SAN FRANCISCO — Agatha Bacelar wants to debate Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but first she has to decide whether to tell people she’s actually doing something as crazy as running a primary campaign against the most powerful Democrat in the country.
The audacity of it all — a 27-year-old trying to topple someone who’s served in Congress longer than she’s been alive — could impress this city known for audacious ideas. But others suggest Bacelar avoid mentioning who she’s actually running against.
“I've gotten some advice to just say District 12 because no one knows what 12 is,” Bacelar says. “And then, down the line, people can have the cognitive dissonance of, ‘Oh, I like you, but now you're running against Pelosi.’”
That might work at the Bay Area bars, ice cream shops, and hair salons where she was meeting voters after kicking off her campaign with a video announcement in May. But not here at the California Democratic Party Convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, filled with lawmakers, delegates and the most engaged politicos in the Golden State — they know exactly whose district they’re in.
Bacelar tries the line on Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents a slice of Silicon Valley, but he sniffs her right out.
“Well, that’s tough, I’m a big supporter of Pelosi,” he tells her. “But I appreciate the getting out there. … Anything can happen in politics.”
Bacelar has a lot of things to sort out in the early going of this underdog campaign. To name another, she needs to decide whether she fashions herself as the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Everyone around her seems to want her to. So much so that a two-person film crew flew in from London and is handing bystanders waivers to use their likenesses in an upcoming documentary, “Agatha for Congress (working title),” which they’re betting can be the next “Knock Down the House.”
But while AOC hammed it up for the camera, Bacelar seems deeply uncomfortable with the attention.
“I don't see anyone else with cameras following them. Like, why me?” she says. “I’m trying to acknowledge certain similarities, but also just be me.”
Then again, Bacelar isn’t your average candidate. She’s a Brazilian-American, quadrilingual blockchain enthusiast who counts Laurene Powell Jobs as a mentor — and was once a nationally ranked jump-roper, but now settles for bringing her LED-lit double Dutch ropes to Burning Man, or just a local park.
The campaign may seem outlandish, but it would have seemed downright unthinkable only a few years ago. Since then, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has spotlighted the chasm that exists between the Democratic Party’s leaders and the politics of their voters. As San Francisco trends younger and even more progressive, Pelosi is facing voters who want her to support Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — and to agree once and for all to impeach President Donald Trump. Maybe, just maybe, Bacelar can catch the same lightning in a bottle that sent AOC to D.C., or at least put some heat on Pelosi.
Then again, maybe Bacelar thinks the AOC comparisons are hackneyed because she’s not actually planning to beat Pelosi, for now. While the nation’s most powerful Democrat seems unassailable in 2020, the path to Washington from District 12 actually looks doable in 2022, even for an outsider like Bacelar.
Here’s how it would go down: finish second in March’s jungle primary, where regardless of party affiliation the top two candidates — that is, Pelosi and someone else — advance to the general election. Pelosi has never faced a Democrat in that final stretch, so the first one to reach second place could become a cult hero, progressives believe, and will be in prime position to succeed Pelosi when she retires.
Pelosi hasn’t announced she’s retiring, of course, but she’ll be 82 years old by the end of her next term. Activists here think she couldn’t possibly seek re-election past then. A strong showing this year could prevent a future some progressives fear: A relatively moderate representative like San Francisco Mayor London Breed taking her seat, or worse yet in their minds, Pelosi willing the seat to her daughter, political strategist Christine Pelosi.
“I, frankly, don't think she can win because Nancy Pelosi is so formidable, lots of money and name recognition,” says Mark Van Landuyt, vice chairman of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus. “But this is her last term. So if [Bacelar] does extraordinarily well, then she will be the front-runner for 2022.”
Bacelar doesn’t have Ocasio-Cortez’s ebullience or moral righteousness. She doesn’t work a room, and she isn’t backed by insurgent money or buoyed by an ethnological demographic shift, like AOC was. Instead, Bacelar believes the Bay Area’s tech boom and the resulting influx of young voting-age tech workers is her ticket to victory. The city’s average age is 38.5, and most young people don’t vote. But she’s got an app for that.
Her father, the software engineer Herb Stephens, is designing it. They hope to intoxicate the young electorate with a catchphrase: “liquid democracy,” a new model for collective decision-making. The working name for the app is Referenda, and they plan to go live by the third quarter.
Residents can propose and vote on ideas. They can participate directly or delegate their votes to Bacelar or even someone else to cast on their behalf. They can build coalitions and power brokers online and shape decisions in real time.
The app builds on Stephens’ work at the Democracy Earth Foundation, a self-described “blockchain-based open-source ‘liquid democracy’ governance platform.”
“It's new ways of amassing power rather than having this professional citizen that has to go through the machinery of politics and only they get to make decisions, and then once they're in office, all they care about is retaining power rather than being responsive to the people,” Bacelar says. “The pilot would be San Francisco.”
“We're sort of trialing it right now,” chimes in Sandra Miller, Bacelar’s campaign director. Miller has no campaign experience, but is managing the bid until Bacelar can hire experienced staff. Her background is running communications for Democracy Earth. Bacelar is a founding member of the group, too.
Frankly, it’s hard to tell if the app is a feature of the campaign or the campaign is an elaborate promotion for Democracy Earth — or some combination of the two. But even at the beta level, the glitches are apparent.
Bacelar gets conflicting advice all the time from an equal amount of people on both sides — mention Pelosi, or not mention her; hand out flyers personally, or delegate it to aides so she looks more important.
“The number one thing that people told me was to be more assertive and confident and to jump into answers,” she says. “They were coaching me to say, ‘I speak four languages. I went to Stanford, and I'm an engineer,’ and not be so shy about it.”
“San Francisco's version of AOC”
Before Bacelar can reshape democracy as we know it, she needs to win a few votes.
Bacelar was born in Brazil and raised in Miami by her Brazilian mother. She majored in product design at Stanford University, where she also founded the school’s jump-roping team, then came on board as one of the first few staffers at the Emerson Collective, the advocacy group Jobs formed with the fortune of her late husband, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
Bacelar is serious enough about this campaign that she quit a cushy job managing multimedia there to run full-time. Bacelar hasn’t asked Jobs to endorse or even write a check to the campaign, she says. Bacelar has a personal nest egg that can last a while, but she says she might start driving a Lyft for cash — and to meet voters.
Until then, she’s meeting voters the old-fashioned way. Bacelar spent the first full day of the Democratic convention glad-handing outside a meeting of the Progressive Caucus. Fourteen presidential candidates will speak across the hall over the course of the weekend, but Bacelar is prowling the breakout sessions for like-minded activists.
Outside the progressive meeting, she chats up a man carrying both “Bernie 2020” and “Warren for President” signs. “Best of luck. I absolutely love challenging incumbents. So go get ’em,” he encourages Bacelar.
Bacelar soon runs out of flyers and business cards, with red letters spelling AGATHA swooping like traffic across an illustration of the Golden Gate Bridge, so her father rushes down the street to print some new ones.
Meanwhile, she’s being escorted around the hall by a human business card, Stephen Jaffe, a middle-aged democratic socialist and employment lawyer who came in fourth place in the primary against Pelosi in 2018 but now thinks Bacelar has a better shot at knocking her off.
At one point, Jaffe hustles her over to state Sen. Scott Wiener and introduces her as “San Francisco’s version of AOC.” The already towering Wiener tips his head even higher and emits a slow, skeptical, “Ahhhhh.”
“So when we're up there in the Progressive Caucus, when I say Pelosi, it’s, ‘Thank you. Yes. Way to go,’” Bacelar says after turning away from Wiener. “Then there’s this other reaction, like Scott’s.”
“I call it the ahhhhh chin-lift,” says Miller, a diminutive woman who, after Trump won, dyed her grey bob a faint blue, quit her day job, and committed her life to hacktivism.
It’s clear that for all the activist hype, the establishment class has no real interest in toppling a liberal icon like Pelosi, someone who has set the standard for not just what a woman can achieve in politics but what any leader can, period.
Bacelar mentions Pelosi — both Pelosis — will be speaking at the Women’s Caucus meeting the next morning along with several presidential candidates (Christine chairs the group so her mom isn’t a tough get). Bacelar is gaming out what she might say if she meets them.
“Hey, I'm Agatha, and... I don't know. I don't know,” she ponders. “I'm following in your example.”
Later that night, Bacelar, Miller, and Stephens hail a Lyft to Chinatown to crash the San Francisco BernieCrats dinner. In a chandeliered banquet hall, fiery speakers pump Sanders campaign lines from onstage.
This should be Bacelar’s crowd. She’s campaigning on many of the same things — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a desire for Pelosi to be more responsive to local issues like homelessness. But no one knows who Bacelar is, so she’s standing quietly in the back of the room. It becomes clear here that she isn’t just the underdog; she’s the underdog to the underdog. On stage pops Shahid Buttar, 44, wearing a loose-fitting pin-striped suit and a colorful scarf, his head accentuated with a pointy, triangular goatee, salt-and-pepper man-bun, and black, horn-rimmed glasses.
He came in third place last term, just about 2,000 votes shy of the Republican, who Pelosi would go on to trounce in the general election. He’s intent on clearing the hurdle this time, and he has the backing of progressive activists. Like Bacelar, the Pakistani-American is a Stanford-educated tech advocate. He doesn’t jump rope at Burning Man, but he does DJ and MC at Black Rock City
Buttar and Bacelar clearly cancel out many of each other’s positives. Even their names roll similarly off the tongue. There’s another candidate, too: Tom Gallagher, an anti-war protester active since the Vietnam era. More people could jump in.
“The progressive faction in San Francisco is large. They're highly energetic, highly mobilized,” Van Landuyt warned earlier. “But there's a lot of candidates to split the enthusiasm and split the love. So that's the problem. Progressives never get together.”
It’s true: The primary votes for all candidates to Pelosi’s left in the last election would have been enough for one such candidate to place second — though still eons behind Pelosi. Advocates for Bacelar, however, believe two traits could put her over other primary challengers: youth and gender.
Ryan Khojasteh, who turned 25 just days before the 2018 primary, in which he placed fifth behind Pelosi, Buttar, Jaffe and the Republican, said his race happened in a pre-AOC world. Post Ocasio-Cortez, he reasons, voters believe anything can happen — and Bacelar fits the mold.
“Being a young Latina woman, it would make Pelosi look bad not to give her the time of day,” he says.
Bacelar steps out of the building and starts pounding the pavement with her pink skate shoes, her bright-red long coat swinging at her heels as she approaches people exiting the meeting.
One man introduces himself as Phil Beauman, who with the Wayans Brothers wrote “Scary Movie” and “Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.” Turns out Miller, Bacelar’s campaign manager, writes horror in her free time. They share contact information and plan to brainstorm writing a movie.
Bacelar, meanwhile, talks to Beauman’s friend, Greg Giachino, a business consultant and Bernie supporter who crashed the dinner last minute. Giachino is furious with local politicians and says he’ll vote for Bacelar, even if he is fatalistic about her chances.
“You should be running for Scott Wiener’s seat,” he advises her. “Pelosi can’t lose.”
“And then when she retires?” Bacelar prods.
“It's going to be London Breed,” he answers. “Or somebody who's already known. Are you on the committees? You need to get on the Democratic committees, you need to start doing stuff. That's the only way you're going to be able to win.”
Bacelar and Miller return to the convention center for an afterparty sponsored by a coalition of Latino advocacy groups. At first, Bacelar seems self-conscious there. She guesses attendees won’t know she’s Hispanic on account of her light skin.
But that doesn’t last. There’s an open bar and a DJ is playing reggaeton, bachata and Latin trap. Before long, the room has erupted into a dance party. Bacelar sheds her red coat to reveal a dark grey, knee-length denim dress and twirls around the room palming flyers and chatting people up in Spanish. It’s the first time all day she seems truly comfortable.
Activist Dolores Huerta, who organized farm laborers with Cesar Chavez, makes an appearance. Bacelar is starstruck. Growing up, she hung a poster of Huerta on her bedroom wall. She poses for a photo that she’ll post on Instagram the next day.
The next morning, Bacelar attends the Women’s Caucus meeting back at the convention center, jam-packed for the keynote speaker. Christine Pelosi introduces her mother. Speaker Pelosi gives a spirited speech about protecting abortion rights to raucus applause and chants of “Nancy, Nancy,” from the crowd.
A smattering of protesters picket for Medicare for All and one heckler petulantly yells, “Impeach,” over annoyed shushes from the crowd. Pelosi ignores it, but her daughter urges the crowd to respect the sanctity of the caucus meeting and keep the protests outside.
A day earlier, Bacelar was game-planning how to ambush the Pelosis, but now, she’s standing alone in the back, quiet, observant. The Speaker finishes up and leaves through a back door. Bacelar excuses herself before the gathering adjourns to head to a meet-and-greet at an all-female co-working space.
Maybe one day Pelosi and Bacelar will stand face to face on a stage like this one and argue progressive policies. Maybe she can even reshape democracy as we know it. But for now. Bacelar has a lot of ground to make up to even shake Pelosi’s hand, let alone shake her confidence.
For now, Bacelar can’t get close enough to stand in Pelosi’s shadow.
Cover: Agatha Bacelar checks her iPhone as she walks across a skybridge at the Moscone Center, overlooking downtown San Francisco on May 31, 2019. (Photo: Spencer Shea)