Shahid Buttar: Is Congress ripe for a renaissance?
There is no simple way to describe Shahid Buttar.
He’s the son of Muslim refugees, a civil rights lawyer, an activist, a grassroots organizer, a DJ, a spoken word artist, a writer, a musician and music producer, among other things. Running as a candidate for San Francisco’s 12th District is just one of many things the 43-year-old is doing with his life, but at the moment it is the most important.
A Renaissance man, or woman, is one who makes talents of curiosities and expertise of talents, that knows no end to the pursuit of knowledge and mastery. We once revered those people, they once led us to greater things by challenging our limits of possibility. Buttar would not call himself a Renaissance man, but others do, and some might think that our government could benefit from a little renaissance of its own.
He strives to “demonstrate excellence” in his various pursuits, but when one of those endeavors includes being a member of Congress, it begs the question of whether or not it’s possible to balance all those spinning plates. There’s a certain confidence and lack of hesitation in Buttar’s response to that question.
“I like my music, I’m a pretty damn good lawyer and I haven’t found a stronger candidate in this race, so I think yes is the short answer.”
Is he the right man for the job? He thinks he is – in fact, he believes he is just right for the job. “I like to think of myself in that respect as kind of like the Goldilocks, old enough to have experience, young enough to have energy,” Buttar said. “I’m not ossified, I’m not inexperienced.”
“I’m the only challenger to Nancy Pelosi who’s done any work on federal policy issues and I’ve done a lot of work on a lot of federal policy issues. Particularly ones that mean a lot to this city.”
There is no doubt the man is a policy wonk. He recites U.S. Code sections and legislation chronology with uncanny ease, which is less surprising when you discover he graduated summa cum laude from Loyola University Chicago and later earned his J.D. from Stanford Law while acting as a teaching assistant and as the executive editor of the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, establishing an early pattern of juggling multiple pursuits with notable success. Unlike many scholars, he’s not satisfied to relegate his knowledge to conversational party tricks. He’s not satisfied at all unless he has boots on the ground, so to speak, and so he has spent the better part of his legal career doing just that.
The fight for marriage equality in 2004, under the Bush administration, gave him a taste for the impact he could make. Admittedly they lost that battle, but the young lawyer takes pride in knowing he helped push the war further along, a war that has since been won. “I have more than once embraced causes that seemed impossible and that may be the first and most prolific of those successes in terms of taking a seemingly impossible issue and pushing it into reality,” Buttar said.
As representative of San Francisco’s majority, he vows to stay on the front lines for issues he’s spent the last 15 years fighting for: marriage equality, peace and justice, civil liberties, drug policy and immigrant rights. And those topics are really just large umbrellas with myriad of micro policies he digs down into with an acute level of detail. He’s built years of experience working with organizations like the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the American Constitution Society for Law & Policy and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to protect the public from constitutional violations like mass surveillance, police brutality and campaign finance corruption. Buttar questions the norm and authorities that protect it with little disregard for the consequence of doing so.
“I’ve actually been arrested in the Senate for asking questions that no member of Congress has the independence or the acumen to ask,” Buttar said. He’s referencing an incident in spring of 2015 when he disrupted a congressional hearing in an attempt to make James Clapper answer a question. He didn’t get far before he was contained, but the question he meant to ask was:
“How do you justify having never faced a charge for perjury when you lied to the Senate about mass surveillance, when at the time – it was just before Eric Garner had been choked to death on a New York street on the suspicion of selling cigarettes without a license?”
Those are the kinds of questions he intends to ask and expects answers to. For him, it is not enough to simply observe “the distinction and the rule of law that allows powerless people to be persecuted to the point of death, without charge or trial, for the suspicion of trivial offenses, while powerful people are given pensions, prestige and an entourage when they commit grave, constitutional crimes on the public record.”
He’s obviously and understandably frustrated with the status quo but is ill content to idly sit by and bitch about it, instead he focuses his energy on tangible solutions, speaking in terms like the End Racial Profiling Act and qualified immunity reform to ensure police accountability.
You’d think a man that reflects so deeply on oppression and injustice would dampen a good mood, but he’s actually pretty easy to talk to and has a knack for making a joke at just the right moment of intensity in a conversation. He can inflame and “whip up a crowd” but he’s just as quick to hand out a glimmer of hope. He’s the kind of guy that people associate with San Francisco, that guy that exudes a casual coolness, intellect without pretension and genuine intersectionality – a true product of the place he calls his “vibrational home”.
Nancy Pelosi is fending off a larger than usual number of challengers in the next Democratic primary election and even if she holds onto her seat, it would behoove her to examine why. Buttar expresses deep respect for the Minority Leader but feels she falls short of standing her ground and standing up for the people she represents.
“She’s a trailblazing leader for women,” Buttar said. “She’s probably the most powerful woman the world has ever seen with maybe the exception of (Margaret) Thatcher…and to be perfectly honest she talks a big game and I like a lot of the things that she says. I wish that she would stand by them in practice.”
Pelosi has stayed ahead in a sea of powerful men for 30 years but it may be time to usher in an era of political renaissance and to do that, she just might have to pass the baton. You as voters get to decide who carries it through the next stretch, but Shahid Buttar wants you to know that he’s ready and willing to race.
We tip our hats to all seven candidates in the District 12 race and encourage each person eligible to get out and cast a vote. The heart of democracy is healthy debate and you’ve got plenty of options to choose from this time around. Don’t waste the opportunity.