Candidate Tom Gallagher blamed Shahid Buttar for throwing the last primary to the Republicans, and Agatha Bacelar fought off charter-school allegations as Nancy Pelosi’s primary challengers debated for nearly two-and-a-half hours Saturday night.
Speaker of the House and local congressional representative Nancy Pelosi has three potential challengers in an upcoming March 3, 2020 primary election. Only one will get the privilege of advancing to face her in the top-two primary that determines who dukes it out against Pelosi in the November 2020 election, and the three Bernie-esque progressives battling for that chance to “primary” her debated in an online, Skype-style forum on Saturday night — which SFist, dear readers, took the time to watch so you don't have to. Here’s a full recap of the two-and-a-half hour debate moderated by Real Progressives’ Savage Joy, available on demand at Facebook Live Video (where it has more than 5,000 views) and YouTube (currently at 778 views).
First, meet your candidates: Shahid Buttar ran for this seat in 2018, is the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s director of grassroots advocacy, and had a hand in crafting San Francisco’s facial recognition ban. Agatha Bacelar is a 27-year-old Brazilian-American immigrant turned Stanford engineering grad, and founding member of the “blockchain-based governance software” Democracy Earth. Tom Gallagher was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1980-86, is a former president of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club, and was a 2016 Democratic National Convention delegate for Bernie Sanders.
This debate featured plenty of deeply detailed policy analysis. But any normal debate recap reader wants to hear about the zing-iest exchanges, biggest flubs, and best sound bites. So we’ll start with those, with their YouTube clips linked and queued up right to that moment so you can just click Play to see the exchange.
The testiest back-and-forth came right before the two-hour mark (video here). Shahid Buttar pointed out that news “outlets have done long-form profiles of our campaign [including] Jacobin, Mother Jones, Jewish Current, Salon; we’ve been quoted in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Hill. These kinds of opportunities to frame the debate, already even before having a see, reflects our ability as a campaign, I dare say uniquely in the field, to challenge the Speaker not just for the seat, but for the ideas discursively in the meantime.”
But Gallagher shot back that Buttar had personally doomed progressives in this race in 2018. “Shahid discusses his candidacy last year as if it was a triumph, a personal triumph.” (Buttar came in third in the top-two primary, affording Pelosi an easily beatable Republican in this bluest-of-blue districts.) “When he entered the race, there was already a candidate that had the endorsement of Brand New Congress, the organization made famous by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win. There was another candidate who had the endorsement of the San Francisco Berniecrats. But whatever his reasons were, he decided he needed to enter at that late point.”
“It is hard for me to not conclude that that late entry is precisely what caused the Republican to be able to win,” Gallagher said. “They would have had the votes to beat that candidate absent you.”
Buttar insisted he was asked to run, saying, “I ran the only campaign in 2018 that was intersectionally committed to justice, and the reason I got in the race is because there wasn’t a campaign doing that before with any degree of credibility or preparation.”
Gallagher was skeptical, asking, “Did the people who asked you to run consider it a triumph when a Republican made the final?”
“You might have to ask them, Tom,” Buttar said. “I think you might be asking the wrong person.”
Seconds later, Buttar interrupted the woman moderating the debate in a moment whose optics were not fortunate (Video here, you have to rewind the above video by about five seconds to take in the full interruption sequence). As Savage Joy started her next question, Buttar butted in, “Joy, can I just ask how long we’re going to be going? Because we’ve been going for over two hours at this point. My impression was we were supposed to be finished about 45 minutes ago. Do you plan for this to go on much longer?”
Buttar was technically correct; the debate was scheduled to have ended 43 minutes earlier, following a 10-minute delay to the start time. But the interruption and mansplain did not constitute a good look.
Agatha Bacelar faced tough questioning not from an opponent, but from audience-submitted comments. (Video here) The questions hammered her on connections to the Emerson Collective, an education and immigration reform nonprofit founded by Steve Jobs’ widow, whose partners commenters slammed as including a “union-busting charter school advocate” who “had a plan to expand border detention centers.”
“I did work at Emerson Collective for four-and-a-half years,” Bacelar responded. “That’s absolutely not the case. I would say that Emerson Collective is the most progressive advocate for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers in the United States. The partners we work with would never endorse that. I visited immigrant detention so many times to expose what was going on and put an end to it."
“Emerson does support some charter schools,” she admitted. “But we’re very specific about which charter schools we support. It’s nonprofit charter schools that have open admissions, that are fair and try to close the gap in equity,” she said, citing foster kids, and an environmental justice school.
There were a few awkward points that were unique to an online debate. Gallagher had a choppy wi-fi connection at times, cutting out bits of his answers, Bacelar had to throw headphones on to hear the second half of the debate, and the discourse was occasionally interrupted by sneezes and screen freezes.
Bacelar struggled notably on a question about the Federal Jobs Guarantee in the Green New Deal. (Video here.) “This is actually a topic that I need to know more about,” she said, seemingly unfamiliar with the idea. “Can I hear a little bit [from the other candidates] and then riff off of it?” Buttar took that question a masterfully and emphasized he’d create jobs in wildfire prevention, whereas Gallagher dropped a Ron Dellums reference that most of the audience probably got, and would probably not impress those who did.
Buttar was always impressive with lawyerly wordsmithing, but with rhetoric that was not always concise or relatable. His lines of “I’m an intersectional feminist,” and “My campaign has a 30-point platform; it’s expansive, it’s visionary, it’s the most robust remix that I’ve seen” might play well at a TED Talk or Manny’s, but might not resonate with a larger electorate.
But Nancy Pelosi was, naturally, the main target, and the challengers laid strong arguments against her. Buttar charged that “Her continued commitment to protecting our criminal president from the overdue impeachment that he and his criminal administration deserve reflects another example of her unfortunate conservatism.”
Bacelar noted that “Speaker Pelosi has been in office for longer than I’ve been alive. And in that time, San Francisco has changed dramatically.” She also derided Pelosi as “such a lightning rod. Even though we can get Democrats to pass things in the House, they just die in the Senate because Republicans refuse to work with her. It’s not good for any of us when the two sides can’t work together.”
If you are watching the debate on https://t.co/C1wjWfmdtW between candidates to unseat Pelosi, who do you think is winning?— Real Progressives (@RealProgressUS) August 18, 2019
So who “won” this debate? An informal (and still active) Twitter poll screenshotted at 10 a.m. Monday shows Bacelar with something of a winning vote plurality, though these things are highly unreliable and susceptible to vote-stuffing. [Update: the updated poll numbers are above.] To really decide for yourself, here are some of the candidates’ strongest arguments on homelessness, immigration, “the Squad,” and Pelosi’s infamous State of the Union clap.
Pelosi’s clap, seen by many as dismissive toward socialism
Tom Gallagher: “I was an open Socialist legislator in Massachusetts, and that was a rare item.”
Shahid Buttar: “My reaction to that frankly was to smirk, recognize the bipartisan complicity, and for-profit crony capitalism, extracted corporate capitalism, of the sort that kills American every day.”
Agatha Bacelar: "[Socialists] want to take care of our environment and humanity above profits. And I think that is something that almost everyone can agree with.”
Homelessness and the housing crisis
Tom Gallagher: “San Francisco streets are scandalous… It’s a problem of national priorities. The military budget — hey, I don’t think expect a Sanders administration to be able to pull this off, but if a representative from California should be calling for it to be cut in half. That would open up some serious revenue.”
Agatha Bacelar: “In San Francisco you have the YIMBYs and NIMBYs, but even if you’re ‘Yes In My Backyard,’ what kind of housing are we building? It needs to be public housing, affordable housing.”
Shahid Buttar: “This is a national problem, it has a federal root,” [mentioning a sharp decline in community development block grants from HUD] “That erosion happened under Pelosi’s watch.”
Pelosi’s attitude toward the Squad
Agatha Bacelar: “As the first female Speaker of the House, I think Pelosi should know better than to be dismissive.”
Shahid Buttar: “One of the reasons representatives Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib are demonized by the right wing is because they’re so incredibly effective. They’ve been able to leverage the oversight process.”
Tom Gallagher: “None of us will be Speaker if we get elected, so people are thinking of [Pelosi] from outside in a different way than the replacement…. I would be right there with them [the Squad].”
Tom Gallagher: “The violence level in Central America, in Honduras, in El Salvador and Guatemala is nothing that any of us would ever would want to live with… Most of the people who are the ‘we’ when we talk about this are descendants of people or related to people who took this country from someone else in the first place. So a great deal of modesty, humility, should come over in this.”
Agatha Bacelar: “Immigrant detention is the most profitable part of mass incarceration, and actually has worse outcomes…. I’ve been to a childhood morgue [in Central America] where there is a warehouse of coffins that are short, like the size of children, mostly because of gang violence. And it’s just despicable, the U.S influence in that needs to be addressed.
Shahid Buttar: “I take a great deal of pride as in immigrant constitutional lawyer in being called frankly to remind so many of my neighbors and other Americans what out own country’s own stated values and commitments are. In a time like this when out communities are demonized and vilified, is an opportunity for us to demonstrate and model precisely what it means to be American.”
Again, the primary is March 3, 2020, and only one of these candidates will move on to face Pelosi in November 2020. Whoever wins probably has a 20% floor of Pelosi-haters. “Any of us would take that 20% if it were just the one of us,” Gallagher said in closing. “The question is can anybody get past that?”
0:55 - Broadcast begins
4:30 - Opening statements
13:30 - Why each candidate is running
17:30 - Term limits
20:20 - Israel and BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions)
24:20 - Israel and Reps. Omar and Tlaib
29:20 - Pelosi’s “cringe clap”
32:30 - Venezuela
37:20 - France ‘Yellow Vest’ movement and whether it could happen here
42:30 - Housing crisis in San Francisco
49:20 - Where they would work with Republicans
59:00 - Medicare for All
1:08:00 - Federal Jobs Guarantee in the Green New Deal
1:13:15 - Immigration
1:22:20 - For-profit prisons and how to get rid of them
1:31:30 - Charter schools and debt-free college
1:27:40 - Pay-Go
1:41:00 - Whether to Impeach Trump
1:45:50 - Bacelar and Emerson Collective
1:48:50 - Gallagher on being “relatively unknown”
1:52:30 - Are you staying in to the end of the primary or will you throw support to another candidate
2:03:10 - Combating defeatism and ‘My vote doesn’t matter’
2:09:30 - Closing statements