at elevated risk of falling ill. The new law doesn’t do enough to help those people, Buttar said.

Pelosi says her priorities for a follow-up bill will include paid family and medical leave for more workers, an increase in food-stamp benefits and more money for states and cities whose budgets are being drained fighting the virus. She also wants the federal government to cover the cost of treating people who contract COVID-19.

Buttar is unimpressed.

“What keeps (Pelosi) in office is her presence in the news cycle and simply the name recognition of a figure who frankly hasn’t done much for San Francisco in a generation, and frankly has done a lot to undermine the city and our interest in Washington,” Buttar said.

Pelosi’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Buttar said the pandemic shows the weaknesses of the health care system to take care of the poor and uninsured. He supports the single-payer model proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom he endorsed for president. Pelosi favors improving the Affordable Care Act that she pushed through the House in 2010 before moving to a government-administered system.

“This pandemic is making the case for a paradigm shift in recent health care policy much more strongly than I, or even Bernie Sanders or anybody else, possibly could,” Buttar said.

Buttar has plenty of role models for long-shot candidates who have won. He points to four first-term House members known as “the Squad,” including fellow democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who he said have pushed Pelosi to be more progressive.

However, none of the Squad members has endorsed Buttar. Even if they were inclined to, siding with the House speaker’s election opponent would be risky at best. Sanders hasn’t endorsed him, either, although local outposts of the Sanders-affiliated organization Our Revolution have.

Buttar has raised nearly $500,000, more than many of the election opponents Pelosi has trounced over the years. Nearly 80% of the money has come from outside the district, a reflection, he said, of a “broad national base that is disaffected with the speaker’s leadership.”

But Pelosi has raised $6.6 million for her race and tens of millions more nationally for other Democrats. She doesn’t just have 100% name recognition — she’s a cultural icon to many Democrats for her work as the first female speaker and her leadership in countering Trump.

Buttar knows that all too well. He’s just hoping to get his message heard during the worst time to run a long-shot campaign.

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joegarofoli

Joe Garofoli

Follow Joe on:https://www.facebook.com/SFChronicle/joegarofoli

Joe Garofoli is the San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer, covering national and state politics. He has worked at The Chronicle since 2000 and in Bay Area journalism since 1992, when he left the Milwaukee Journal. He is the host of “It’s All Political,” The Chronicle’s political podcast. Catch it here: bit.ly/2LSAUjA

He has won numerous awards and covered everything from fashion to the Jeffrey Dahmer serial killings to two Olympic Games to his own vasectomy — which he discussed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” after being told he couldn’t say the word “balls” on the air. He regularly appears on Bay Area radio and TV talking politics and is available to entertain at bar mitzvahs and First Communions. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and a proud native of Pittsburgh. Go Steelers!

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