Nancy Pelosi to Receive First Genuine Left-Wing Challenge in 30 Years

The speaker of the House will face a spirited challenge from activist and attorney Shahid Buttar in the November general election.

Shahid Buttar. Photo: Shahid Buttar for Congress

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will face a spirited challenge from activist and attorney Shahid Buttar in the November general election.

Buttar represents a unique, if unlikely challenge to Pelosi, the most powerful elected Democrat in the country and 33-year incumbent for San Francisco’s congressional seat. On Tuesday, Pelosi took 72.5 percent of the vote in California’s 12th Congressional District. Under the state’s unique primary system — where the top-two vote-getters in the primary make it to the general election, even if they belong to the same party — Buttar’s 12.7 percent was enough to get him on the November ballot.

Buttar is a constitutional lawyer who has dedicated his career on reining in American militarism and advancing causes relating to social justice. As a part-time DJ, Buttar may appear at face value as just another reflexive left-wing activist, but he is well-credentialed with a track record in advocacy and community organizing. A graduate of Stanford Law School, Buttar worked on court cases litigating marriage equality and defending the civil liberties of Muslims facing FBI surveillance, and has challenged the constitutionality of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Currently on leave from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Buttar has waged an insurgent effort, campaigning on a promise to ensure that Pelosi faces bonafide electoral opposition from the left for the first time in modern history. The seemingly quixotic bid has given Buttar the opportunity to elevate genuine concerns with Pelosi’s style of leadership, including her compromise bill on drug pricing, which would only impact a few select pharmaceutical products, her support for President Donald Trump’s increased spending on the Pentagon, and what Buttar describes as a failure to fight for federal financing to alleviate the housing crisis in San Francisco and other cities.

Pelosi, once a stalwart ally of the House Progressive Caucus, has moderated her positions over the years as she has ascended the leadership ranks. Last month, she appeared with Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, one of the most Trump-supporting, right-wing Democrats in Congress, to shore up support for him as he faces a challenge from progressive Jessica Cisneros.

The unlikely challenge to Pelosi is made possible by Proposition 14, a state constitution change originally opposed by Pelosi that shifted the state to a nonpartisan blanket primary. The referendum, passed in 2010, takes party affiliation away from the primary process, allowing the two candidates with the most support on primary day to advance to the general election.

In 2018, Buttar made his first bid for Congress, coming up only 1,174 votes short from making the top two. That year, Pelosi faced a nominal Republican candidate, as she has done in almost every election.

This year will be different.

“Pelosi knows that voters are dissatisfied, and before the primary began campaigning in San Francisco for the first time in 30 years,” said Jasper Wilde, campaign manager for the Buttar campaign, in a statement to The Intercept.

“Shahid going 1-1 against Nancy will shine a spotlight on precisely how little she has done for the district in the midst of a housing crisis, an opioid crisis, and an out-of-control cost of living. The election will also reveal her role in exacerbating these issues, that remain at the forefront of voters minds both today and in November.”

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