Eric Ting, SFGATE Feb. 10, 2022 (SFGate.com)
Until 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had never faced an opponent from the Democratic Party in a general election.
Because of California’s rule that the two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary — regardless of political party — advance to the general election, Pelosi squared off against progressive community activist Shahid Buttar. Though Buttar got blown out — Pelosi won re-election with 77.6% of the vote compared with Buttar’s 22.4% — he received more votes than any other Pelosi challenger since she assumed her seat in 1987, and he was the first candidate to cross the 20% threshold against Pelosi since 1990.
And he almost assuredly would have done better had it not been for highly publicized allegations against him — one of which was later rebutted by a major news outlet.
In July 2020, Mission Local and the San Francisco Chronicle articles reported the accusations of East Coast comedian Elizabeth Croydon, who said that Buttar made unwanted advances, mocked her over celibacy and at one point made unwelcome physical contact with her, allegedly cornering her and brushing up against her (SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently of one another).
After Croydon came forward, a group of Buttar’s staffers then relayed that Buttar had a pattern of mistreating female employees. The San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America subsequently passed a resolution announcing it “lost confidence in Buttar,” and other prominent progressive groups and figures sought their distance.
It wasn’t until September that Croydon’s credibility was called into question. The Intercept published a report stating, “The Intercept was not able to corroborate Croydon’s allegations and has interviewed multiple sources who recounted having disturbing interactions with her that caused them to question her credibility.”
The Intercept reported that Croydon’s former roommate said that “the accusation sounded remarkably familiar, as it was actually [the roommate] who went through a period of celibacy and was mocked and harassed by Croydon for doing so.” To the roommate, Croydon “appeared to be taking behavior she herself had engaged in and imputing it to Buttar,” The Intercept reported.
In a recent interview with SFGATE, Buttar said that all of the allegations against him are false. He likened criticisms that he mistreated female employees to similar charges levied against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaigns. And he has no problem naming names when accusing various politicians, operatives and journalists connected to San Francisco politics of waging, as he put it, a “smear campaign” against him to protect a “corrupt incumbent.”
Buttar is running again in 2022 because he believes that dissatisfaction with Pelosi has reached a new high, given the ongoing controversy surrounding her stock trading. In a recent interview with Business Insider, Buttar signaled he is going to make that issue a central plank of his campaign. Pelosi has also not been supportive of progressive policy goals including Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, both which are policies Buttar believes a majority of San Franciscans support.
The primary in San Francisco is scheduled for June 7, and Buttar plans to increase his visibility in the coming months. If his interview with SFGATE was any indication, anyone connected to what he described as the “San Francisco Democratic establishment” should prepare to be criticized publicly. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
SFGATE: Let’s start with the allegations made against you. The Intercept had a report that called the credibility of the Croydon allegation into question, but it did not directly challenge the credibility of allegations you mistreated female staffers. I’d like you to speak to those.
Buttar: The San Francisco Bay View documented what its editors described as a civic lynching that The Intercept ultimately enabled by silencing the Afro-Latina whistleblower elected to the Democrat County Central Committee named Gloria Berry. So there’s been a dramatic failure of the press across this race going back for years long before I got into into it not just with respect to granting artificial legitimacy to fabricated, orchestrated, weaponized lies intended to mislead the public, but further — and this is the bigger problem — failing to critically cover the policy record of the incumbent.
[Gloria Berry is a Buttar ally who denied the allegations against him forcefully. The Intercept did not mention Berry in its initial report on the accusations. The accounts from Berry can be read from the San Francisco Bay View and Berry’s Substack.]
And you have to understand these two things in context of each other. It was not just racist smears fabricated by the Democratic Party, incentivized by the leadership and rewarded by middle-tier actors in the party. I’ve often thought of San Francisco as the country’s most progressive city and I discovered two years ago it is also the most racist. And I say this having grown up in St. Louis, having lived in Chicago, having lived in Washington, D.C. I’ve spent time in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
[Buttar then made a series of claims about individuals — some prominent and some not — connected to San Francisco Democratic Party politics that SFGATE could not independently fact-check.]
SFGATE: One staffer told The Intercept that “Croydon’s allegations led to ‘a small handful of female staffers on the Buttar campaign to reexamine their experiences with Buttar along gendered lines, despite the fact that these experiences with Buttar were not a uniquely female experience.’” But that would suggest it was a toxic work environment that applied to everyone regardless of gender?
Buttar: I’m interested in how you reached that analysis based on the quote. It seems to me that the quote suggested, in fact, there was nothing gender-related on the team and a bunch of people contrived a gender-based story out of the political convenience of having an accuser to whom to attach their accusations.
SFGATE: If we boil it down to, “OK, there are these allegations, credible or not credible, but we still like Shahid more on policy than we do Nancy Pelosi.” Do you think that that’s going to be a solid enough message for progressives who want someone further to the left than Nancy Pelosi?
Buttar: I guess the relevant question is, do voters want the same voice that has steered our country into a ditch for 34 years while filling her pockets at the public’s expense? Or do we want an advocate who has long stood for our communities? Plenty of people who’ve stood for our communities get smeared. Ilhan Omar is smeared routinely. Dr. King got smeared. Malcolm X got smeared. If you stand for truth against an establishment, you get smeared. They only smear you if they fear you.
And the Democratic establishment has good reason to fear me because on six different occasions in 2020 I won things bigger than a congressional seat: We shifted the speaker of the House on critical policy issues. That’s why the character assassination was orchestrated, because we had managed to do what no one has done in this seat in a generation. And that was shifting Pelosi on issues, including the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the Justice in Policing Act, the bill that funded the Postal Service, two different impeachment resolutions and a war powers amendment, all of which Pelosi flipped on to adopt parts of our platform after we made it politically untenable for her to continue her indefensible position.
[Pelosi had no documented opposition to any of the six. She did face progressive pressure on all six, most notably the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, with progressive members of the Democratic caucus accusing her of sitting on it before it was ultimately brought to the House floor for a vote.]
There is in the body politic right now, particularly among progressives, I think a great deal of disappointment in our elected standard-bearers in Washington. And the feeling is that people have, for instance, campaigned on Medicare for All, but then are conspicuously silent about the need for universal health care as this pandemic continues to rage. People who ran on any number of principles dedicated to equity have now managed to find more convenient ways to conduct their policy-making since they’ve been in Washington.
This disappointment in principles losing space to power in Washington is a big part of the reason why I’m running. I’m not afraid of a fight. I mean, they’ve done everything short of killing me to shut me up. Every kind of lie you could imagine, leveraging racial stereotypes and religious stereotypes. When I was being smeared, there was a day in September 2020 when the sky was blood red at high noon, you might remember it. And in the middle of this wildfire season, while there’s a crucial contested debate happening in Washington over a Green New Deal, while this city’s representative dismissed it, derided it as a “dream or whatever,” and I’m on a ballot as the first general election challenger in 34 years from within the party — the only one ever in the seat to have ever supported the Green New Deal — and not be able to talk about it in the press because everyone’s distracted by lies?
I ran against Pelosi in 2020, but in 2022, I understand that I have to run against her, the party and all of its sycophants in institutions, sadly, including the press.
SFGATE: I want to ask you about some of your messaging and public statements. You invoke the phrase “white supremacy” frequently and make many identity-based appeals. There was a survey done recently by Jacobin and YouGov that found that working class voters typically “prefer progressive candidates who focus primarily on bread-and-butter economic issues, and who frame those issues in universal terms,” shying away from so-called “woke” language around identity. You don’t seem to subscribe to this school of thought. Why not?
Buttar: I disagree. I absolutely subscribe to it. My campaign is based on class, and it’s why I’m fighting for universal health care. It’s why I’m fighting for the minimum wage to be $25 an hour. It’s why I’m fighting for a basic human right to health care, housing and food. I say a lot of things and I’m absolutely committed to the interests of working class America. What you’re reflecting on with the language, I would describe that as sort of the inability of the political system to hear two things at once and understand the complexity of a political message.
All of these things are true. There is class-based marginalization and white supremacy is real. It’s also widely misunderstood, particularly by white people. And part of the problem here is that white people reduce white supremacy to an ideology, not understanding that it is the water in which they swim. And they might have a hard time coming to recognize it because their privilege blinds them to it. One of the peculiarities about racism is how it blinds the racist to it. And I don’t think that the white journalists who fabricated lies and printed weaponized smears to mislead the public, I don’t think they think of themselves as white supremacists. I don’t know if they are white supremacists. Do articles reflect white supremacy? Hell yes, they do. Not only are they resting on stereotypes, not only do they silence a whistle-blower of color, not only they insulate a white, wealthy oligarch who has defended militarism, mass surveillance and mass incarceration — quintessential demonstrations of authoritarian policies — that themselves represent white supremacy in policy.
SFGATE: On the hearing two messages thing, I think that even if someone were to entirely agree with you on what white supremacy is, there’s an electoral argument: Even if you’re blasting out both messages at once, some might like the more populist anti-corruption type messages, but then all of a sudden will hear identity-based appeals and then immediately tune out. Do you think that is a real concern for the modern-day left raised by that Jacobin study? That even if you have a stance that would appeal to people on the economics, if you’re also discussing white supremacy to the degree that you are, think that could possibly be a liability that drowns out the other message?
Shahid: I feel like you might be falling into the trap of putting politics before policy. I actually don’t even worry about that layer of it. All I can do is lead horses to water, stand for the truth and often offer better policies. And if San Francisco wants better policies, they’ll vote for them. And if San Francisco chooses to ignore the past sufficiently to not hold it accountable, it’s not actually my problem. That’s the future’s problem. And I’m running to offer an alternative. And it is a complex alternative. I’m a lot more than, like, a set of hashtags. I don’t fit into a dogmatic bubble. Socialism is a poor way to try to describe me because I’m way more than just a socialist, and “immigrant” is sort of a poor way to describe me because I’m more than that.
What I present is not a simple prescription. I’m not here for the fight for 15, I’m here for the fight for 25. What progressives think of as alternative policies to me tend to be half-ass, watered down, a day late, a dollar short. So I frequently find myself confronting a public that is either ignorant of the facts or its own interests. And I have been forced by the facts of our circumstances into an educational role and I do routinely educate voters and volunteers and constituents about things they don’t know about, or don’t get a chance to hear about. I’m looking forward to continuing to do that. And as we educate the public, I think reality is also educating the public about the failures of the past.
SFGATE: There are moderates and even conservatives in San Francisco who dislike Nancy Pelosi. Toppling Pelosi would likely require some support from them. How would you get buy-in from people who might be opposed to you on lots of policy?
Buttar: Particularly my work on digital rights and surveillance. Surveillance and internet rights are one set of issues where many moderates and even conservatives in San Francisco have appropriate concerns about the authoritarian record of the oligarch incumbent who’s had this seat for 34 years. There has never been a surveillance program that Nancy Pelosi did not support. And the fact that the internet —which this city has a particular hand in constructing — has been co-opted as a tool for global surveillance by our national security agencies, which remain completely unaccountable, is an object of grave concern.
And it’s not just a concern for dissidents, whistle-blowers and independent journalists across the world, but particularly people who work in technology, which include many San Franciscans, and include many moderates and conservatives. So I think people who are concerned about privacy, or government accountability, or checks and balances, people who are concerned about transparency and conflicts of interest, might gravitate to the anti-corruption message, whatever they think of my “wokeness.”
If they don’t understand white supremacy enough that they are alarmed by a set of things that I encourage them to grapple with, then there are many other things we offer that can be onramps to their support, and my work for digital rights across a range of contexts — not just challenging surveillance, but also promoting the right to encryption, promoting antitrust regulations and enforcement to constrain the power of big tech — these are principles and positions that have transpartisan appeal. Again, it’s part of the reason why I ran for the seat. I am a leftist with a history of fighting for transpartisan civil rights and government accountability that any American ultimately should support.
SFGATE: You definitely sound like someone who believes that there is value in running to drag the establishment to the left on certain issues and influencing power in that way. So let’s say you lose to Pelosi in 2022. Do you plan to keep on running for this seat? If she retires in 2023, and there’s a special election, or if she stays until 2024, is your plan to just keep on running and trying to bring about change through that mechanism?
Buttar: I can’t speak to the future. I do know that I want to end the Pelosi dynasty, and if I’m unsuccessful in doing it in this race, I will be very eager to end the dynasty at whatever point I can.Top Picks In Shopping
Written By Eric Ting
Eric Ting is SFGATE’s politics editor. He is an East Bay native who has a Master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University. Eric did his undergrad at Pomona College, where he majored in politics and minored in economics. Email: email@example.com