Shahid Buttar’s Bid to Unseat Nancy Pelosi Roiled by Accusations of Staff Mistreatment (Updated)

The allegations prompted the San Francisco DSA chapter to consider a draft resolution rescinding the organization’s endorsement of Shahid Buttar.

Portrait of Shahid Buttar
A portrait of Shahid Buttar on April 1, 2020, in San Francisco. Photo: Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Editor’s note: This article was updated to include additional context around the allegations made by Elizabeth Croydon.

The campaign of Shahid Buttar, a democratic socialist challenger to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is stumbling amid allegations of sexism and mistreatment of staff in the workplace. The allegations, which former staffers described to The Intercept, prompted the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America to consider a draft resolution rescinding the organization’s endorsement of the candidate.

Buttar’s campaign has faced a period of personnel turmoil since the March 3 Democratic primary, with at least 10 staffers and contractors departing. That includes his top three staffers: campaign manager Jasper Wilde, finance director Emily Jones, and field director Otto Pippenger. Most staff on Buttar’s current team started after the primary, and he no longer has a campaign manager — a change he attributed to a restructuring toward a distributed leadership model. His previous staff, he said, were resistant to empowering volunteers.

In an interview with The Intercept, Buttar denied the allegations and argued that the former employees were dressing workplace disputes in the language of harassment and discrimination. “The allegations that I’m ultimately being accused of, with respect to the campaign, are not gender-related. … It’s a staff performance issue,” he said. “What has been characterized as staff turnover is ultimately staff improvement.”

Complaints about the campaign’s culture came to a head this week, when 44 members of the DSA SF chapter — including three former Buttar campaign staffers, Patrick Cochran, Raya Steier, and Sasha Perigo — signed on to a proposed resolution to rescind their endorsement of him. The resolution cited a sexual harassment accusation from a former acquaintance — which was made public Tuesday on Medium, and which Buttar has denied — and “a pattern of abuse including but not limited to sexual inappropriate behavior with his staff and volunteers.” The Intercept could not independently corroborate the charge of sexually inappropriate behavior. However, The Intercept has spoken to several people who recounted having disturbing interactions with Croydon that caused them to question her credibility. A letter signed by more than a dozen longtime members of the left activist community, including Medea Benjamin, said Croydon had “a widely known pattern of making false allegations.” One of those people, Stacey Haines, her one-time roommate, said that the charges made in Croydon’s Medium post looked familiar to her because, in fact, Croydon was repeating stories Haines had shared about her own experiences. Croydon confirmed that she previously lived with Haines, but denied Haines’s claim that she fabricated her allegations by appropriating Haines’s own stories. Previously, Croydon had implied Buttar was somehow implicated in the death of a friend of his, posting last October on Twitter that Buttar’s friend “died mysteriously at a party and he colluded in the cover up.” She also claimed there were “armed pimps” at a different party of his. Neither allegation has any merit. In a previous interview, Croydon denied making accusations against Buttar in relation to his friend’s death. Presented with the tweets, Croydon said she did not intend to implicate Buttar in the death, but that there were questions and inconsistencies, and would only speak to authorities about it. (It has been ruled an accident. “I have no faith in the veracity of her claims of any sort,” said Anna Ricklin, who was the partner of the man who died.) Croydon, in Bay Area press coverage, is described as a comic who has appeared on “The Tonight Show,” but there is no indication in “The Tonight Show” archives or on IMDb that she appeared on the show; Croydon said she was interviewed by “The Tonight Show” while she was appearing on the reality show “Last Comic Standing.”

The proposed resolution goes on to state that Buttar “mismanaged his campaign by treating his campaign team, specifically the women, in a belittling, demeaning, hyper controlling and abusive manner. The Shahid Buttar campaign has had massive turnover for months because of Shahid’s behavior with many key staff positions still not filled.”

On Wednesday, the chapter’s electoral committee passed the resolution by a vote of 36 to 6.  The proposed resolution, which also calls on Buttar to “participate in restorative justice by engaging in group conflict resolution to fully acknowledge the harm he has caused,” will go to a full vote on August 4, according to a Monday email sent by the chapter’s steering committee. The “resolution can be amended up until it has been voted upon and either passed or not by the membership,” according to the email. 

Asked about the proposed resolution, which was initially posted in a public Google Doc to which access has since been restricted, the committee’s co-chair Faye Wang declined to comment, saying that they were still in the process of gathering information and couldn’t talk about internal processes until the chapter issued a formal decision or statement on behalf of members. “Sexual harassment and gender discrimination are antithetical to the principles of democratic socialism, and are issues that DSA San Francisco takes seriously,” Wang wrote in an email.

Buttar rejected staff complaints about gendered discrimination, saying they amounted to a misunderstanding of his style of management.

In tweets posted Tuesday, Buttar rejected staff complaints about gendered discrimination, saying they were muddled and amplified by the sexual harassment allegation, and amounted to a misunderstanding of his style of management. “These claims have been amplified by former staff who have conflated our campaign’s attempts to manage concerns with their performance with gender-based discrimination,” he said. 

The San Francisco Berniecrats are looking into the accusations against Buttar, the group announced in a Facebook post Tuesday. The San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters, which endorsed Buttar in 2018, said Wednesday on Twitter that it was aware of the allegations and taking them into consideration for its November election process. San Francisco City Supervisor and DSA SF member Dean Preston rescinded his endorsement of Buttar following the allegations from the former acquaintance, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Buttar, an activist and constitutional lawyer who is well-known in San Francisco’s leftist political and art scene, advanced to the November general election following the March primary, in which he obtained 13 percent of the vote. Under California’s primary system, the top two candidates advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. He previously challenged Pelosi in 2018, when he came in third in the primary and did not advance to the general election. Still, Buttar is the first serious left-wing challenger Pelosi has faced in her 30 years in office, and the race is a broader test of whether the Bay Area left can organize to replace her ahead of her potential retirement in 2022.

In interviews with The Intercept, seven former staffers and contractors on Buttar’s campaign described a pattern of public berating and insults toward staff regardless of gender, but particularly toward women on the campaign. They said Buttar was a tough boss, but his treatment of staff crossed a line.

On Tuesday, Mission Local reported that a number of former staffers said they had signed nondisparagement agreements and that Buttar “denied the existence of the NDAs.” The Intercept obtained a copy of a campaign contract that included a nondisparagement clause and in a Wednesday interview, Buttar acknowledged that some staffers, including his former campaign manager, Wilde, had signed such contracts.

“I can vouch for the culture of misogyny that existed in the campaign,” said Raya Steier, a DSA SF member and a former full-time field organizer for Buttar’s campaign who joined the campaign in May and resigned in June. “I have experienced it personally.”

Steier said they’d seen Buttar publicly berate and humiliate multiple women staffers, including Wilde and Buttar’s former campaign finance director, Emily Jones. Steier, who came to the U.S. from India, helped start the #MeToo movement there by releasing the name of academics accused of sexually harassing students at universities around the country. Following university investigations, at least four professors were fired. “These are patterns of abuse that I know very closely,” they said.

Steier said they left for those reasons, as well as concerns that Buttar’s campaign was all for show.

Jones said her entire team quit “because Shahid insulted them at some point or another. … It is more diabolical when a man in hippie pants is a misogynist.”

Regarding the complaints about workplace culture, Buttar said skilled volunteers felt alienated by former staff and were made to feel like they couldn’t participate. He pointed to a number of campaign metrics to show that performance had improved following the staff departures. The campaign more than doubled its fundraising between March and June and made more than 110,000 calls after the primary, “roughly all of them” after the staff changes, said Patricia Brooks, a communications volunteer for Buttar’s campaign, compared to roughly 7,000 phone calls and 12,000 canvass attempts before the primary.  Brooks said the campaign also grew its email list by 110 percent, with 37,300 emails on its list, and added at least 2,200 volunteers after the primary, for a total of 3,000.

Some staffers pointed to Buttar’s salary as a point of contention. According to Federal Election Commission filings, Buttar is making just under $100,000 a year, about one-tenth of the $1.1 million his campaign has raised so far. It’s legal for candidates to pay themselves with campaign funds during the election cycle, a reform that was fought for so that candidates who are not wealthy enough to go without income for a year or more can make bids for office. Staffers were nonetheless surprised. “When people found out, there was a huge amount of frustration in our circles internally,” said Sasha Perigo, a local columnist and DSA SF member who worked part-time on contract doing email fundraising for the campaign. “People were like, are you fucking kidding me?”

Buttar noted that his salary is equivalent to his previous salary working for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The idea in any way that I’m benefitting is frankly preposterous,” he said.

Jones told The Intercept that Buttar lashed out at his staff, and at women staff in particular, both in public and private. She began consulting for the campaign on a freelance basis at the end of December and joined the staff on February 19. By May 15, she submitted her resignation. Jones said her entire team, including an email fundraiser, someone who handles social media ads, and the public relations team, quit “because Shahid insulted them at some point or another. … It is more diabolical when a man in hippie pants is a misogynist.”

“Everybody quit,” she said. “Imagine people have a $4,000, $5,000 salary during a pandemic and they quit their job. Imagine that.”

In the days following the March primary, Buttar attempted to mend relations with frustrated campaign staff, according to Jones and an internal email obtained by The Intercept.

During a March 7 meeting Jones described as a campaign “intervention” with staffers, the campaign’s public relations firm the Worker Agency, and other unofficial senior campaign advisers, Buttar apologized to staffers for his past actions. Buttar, in an interview, described the meeting as a breaking point between the campaign and the staffers who ended up leaving, with major disagreements over strategy. (The Worker Agency, which dropped Buttar’s campaign in April, declined to comment.)

The next day, Buttar apologized directly to Jones in an email. “I’ve come to understand that my impatience and preoccupation has made you feel disrespected, and I owe you an apology for that. I am truly sorry, and did not realize how my actions were impacting you,” Buttar wrote, going on to describing “unfortunate dynamics” between him and Jones, and him and Wilde. “If you have the patience left to give me another chance, I would like to do the same with you.”

Patrick Cochran, former volunteer coordinator for Buttar’s campaign and a DSA SF member who signed the proposed resolution, joined the campaign on January 15 and left May 15, citing “Jasper and Emily being treated like shit,” he told The Intercept. “Also, I just thought the campaign was directionless, and Shahid was not a viable candidate,” he said. “Something in the campaign was off.”

“As a male staffer, I felt like I never was treated bad by Shahid,” Cochran said “He treated Jasper and Emily terribly.”

“If you’re gonna attack Nancy Pelosi for her freezer and her ice cream, you better make sure that your house is clean too.”

“There was obviously a huge gulf of difference between my interactions and their interactions, which led me to believe he was misogynistic,” he said, referencing Wilde and Jones. “We had a weekly meeting, and it was pretty frequent for Shahid to kind of belittle or brush aside any points they made. And especially Emily, it would get into really uncomfortable and just downright misogynistic and just mean how he would treat Emily whenever she brought up a point in our meetings.”

“He’s tried to use the defense, ‘I’m a tough boss,’ which is completely not true. … There are demanding bosses that are like that. It wasn’t like that,” he said. “Because if he was a tough boss, he would have been tough to me.”

“We always just thought he was doing this for his own personal profile,” Cochran said. “If you’re gonna attack Nancy Pelosi for her freezer and her ice cream,” he said, “you better make sure that your house is clean too.”

In the Monday meeting with DSA SF, Buttar responded to concerns about staff turnover by pointing to performance issues, according to Jones and another staffer who attended. “I had a lot of frustrations with the campaign staff that was, you know, frankly, challenging to manage and did very much have their own ideas about what was in the campaign’s best interest,” he said.

“Due process is important,” Buttar told The Intercept when asked about the meeting. “There are a great many facts here that should come out. And I would love for DSA to explore them.”

Perigo told The Intercept that Buttar publicly berated her work and treated his employees poorly, sometimes along gendered lines. “I’m receptive to feedback on my work,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of bosses before, and I’ve never had this problem with any of them.” Perigo left the campaign in April at the same time as other staffers “in solidarity with Jasper” and others who’d resigned. “I just felt that the campaign was a vanity campaign,” she said. “There were a lot of times where he would berate me to the point where I was like, should I be here? Like what is the point? This isn’t a huge moneymaker for me. It’s just part-time,” she said.

“I noticed a pattern where Jasper was constantly made to apologize for Shahid’s very brash behavior. And I felt that that dynamic was very gendered,” she added. “And that is part of why I signed the DSA resolution.”

“What kind of socialist candidate are you if you’re mistreating comrades in your own chapter?” she said.

Correction: July 23, 2020, 7:25 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article misstated the number of volunteers who have joined Buttar’s campaign since the primary. 

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