Nancy Pelosi is the most right-wing candidate in her reelection race this year.
The House Democratic leader faces not one, but three, Democratic challengers in 2018, as well as a Green Party candidate. And while national Republicans love to target Pelosi as the face of the far left in their campaigns, her opponents complain she’s actually not liberal enough for her San Francisco district, particularly on issues like health care and campaign finance.
There’s almost no chance Pelosi will lose her reelection. The 77-year-old Democrat has held her seat, which encompasses almost all of the city of San Francisco, since 1987, typically winning by margins of 70 and even 80 percentage points. But the critiques from her left-leaning opponents underscore an internal debate about the future of the Democratic Party in California – and nationally.
They also make plain that as much as the GOP tries to paint Pelosi as an extremist, she is very much a political pragmatist. It would hard to be such a power broker within the Democratic party establishment, if she wasn’t.
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That’s a point Pelosi’s challengers are trying to make.
Attorney Stephen Jaffe, 72, has even gone so far as filing a lawsuit against the state Democratic Party, claiming that it “actively worked” to prevent Jaffe from challenging the party’s automatic endorsement of Pelosi. As a result, Pelosi avoided facing a vote during the state party’s annual convention in San Diego over the weekend.
Jaffe told The Bee that Pelosi’s focus is squarely on national politics, not the district.
“She is disconnected and out of touch with the people of San Francisco,” he said.
In particular, he pointed to her refusal to endorse single-payer health care proposals in Congress, something supported by a majority of registered Democrats statewide but that has divided party officials. Pelosi has said her focus is on protecting the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, from Republican repeal efforts. And she has urged states to enact single-payer programs first, because “the comfort level with a broader base of the American people is not there yet.”
Jaffe, a volunteer on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, also complains that Pelosi raises millions of dollars from big-dollar donors and corporate PACs. Indeed, Pelosi’s prolific fundraising was one of the factors in her rise to – and hold on to – power in Washington. But it’s also become a point of contention for those in the so-called “Bernie wing” of the party, who have made overhauling today’s campaign finance system a central plank of their advocacy.
Another candidate, law student Ryan Khojasteh, is at the other end of the spectrum – at least, age-wise. He will turn 25 just days before the November election, just making him barely eligible to run for Congress. He and Jaffe have similar policy disagreements with Pelosi, although Khojasteh says he does not want to attack the incumbent herself.
“We are trying to frame this race about what the future of the Democratic Party looks like,” Khojasteh told The Bee as he was driving down Interstate 5 to San Diego for the Democratic convention. He said he decided to jump in the race after watching Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff lose a hotly contested special election for a Georgia congressional seat in June.
“I just remember all the headlines the next morning: ‘Handel beats Ossoff after link to Pelosi,’” he said. “While we respect all that Pelosi has done, maybe it’s time to pass on the torch.”
That echoes the rumblings against Pelosi among some House Democrats in Washington, who worry that Pelosi has become a campaign liability and say it’s time she and other septuagenarian Democratic leaders make way for a new generation. Pelosi’s campaign did not reply to a request for comment.
While Jaffe has the backing of several local Sanders-aligned groups, as well as actress Susan Sarandon, Khojasteh recently won the endorsement of the San Francisco Young Democrats.
A third Democrat, Shahid Buttar, attorney and former director of grassroots advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, launched his campaign for Pelosi's seat on Feb 22.
The three men, along with perennial Green Party candidate Barry Hermanson, are vying to finish second in the June primary, advancing to the general election against Pelosi.
They acknowledge the long odds of actually toppling the veteran Democrat, however. Khojasteh says that as “a young son of immigrants,” he would view it as an accomplishment just to make it to the general election.
San Francisco-based political consultant Boe Hayward noted Pelosi has been “challenged a number of times by candidates from the left and the right” over the course of her career, San Franciscans continue to return her to power because “the leader has been an unbelievable advocate for progressive values.”
Indeed, Pelosi typically draws a handful of challengers to her reelection, including Republicans, Independents, Green party members and, now and then, fellow Democrats. Rarely, however, has she drawn multiple opponents from her own party. In a district where only 7 percent of registered voters are Republican, it’s really the challenge from the left that’s notable.
This is the most organized her opponents on that side have been since 2008, when Pelosi faced off against gold star mother and anti-Iraq War activist Cindy Sheehan, who ran as an independent. Pelosi still won nearly 72 percent of the vote.
Hayward, a former chief of staff for Democratic Board of Supervisors member Bevan Dufty, now represents some of the Bay Area’s most prominent tech firms, among other companies. He said that despite its reputation for pie-in-the-sky liberalism, many San Francisco voters appreciate Pelosi’s hard-nosed style of national leadership in “driving a successful policy agenda” and “keeping her party in line.”
They’re not fazed by Republicans’ attempts to use their city as a pejorative. “We understand and are used to being the symbol of the left, but people in San Francisco are proud to live there and are damn proud to have the leader as our representative,” he said.
Editor’s note: The story was updated at 2:06 p.m. Feb. 26, 2018 to reflect Buttar’s entry in the race.