The House Democratic Caucus has been far from a cohesive unit in recent weeks. After Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar voted against a border funding bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke dismissively of the progressive freshmen otherwise known as “the squad” in a New York Times opinion piece by Maureen Dowd.
This sparked a feud between moderate and progressive members which lasted several days and culminated with a series of racist tweets by President Donald Trump, suggesting the progressive women of color “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
Much of the animus towards the squad, evidently stems from their allegiance to Justice Democrats, a grassroots progressive organization, which is fielding progressive primary challengers against entrenched Democratic incumbents. Even in instances where a challenger is not endorsed by Justice Democrats, members of the Democratic caucus have suspicions that the organization, and by extension the squad, have something to do with it.
Still, winning a primary against an incumbent is a Herculean proposition that comes with steep structural and financial disadvantages, especially if those incumbents happen to be two of the most powerful Democrats in the country, Speaker Pelosi and her number two, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. That isn’t deterring Shahid Buttar and McKayla Wilkes from taking them on.
Buttar, challenging Pelosi, is a 2003 graduate of Stanford Law School, where he served as a teaching assistant for professor Lawrence Lessig and organized student protests against the Iraq War and Lockheed Martin.
Since then, Buttar has worked as a legal advocate in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco and organized around issues such as privacy from government surveillance, LGBTQ+ rights, immigrant rights, campaign finance and police accountability. He also has a history as a politically driven poet and musician.
“In 2018, I think people thought of Nancy Pelosi… as the nominal alternative to Trump,” Buttar told The Globe Post. “I think in 2019, she has really revealed herself as one of our criminal president’s chief enablers…The most glaring problem is executive accountability and her unwillingness to pull the lever on the house’s most powerful tool to ensure accountability in the executive branch and that is impeachment … She’s a concession machine.”
Wilkes, facing Hoyer in Maryland’s 5th district, has experienced first hand the disparities within the criminal justice system. As a black woman who spent her teenage years in and out of juvenile detention, she later faced punishment in her early adult life for marijuana possession and had her license suspended when she couldn’t afford to pay traffic tickets.
Today, Wilkes is the mother of two children and works full-time as an administrative assistant for the Defense Department and is attending college to provide a better life for her kids. Wilkes is also an activist in her local community advocating for homeless people, public school funding, and reproductive rights.
“Hoyer’s been in office for almost 40 years,” Wilkes told The Globe Post. “He had 20 terms to try to fix things and he has not. We need someone who is going to represent not only the working class but those who are impoverished because the people of district five feel like we are forgotten, and not only district five because he is a leader in the House that speaks nationally. We need better representation.”
Both candidates draw inspiration heavily from the grassroots congressional campaigns of the squad in 2018 and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 bids for President. Just like the campaigns from which they draw inspiration, Buttar and Wilkes are running corporate-free organizations relying almost entirely on individual contributions of $200 or less. Unlike Hoyer and Pelosi, their challengers aren’t shy about supporting tentpole progressive policies like Medicare for All, debt-free college, sweeping criminal justice reform, and the Green New Deal.
“I am auditioning to be part of the squad. And I would tell Pelosi to back off of us,” Buttar said. “Nancy Pelosi was born with a silver spoon in her mouth to a politically powerful family and has never worked a day in her life. It is infuriating when people from positions of privilege, ignorance of their privilege, punch down at people who are fighting for the liberation of our communities. And it just reveals to me that Pelosi is not on our team.”
Wilkes shared a similar sentiment about Hoyer and said he has not been a vocal enough supporter of the freshman progressives in the face of racist attacks by the president.
“When we have a President of the United States that is supposed to lead objectively, you cannot be an objective leader if you are a racist,” Wilkes said. “Steny Hoyer as a leader of the House could have definitely used his voice to a higher capacity than what he has.”
I'm not a typical candidate. I was really nervous to talk about my criminal record, especially so early in the campaign. But I want to be honest about who I am and use my experiences to fight for an end to the criminalization of poverty nationwide. #Mckayla2020 #AVoteForUs pic.twitter.com/onP9W9eqjF
— Mckayla Wilkes for Congress (@MeetMckayla) May 3, 2019
Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment, though Hoyer’s office pointed to two tweets Hoyer wrote and remarks he made on the House floor condemning Trump’s comments.
“I will not speculate on this Floor about the motives or intentions of the President, but no one can dispute that the words he said and wrote were racist words … with a long history of being used to demean, dismiss, and denigrate some American citizens as less than others, as not fully belonging in our country because of the color of their skin or the origin of their families,” Hoyer said.
.@POTUS’s tweets today were racist, wrong, & run counter to our nation’s values. Our diversity is what makes us stronger. House Dems will continue to stand together & reject his divisive, xenophobic policies & rhetoric. It is shameful that he continues to demean the presidency.
— Steny Hoyer (@LeaderHoyer) July 14, 2019
Wilkes also spoke about how her identity as a black woman informs her consciousness of class and race.
“Our country was founded on the basis of genocide and racism itself and that is something that has been going on for a very long time,” Wilkes said.
“It definitely has everything to do with class … Black people make up the majority of those who are incarcerated but we are the minority here in the United States. If you look at the war on drugs…look at how that has been a tool in the targeting of people of color, specifically black men. When you look at housing discrimination, residential segregation and environmental racism, all of these things are at play when you speak about classism and you speak about racism.”
Taking On Big Money
Because Pelosi and Hoyer are willing to accept money from corporate PACs, they have a substantial advantage when it comes to fundraising for their campaigns. The speaker and majority leader will, in turn, be able to put that money to use and amplify their message with ad buys and mailers among other things. Buttar and Wilkes are all but certain to raise little more than a fraction of what their competitors will.
As of the second quarter Federal Elections Commission filing deadline, Buttar had raised just under $64,000 and Wilkes wasn’t far behind, with close to $52,000 raised. Comparatively, Pelosi had raised over $1.5 million and Hoyer had raised over $1.1 million.
Instead of big money, Wilkes and Buttar will have to rely on social media outreach, grassroots organizing efforts such as canvassing and phone banks as well as endorsements from local and national grassroots organizations.
Despite their disadvantages, Wilkes and Buttar present by far the most credible challenges to their respective incumbents with regard to fundraising and social media metrics, and Buttar at least will benefit from having run against Pelosi once before in 2018.
— Mckayla Wilkes for Congress (@MeetMckayla) July 11, 2019
“Last year I felt like a sail pulling a ship and I could feel us pulling things bigger than us,” Buttar said. “This year when we launched it felt like getting shot out of a cannon because we had all the volunteers that we recruited last time, so we just hit the ground moving much quicker. We’ve raised as much money in the last two weeks as we did in the prior two months. The social media metrics all jumped through the roof, our Facebook audience doubled in the last two weeks and our Twitter audience has almost tripled.”
Buttar said his biggest takeaway from the 2018 race was to get in early. In 2018, he started his campaign just three months before the 2018 primary and going into 2020, his campaign will have almost a year to campaign before election day. Wilkes meanwhile, is running for office for the first time, but said social media has been helpful to her campaign’s fundraising efforts, with just over $5,000 raised in the first quarter and more than $45,000 raised in the second quarter.
“We’re not taking any corporate PAC money, so everything is completely people funded and small donations, with the average contribution at about 20 dollars per person,” Wilkes said.
“We’re just focusing on getting boots on the ground, doing door knocking, phone calls, just reaching out to the voters, not just for contributions, but also seeing what their issues are. Even though I have a very broad platform, there’s always room for improvement and you never know if you might have missed something or if there are issues that you might not know about.”
Wilkes described herself as a candidate who “looks for the voices of the people” saying she wants to make sure everyone is heard.