House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is the 15th wealthiest member of Congress. Roll Call estimates she has a net worth of $29.3 million. She and her husband own a sprawling estate and vineyard in Napa Valley, where they have hosted the likes of Google’s Erik Schmidt and environmentalist Tom Steyer.
Stephen Jaffe once represented a man who was fired from his construction job for trying to set a trapped raccoon free.
Jaffe, 72, is an employment lawyer in San Francisco. He has never held elected office. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. And he intends to challenge Nancy Pelosi—perhaps the most powerful Democrat in political office—in a Democratic primary in 2018.
First, back to that raccoon. In 2015, Todd Sutton was working as a carpenter on an expansion for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The construction site had a raccoon problem, and set out no-kill traps for the critters. Sutton came into work one day and saw what he described a baby raccoon in one of the traps. He decided that, rather than letting Animal Control euthanize the animal, he would return it to the wild. He picked up the cage and put the raccoon in the back of his pickup truck. But when his boss found out that Sutton had taken the raccoon under his wing, he fired Sutton and accused him of stealing the trap.
Jaffe took on Sutton’s case and ended up getting him some money, and getting company that fired Sutton some bad publicity and lost contracts.
“San Francisco is probably the craziest animal rights town you’ll ever find. The people here went crazy,” Jaffe said. “I was having dinner one night when this happened, when it broke in the paper, and the local TV station rides out to where I’m having dinner with my son, who’s an adult, at Benihana, and they insisted on interviewing me in the parking lot about this raccoon.”
Jaffe was an ardent supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Democratic primary bid against Hillary Clinton, and worked as a legal supervisor for the Sanders campaign at the Nevada caucuses. He believes Sanders was “essentially cheated out of the nomination” by the Democratic National Committee. He wants to abolish superdelegates within the Democratic Party, a system that progressives say puts a thumb on the scale for establishment candidates.
Raccoon-related publicity aside, Jaffe understands that his campaign to become San Francisco’s new representative in Congress sounds quixotic: Pelosi is an institution in California politics, with moneyed backers and national name recognition. Still, Jaffe likes his odds.
“I think Ms. Pelosi is vulnerable for the same reason you’re saying that she is difficult to beat,” he said. “She stood up and said, ‘I’m against single payer.’ Single payer is part of the California Democratic Party platform. Seventy percent of Democrats in California—and probably higher than that in San Francisco—want single payer. And she just continues to defy it. And believe me, I’m making a big deal out of that.”
(Pelosi, for the record, didn’t actually say “I’m against single payer”—she has in fact said in the past that she supports the concept—but she declined to endorse the Bernie Sanders-sponsored Medicare-for-all bill that numerous other Democratic leaders have recently come out in support of, just as she has declined to support similar bills introduced in the House by left-leaning Democrats over the years.)
There’s a reason health care, and specifically single payer health care, is driving a wedge in Democratic politics. Like support for LGBTQ rights in the late 2000s, support among Democratic voters for a socialized health care system has grown considerably in a relatively short span of time.
More than half of Democrats nationwide now say the government has a responsibility to provide health care for all citizens, according to the Pew Research Center. Between 2014 and 2017, the share of Democrats who say they support a nationalized health care program grew by 19 percentage points. That number increased by 9 points between January and June of this year alone. In this regard, Pelosi and some her single-payer skeptic colleagues in Congress—like fellow Californian Sen. Dianne Feinstein—have grown out of step with their own party.
To explain that reluctance, Jaffe says you need look no further than politicians’ campaign finance disclosures. In the 2016 election cycle, “health professionals” donated more than a quarter million dollars to Pelosi’s campaign committee and leadership PAC, making them her second largest industry contributor, after Democratic-affiliated groups. Health sector employees are on track to support her at similar levels in 2018.
“She’s not voting for her constituents. She’s voting for her donors,” Jaffe said. “She’s not reflecting the values and the wishes of her constituents. She perceives herself as this national figure, and she forgets that the only people who need to vote for her, in or out, are the people of the 12th district of California.”
Healthcare is not the only issue making some activists wary of Pelosi. Many progressives have been frustrated that she has appeared willing to play ball with Trump on immigration reform. Earlier this month, Pelosi urged Trump to reassure DACA recipients that they would not be deported over the coming months. She and Senator Chuck Schumer met Trump in the Oval Office to make a deal on a short-term extension of the debt limit in exchange for concessions on immigration.
On Monday afternoon, a group of young, undocumented protesters interrupted a press conference Pelosi was holding in San Francisco to demand that Democrats introduce a “clean” version of the DREAM Act with no concessions to Republicans.
Pelosi responded to the protesters’ concerns with exasperation.
“It’s clear you don’t want any answers,” she told them, before leaving the press conference.
Sandy Valenciano, one of the young undocumented protesters at the press conference, explained her frustrations with Pelosi and her fellow Democrats in Congress for the Huffington Post:
Past actions against working class people and immigrants of color give us reason to be concerned about recent negotiation with President Donald Trump. When back-door deals are made without directly-impacted community members - who can provide solutions that matter ― they can wreak long-term effects and sow divisions amongst our communities.
The Democratic Party plays into Trump’s tactics while pretending to put up a fight. Instead, party leaders endanger the lives of people of color by taking middle-of-the-road stances on issues that affect the lives of immigrants. Democrats have long kept their doors closed to community members and chosen to advance the agendas of corporate lobbyists and donors instead. Immigrant communities have not forgotten that Pelosi stood behind programs like Secure Communities (S-Comm) and the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP-Comm), policies that streamlined deportations in communities that are already heavily over-policed.
Jaffe agrees Democrats are naive to treat Trump—a man who kicked off his presidential campaign by describing Mexicans as murderers and rapists—to be a good-faith negotiator when it comes to immigration reform.
“I’m very wary and skeptical of making deals with people who have a long established track record of breaking their word,” he said. “I think she gave away a very strong bargaining chip for the Democrats by agreeing to this short-term extension of the national debt ceiling. What’s going to happen after a couple of months? We’re going to be right back where we started from.”
Jaffe, for his part, is still working to build up name recognition in San Francisco and nationally. He has been endorsed by Tim Canova, who lost his primary bid against Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in Florida, and Rob Quist, who lost his Montana House race to Rep. Greg “The Body Slam” Gianforte. He is being vetted as a candidate by Justice Democrats and by Our Revolution.
Jaffe says one problem with Democrats in Congress is being purely reactive to Republicans’ agenda, rather than putting forth their own proposals.
“I think it’s very important for the Democrats, when the Republicans propose something—whether it’s immigration or tax reform or whatever it is—to not just say, ‘No no no no no! This is wrong wrong wrong!’” he said. “I would try to put forth and propose a viable alternative to what they are proposing, rather than just being reactive to them. I think that’s been the big problem with the Democratic Party, and why we find ourselves where we are today.”