SHAHID BUTTAR WANTS TO TAKE BACK SAN FRANCISCO FOR THE LEFT

THE UNDERDOG CANDIDATE RUNNING AGAINST NANCY PELOSI SAYS THE HOUSE SPEAKER IS RICH, ENTITLED AND OUT OF TOUCH.

As a pan­dem­ic-wracked nation hopes des­per­ate­ly for Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats, led by Nan­cy Pelosi, to nego­ti­ate a new relief pack­age, it can be easy to for­get that the House Speak­er is in the midst of a reelec­tion race as well. Her oppo­nent is Shahid But­tar, a Mus­lim immi­grant, attor­ney, and activist who says that Pelosi is not a true pro­gres­sive, and that his own left­ist pol­i­tics — embrac­ing Medicare For All, the Green New Deal and defund­ing the police — are more suit­ed to the San Fran­cis­co district. 

(Buttar’s cam­paign has been hob­bled by accu­sa­tions of mis­treat­ment and sex­ism by mem­bers of his for­mer staff, which he vehe­ment­ly denies. A detailed dive into those issues can be found here.)

We spoke to But­tar about the elec­tion, pan­dem­ic relief and the future of the Left in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party. 

Some pro­gres­sives, like Ro Khan­na, have called for Nan­cy Pelosi to take the stim­u­lus bill that’s on the table now, giv­en the urgency of the times. What are your thoughts on how she’s han­dled the nego­ti­a­tions on this relief package? 

Shahid But­tar: I con­nect it to the pre­ced­ing fail­ure. It’s hard to extri­cate from the last nine months of the House basi­cal­ly, under Pelosi’s lead­er­ship, fail­ing to meet the needs of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. It’s been nine months that this can’s been get­ting kicked down the road. There’s an evic­tion wave sweep­ing the coun­try. Peo­ple, even the lucky ones who aren’t dying alone gasp­ing for breath, are hit with mas­sive med­ical bills around the pan­dem­ic. Fam­i­lies are in cri­sis. Peo­ple don’t know how to feed them­selves. This is not the time to be delay­ing the relief that peo­ple so des­per­ate­ly need. 

So what do you think her best move is, strategically? 

But­tar: I cer­tain­ly think that urgency requires tak­ing what’s avail­able, then fight­ing for more. To be clear, she’s done exact­ly that before. This spring [with the CARES Act], she took what was avail­able at the time. It was pen­nies. She did this before, accept­ing the fast deal that frankly includ­ed very lit­tle relief for the Amer­i­can peo­ple. As it was report­ed a few days ago, the lat­est offer from the admin­is­tra­tion was $1.8 tril­lion. That’s three times the amount of stim­u­lus after the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis… $1.8 tril­lion is noth­ing to sneeze at. And that’s what the Speak­er has been doing while peo­ple are chal­lenged and their backs are to the wall. I think one of the big issues is that the Speak­er, as a wealthy per­son, is effec­tive­ly insu­lat­ed from the pres­sures that every­one else con­fronts. Yes, she’s the head of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but she also has class issues and class per­spec­tives that seem to blind her to the real­i­ty that so many of the rest of us have to confront. 

I’m sure you saw Wolf Blitzer’s inter­view with Pelosi last week on CNN, when she seemed to dis­miss his urg­ing to take the mon­ey on the table. Do you think she doesn’t grasp the grav­i­ty of what’s happening? 

But­tar: I think the thing that we saw in that inter­view was sim­ply enti­tle­ment. And I would say that it was pos­i­tive­ly Trumpian. And I’ll get sharp­er with that: The last time Nan­cy Pelosi debat­ed any­one, Ronald Rea­gan was the pres­i­dent. The inter­net had not been invent­ed yet. For some­one who refus­es to defend her ideas in pub­lic to then grow indig­nant on the rare occa­sion that some­one asks her a chal­leng­ing ques­tion just reveals the deep-seat­ed enti­tle­ment, and frankly dis­re­spect for democ­ra­cy, that char­ac­ter­izes the Speaker’s tenure. 

You’ve spo­ken about Pelosi embody­ing the brand of ​“resis­tance,” but not the sub­stance. What do you mean by that, and what do you see as your most sub­stan­tive pol­i­cy differences? 

But­tar: The Speaker’s rhetoric rarely match­es her record. In terms of defin­ing sub­stan­tive dif­fer­ences, she’s com­mit­ted to for-prof­it preda­to­ry health care that places the prof­its of cor­po­rate health insur­ance com­pa­nies before the needs of patients, and before pub­lic health. She’s com­mit­ted to the fos­sil fuel indus­try, and derides the Green New Deal as a ​“dream”… I was clam­or­ing for impeach­ment [of Trump] from the day I entered the race. It took her a year to show up, and when she did final­ly show up for impeach­ing the pres­i­dent, she did it like a box­er throw­ing a fight. Because she lim­it­ed the process to a sin­gle charge that was the weak­est one avail­able. And the result of that process was entire­ly pre­dictable. [A piece I wrote] made the point that we have to impeach the pres­i­dent specif­i­cal­ly for cor­rup­tion. That’s the way to bring him down — emol­u­ments clause violations. 

As we think about Jus­tice Ginsburg’s lega­cy, and Pelosi’s — she might claim to sup­port Gins­burg, but this year, while Gins­burg was still on the bench, Pelosi endorsed two dif­fer­ent Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bents who oppose repro­duc­tive rights: Dan Lip­in­s­ki in Illi­nois, who lost his pri­ma­ry to Marie New­man, and Hen­ry Cuel­lar in Texas, who won his pri­ma­ry against Jes­si­ca Cis­neros. So in two dif­fer­ent races, Pelosi pro­tect­ed anti-choice incum­bents against chal­lenges from women who sup­port repro­duc­tive rights. That is direct­ly con­trary to Jus­tice Ginsburg’s legacy. 

[Sen­a­tor Dianne] Fein­stein also comes from San Fran­cis­co. She’s the chair of the Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee. She’s tak­en a lot of very appro­pri­ate heat for fail­ing entire­ly in the recent con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings. It is strik­ing to me that between one Sen­a­tor paving the road for Bar­rett, and the Speak­er of the House that failed to block the nom­i­na­tion, both from the same city that is a proud­ly pro­gres­sive city, and nei­ther of them have been held to account for it. 

It seems to be hard to dis­lodge Pelosi by attack­ing from the left. Is San Francisco’s pro­gres­sive rep­u­ta­tion in elec­toral pol­i­tics some­what overblown? 

But­tar: Our fed­er­al voic­es are decid­ed­ly, at least in the cas­es of Sen. Dianne Fein­stein and Pelosi, con­ser­v­a­tive, at least rel­a­tive to the city. Anoth­er way to put this is that the self-described pro­gres­sive estab­lish­ment in San Fran­cis­co places its fideli­ty to pow­er before its own principles.

Biden is obvi­ous­ly not a left­ist can­di­date, but the left is more or less forced to sup­port him. What do you think a Biden admin­is­tra­tion would look like in terms of the pri­or­i­ties of the left? 

But­tar: I’m assured that who­ev­er wins the pres­i­den­cy in this elec­tion will be decid­ed­ly more con­ser­v­a­tive than the coun­try. I see Biden’s lega­cy on every­thing from judi­cial nom­i­na­tions to polic­ing as deeply prob­lem­at­ic, and I frankly don’t have a great deal of hope for pro­gres­sive motion through his admin­is­tra­tion. That’s one rea­son it’s so cru­cial to send to Con­gress voic­es from the left who will hold his feet to the fire, and hold him account­able… I’ve often said that the most impor­tant thing is post-elec­tion engage­ment. And I’d love to see, frankly, a gen­er­al strike hap­pen in this coun­try, whether it’s Trump or Biden in the White House. We need to have a long-over­due asser­tion of work­er pow­er. And the polit­i­cal par­ties have failed to even mean­ing­ful­ly rep­re­sent those issues, let alone pass poli­cies that address them. 

What was your analy­sis of Bernie Sanders’ loss in the primaries? 

But­tar: One that emerges for me was the ral­ly­ing of mil­lions of peo­ple around the coun­try, who didn’t have a voice in pol­i­tics before, around his can­di­da­cy. I dare say that Bernie Sanders revi­tal­ized democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca. I shed tears the day that he sus­pend­ed his cam­paign, not only because he inspired me to run… but also by see­ing his cam­paign reflect a move­ment alle­giance before a tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal one. I saw a cabal of cen­trists effec­tive­ly coa­lesce in what would frankly be an antitrust vio­la­tion if it hap­pened among com­pa­nies. There was col­lu­sion among every one of the cen­trist can­di­dates who dropped out to endorse Biden. I’ve often said that one of the things I want to do in Con­gress is to extend antitrust laws into polit­i­cal markets. 

The last dynam­ic I observed here was the unfor­tu­nate role of what I’d describe as cam­paign staff in the deci­sion for him to sus­pend his cam­paign. I thought Bernie’s deci­sion to sus­pend his cam­paign was unfor­tu­nate­ly prob­a­bly the worst deci­sion he made of the entire cam­paign… Ulti­mate­ly I think it was com­pelled by staff who had their own interests. 

How have the dis­putes you’ve had with your own staff, which led to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca with­draw­ing its endorse­ment, affect­ed your campaign? 

But­tar: I’ve basi­cal­ly been the tar­get of a polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed and racial­ized smear cam­paign in which the city’s entire pro­gres­sive estab­lish­ment par­tic­i­pat­ed… for press out­lets to run those sto­ries in the first place is uneth­i­cal, biased, inac­cu­rate and racist. 

What do you think a sec­ond Trump term would mean for America?

But­tar: An unend­ing parade of hor­rors. I mean it. I can see a very like­ly pos­si­bil­i­ty of ham­mer-fist­ed author­i­tar­i­an­ism. Round­ing up polit­i­cal ene­mies. They’re already round­ing up migrants, and detain­ing them en masse, sub­ject­ing them to forced ster­il­iza­tion. Human rights abus­es are nor­mal­ized. They’re in plain sight. 

Covid infec­tions are already cat­a­stroph­ic. I can see it grow­ing worse if Trump is reelect­ed, if only because he seems so hell-bent on doing every­thing he can to spread the con­ta­gion and dri­ve peo­ple into their graves. I can see a Trump admin­is­tra­tion par­tic­u­lar­ly accel­er­at­ing a glob­al cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe. To be frank, this is anoth­er area where I don’t think Biden is going to help as much. The cli­mate chaos is already killing Cal­i­for­ni­ans, and it’s almost as if nobody in Wash­ing­ton cares. Par­tic­u­lar­ly our city’s voic­es in Wash­ing­ton. Fein­stein and Pelosi both come from San Fran­cis­co. The skies here were blood-red at high noon a month ago, on Sep­tem­ber 9, because of the par­tic­u­late mat­ter in the atmos­phere from the wild­fires. And yet we can’t find some­one in Wash­ing­ton to back the Green New Deal. 

You’ve been involved in all facets of left pol­i­tics, from non­prof­its to law to activism. What has your for­ay into elec­toral pol­i­tics taught you about win­ning pow­er for the left? 

But­tar: One would be to look at receipts — when you’re vot­ing, look for peo­ple who’ve done the work before run­ning. Two, I would encour­age our move­ment to stay focused on issues and not per­son­al­i­ties… Maybe anoth­er way I’d put that is that the move­ment has seemed to grow dis­tract­ed by iden­ti­ty issues that under­mine our abil­i­ty to project pow­er on behalf of class­es and pop­u­la­tions that are abused by weaponized mil­i­tary indus­tri­al cap­i­tal, and the sor­did self pro­mot­ing inter­ests of peo­ple who per­ceive pol­i­tics as oppor­tu­ni­ty or career, as dis­tinct from a lib­er­a­to­ry exer­cise to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with time­less prin­ci­ples and mar­gin­al­ized people.

In These Times

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