Why 27-year-old Agatha Bacelar is running for office.
by Tom Fritsche
“Agatha Bacelar, she’s primarying Nancy Pelosi. You want to write about her?”
I take the assignment and find myself at some cocktail-party-type deal at an apartment I couldn’t afford if I robbed a pharaoh. After briefly saying hello and exchanging info, Bacelar texts me a few days later that she’s having a campaign kickoff at her apartment in the Mission and I should show. Alright. I’ve never been to a longshot’s political kickoff.
I’m given an address in a mural-heavy alley. It’s the right alley, but at the address are two people I’d have liked better if we’d met in different circumstances. I give a call to the number they gave me with the address, and to my surprise, Bacelar answers, pokes her head out into the alley, and lets me in.
On a surface level, it’s easy to see why people keep comparing her to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the East Coast: Bacelar is a 27-year-old, intelligent, Brazilian-born polyglot with a sincere smile that I’ve never even been able to fake in a job interview.
She has an easy rapport with everyone in this small (but well-appointed) courtyard, and though it quickly becomes clear that she has already befriended many of these people, she’s also just really friendly. In small talk, I ask her if she has any cool scars. She points to one she got from a nick from a glass trophy. Suffice it to say that she and I are very different people.
I ask, in keeping with timeless San Francisco tradition, that question we all get when we meet somebody new.
“How long you been here?”
In the City (because we all kinda have to qualify our answer), she’s been here for a few years. She first visited the City in the late ‘90s to meet her biological father—at the time living in the Castro—who’d found her by typing her mother’s name into a search engine (remember Web 1.0?). “I just felt a connection, and I knew I had to be here,” she says. “There was so much happening.” She tells me how she came out to the Bay Area for college (Stanford) and just never left. It sounded hokey until I remembered that I’d visited the City around the same time, came to the same conclusion, and executed the same plan. Story checks out.
Bacelar is personable and down-to-earth, and, once you get to know her, shockingly accomplished.
She speaks five languages, along with two others that “don’t count” because she’s “not really fluent.” At an event I attended, her mike check procedure involved quoting Göthe and Heine in their original German. She can play two recorders at once, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, though I’m not sure how she discovered she could do this. She’s involved in “blockchain-based governance software,” which is a phrase my brain doesn’t really know how to unpack. True to her roots, she does Capoeira and she has a neighborhood spot for pão de queijo (which she unsuccessfully tried to help me pronounce). And, because why not, she’s a nationally competitive jump-roper. Different people.
Both of the times I stopped by her apartment (once for the kickoff and once for an interview), Bacelar gave me the “my place is a mess” disclaimer that orderly people always tell me.
Compared to where I call home, her place looks clean enough to make microchips. But sure, there are some signs of an apartment with a campaign run out of it: a neat stack of flyers, a book left on a table instead of placed back in its shelf-void. As we talk, it quickly becomes clear how much her run is a DIY, almost punk-rock project with all available hands on deck.
Her campaign portrait appears anywhere you look in the living room and kitchen. It’s the standard, full-face photo of a smiling candidate before a neutral background, taken by her aforementioned father (who is also her finance manager) on his phone. Her stepmother served as her first campaign manager; her first donor taught her eighth-grade biology. Her three roommates have all been deputized to help the campaign, or at least to not mind it creeping into their shared living space like smoke. Shared dinners, a weekly house tradition, are now opportunities to network with friends of friends.
Indeed, it was her friendships and passion for her community that brought her into politics. After trying to register her friends to vote in her immigrant-heavy community in Miami, she discovered that many of them were undocumented. Since then (and especially now, in light of the current Administration’s immigration policies), Bacelar has made immigration a cornerstone issue of her campaign, her politics, her life. She’s visited detention camps on the border. She recorded a robocall to help people contact their representatives and argue for immigration action (a robocall that remains active, with her voice intact). But, for the shift from active citizen to political candidate, she needed one last kick.
Last year, she participated in French photographer JR’s “Inside Out” project, in which she spent about a month crisscrossing the United States in a photo booth truck. “I studied product design at Stanford,” Bacelar explains, “and part of the design process is ethnographic research.” The goal is to observe people in their “natural habitat,” going about their lives as they normally would. For “Inside Out,” participants (open to all) have their portraits taken in these photo trucks, receive large-scale prints immediately, and are encouraged to paste these portraits wherever they please, though generally the portraits are pasted together, in a communal show of force, on a wall donated by the same community. She used this opportunity to register new voters, and as one often hears from politicians on the stump, drew inspiration from the stories she heard.
She describes a woman from Saudi Arabia who was eager to register. “In her country, her mother couldn’t vote, so she said she was definitely going to use that privilege here,” Bacelar tells me. Another day she asked a man living on the street if he wanted to register, and he began to cry. “No one had ever asked him to register to vote before.”
What seems most salient to Bacelar is the sense of resignation echoed by underrepresented communities across the country. “Many of them see politics as something that gringos do,” she explains. “They feel like, ‘Why should I vote when a politician isn’t going to represent me or my community’s interest?’”
Bacelar credits this experience and the urging of her family as chief inspirations for her congressional run. She cast her lot and filed her paperwork, hoping to offer her community a new option that would represent their diverse backgrounds and interests in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the district where Bacelar lives has an entrenched incumbent, namely, Nancy Pelosi.
She—admittedly, pointedly, unsurprisingly—faces an uphill battle even for a spot on the general election ballot, to say nothing of a victory.
In 2020, California will again hold its primaries early in the year on Super Tuesday, after spending the last two cycles (2012 and 2016) in June. While this arguably allows the state a greater say in the nomination of presidential candidates, this also means that Bacelar only has until March to make her case with San Franciscan voters. Voters who, as Bacelar notes in her campaign events, have held to Nancy Pelosi’s representation “for longer than [she’s] been alive” (and, even further than that, to a loose political dynasty that began with the election of Pelosi’s mentor Philip Burton in 1964).
“I’m running against the best fundraiser in Washington,” Bacelar reminds potential voters, leaving her opponent’s other titles (Speaker of the House and, by extension, the most powerful Democrat in Washington) tacit.
That’s not to say she isn’t trying to scare up scratch herself: during our interview, she pulls up a grassroots fundraising app on her phone and shows me a long directory covered with annotations. “I called all of these people yesterday,” she says, scrolling through name after name. Further down, she points to even more. “And after we’re done here I’m calling all of these others.”
Even if the fundraising won’t match Pelosi’s, the calls serve to boost name recognition, the next-best commodity. Bacelar’s strategy isn’t really trying to win outright in the primary; in California, she doesn’t need to. Where most states’ primaries are intraparty affairs, since 2011, candidates for “voter-nominated offices” in California advance to the general election by placing in first or second place, regardless of party affiliation. This means that the threshold for success is, at least initially, much easier to meet—and that a general election could find Pelosi running against another Democrat.
Bacelar may be onto something here. Rep. Pelosi last faced significant opposition during the special election held in April 1987—that is, her first run at the seat—against Supervisor Harry Britt, a Democrat and gay activist appointed to succeed Harvey Milk after the latter’s assassination. Despite the endorsement of the previous incumbent, Pelosi only eked out a 3.5-point victory over Britt: a difference of less than 4,000 votes. A runoff election against the highest Republican vote-getter was called in June (as per the existing law), which Pelosi won by a more comfortable 33-point lead. Since then, her strongest competition came from independent candidate Preston Picus’ 19% showing in 2016. 1987 was the last time Nancy Pelosi faced a Democratic challenger outside of a primary, as well as the last time she ever agreed to debate an opponent.
If, as Bacelar argues, Rep. Pelosi’s political star has faded in her home district, a general election against a Democrat running to her left could draw enough media attention to force Pelosi into a public debate, and, potentially, to a loss in November.
But will that happen?
In a city as divided as San Francisco has become—with an older population feeling increasingly pushed out by younger, wealthier transplants—does a Miami-raised Stanford grad who developed a blockchain-based governance software feel like a better representative of the City’s frayed character than someone who’s been in office through all of the labor pains of even just the last decade?
The 2018 midterms (as well as the 2016 election that made them necessary) were characterized by a rejection of the untouchability of incumbency. Several insurgent campaigns won against long odds. It’s not impossible that the same could be done with a candidate as unfamiliar as Agatha Bacelar against someone as polarizing as Nancy Pelosi. Historically, however, campaigns running to the left of an entrenched favorite have come up short (Matt Gonzalez, Tom Ammiano, Quentin Kopp…and, sure, Jello Biafra, whatever).
Furthermore, she isn’t even the only Democrat hoping for a head-to-head in the general. Though Bacelar spends much of her campaign events contrasting herself with politics-as-it-is in general and Nancy Pelosi in particular, her more pressing opponents are Shahid Buttar and Tom Gallagher. Both self-identify as Democratic socialists and, in a recent debate between the three candidates, brought up Bacelar’s prior work with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective in a bid to position themselves to her left. Gallagher also blamed Buttar’s late entry to the 2018 field for splitting the progressive vote and allowing Pelosi to advance to the general against a Republican. Barring a breakout turn from one of the three progressives on the upcoming ballot, it’s hard not to see this situation repeating itself.
And, of course, this all predicates on the idea that Nancy Pelosi needs replacing. There’s definitely a younger generation of elected Democrats arguing for more drastic steps leftward and openly challenging party leadership when the latter gets reticent. “Politics have been run by the same kind of person for a very long time,” Bacelar argues, “and I believe that our generation is going to change our political system and reinvigorate it.” Pelosi has alienated many by describing the Green New Deal and Medicare for All—hallmarks of any twenty-something Democrat’s run for office— as “aspirational,” and she was slow coming around to impeachment. But until the Democratic Party coalesces around a nominee in 2020, she’s also the loudest voice opposing the Trump Administration. Can they afford to lose her, especially in such an embarrassing way: the party leader who couldn’t keep one of her own from taking her seat?
And if Bacelar does win, will she be able to fill the shoes as the representative from a district that’s routinely a Fox News scapegoat?
She says she’s prepared to do so, and she’s unquestionably tenacious (hence the run), but what happens when she’s in the direct crosshairs of the notoriously petty President and his supporters? What’s the most awful thing anyone’s ever said to her? Is she prepared to hear it millions of times?
Whatever happens next November, Agatha Bacelar made it clear to me that she has no designs on any political office past the one she’s filed to run for. No State Legislature, no Board of Supervisors—it’s ride or die CA-12.
It’s hard to blame her. Most of her life now is devoted to phone calls, social media, and speaking engagements, and it sounds utterly draining. When I relate this to her, she takes a little breath, cocks her head down a shade and pauses.
And then she gives me a look, and I know what it means.
But somebody needs to do this.
Who else? ♦
Tom Fritsche is a former film critic, cartoonist, deckhand, librarian, and private investigator who has spent the last 13 years in the City. His writing has been featured in “Huffington Post,” “Gentry,” and “Fandor,” and he currently splits his time between hosting pub trivia and raising hell.