SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)--Cindy Sheehan, who became the face of the national peace movement and a thorn in the side of President Bush after her son's death in Iraq, is tackling a new Goliath. She's running as an independent candidate to unseat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Nov. 4 election.
Sheehan is challenging Pelosi, a Democrat from San Francisco and the most powerful woman in the nation, for supporting continued funding for military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan even though she voted against authorizing the war in 2002. She also criticizes Pelosi for failing to press for impeachment of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and for siding with the Republican administration on issues such as warrantless wiretapping and the economic bailout.
Sheehan, 51, says Pelosi's positions are anathema to the district's overwhelmingly liberal voters.
"She's out of touch with regular people, she's out of touch with this district," Sheehan said. "This district did not want the (financial) bailout. This district wants impeachment. This district wants the troops to come home."
Pelosi was first elected to Congress in 1987 and won her district with 80 percent of the vote in 2006. The 8th Congressional District covers most of San Francisco; Democrats are 57 percent of registered voters. Also running on Nov. 4 are Republican Dana Walsh and Libertarian Philip Berg.
Sheehan entered the spotlight after her son, Casey Austin Sheehan, was killed in Iraq in 2004. The following year she traveled to Bush's ranch outside Crawford, Texas, to personally demand that he end the war. The ensuing "Camp Casey" demonstrations drew thousands of activists and celebrities, as well as international media attention, and made Sheehan a global figure in the anti-war movement.
Making a Point of Pelosi
A California native, Sheehan moved to San Francisco from the northern California town of Dixon last year to run against Pelosi. She and her supporters say she could have launched into politics more easily by picking a district with a weak incumbent, but instead chose to make a point of confronting Pelosi and her party leadership.
Disdainful of politics as usual, Sheehan's manner, like her campaign, is decidedly down to earth: She hands out doughnuts to commuters, accompanied by a campaign aide in a chicken suit challenging Pelosi to a debate.
Nonetheless, she says she has raised $500,000 and insists hers is not a symbolic candidacy.
"This is a fully functioning and operational campaign office in a campaign that expects to win," she said at her headquarters, a San Francisco storefront adorned with a memorial to her slain son.
Even her supporters acknowledge she doesn't stand a real chance of beating Pelosi, who has been elected to Congress 11 times, handily defeating challengers from the left as recently as the June primary.
Pelosi has ignored Sheehan's call to debate, although she has said publicly she respects Sheehan. Her office did not respond to requests for comment.
Venting Voters' Spleens
Still, amid sagging public support for Congress--including the House speaker--Sheehan's candidacy gives disgruntled constituents in one of the nation's most liberal cities the chance to vent their spleens.
"We can't endorse Nancy Pelosi," the Bay Guardian editors wrote when endorsing Sheehan for favoring a fast withdrawal from Iraq and opposing any bailout for big financial institutions. "This is a protest vote," the newspaper said, "but a valid one."
The Green Party and the socialist-democrat Peace and Freedom Party have also endorsed Sheehan.
Pelosi, who has been traveling the country to stump for Sen. Barack Obama and the Democratic ticket, calls the war a "grotesque mistake" and blames GOP lawmakers and other obstacles for the failure to end it. As speaker, she took impeachment off the table, saying Congress had other priorities. She has spearheaded legislation dear to the hearts of many San Franciscans, such as bills to provide housing opportunities to people with AIDS.
Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and head of the Democratic Party here, says Pelosi's positions on impeachment, military funding and the Wall Street bailout may well cost her votes, partly due to general discontent. But while Sheehan is a familiar, sympathetic and respected figure and a "much needed voice," she does not have the local experience or political clout to seriously threaten Pelosi.
"San Franciscans are remarkably proud that our representative is the speaker and the third most powerful person in the country," Peskin said. "I don't think that, despite our disappointments and second-guessing, we're ready to give that up."
State Assemblyman Mark Leno, one of the first openly gay legislators elected in California and a Democratic candidate for the state Senate, says Pelosi must serve different constituencies in her roles as a congresswoman, leader of the Democratic caucus and House speaker. "It's not surprising that there would be some discord, but my guess is she will be re-elected with upwards of 75 percent of the vote."
Targeting Pelosi's Political Values
Detractors say Pelosi has given the White House virtual carte blanche on key security, economic and foreign-policy questions. A Sheehan campaign ad published Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle features a photo of Bush and Pelosi deep in a tete-a-tete, the president's arm on her shoulder. "Bush and Pelosi don't represent your values," it reads.
The race marks another milestone in Sheehan's transformation from suburban mom and Catholic youth minister to political activist and public figure, a voyage defined and motivated by the death of Casey at age 24. The oldest of her four children, he was a specialist in the First Cavalry Unit in Sadr City, Iraq, and was awarded a purple heart and bronze star for valor in combat.
A lifelong Democrat, Sheehan initially turned her assault on the Republican administration for its policy in Iraq. Now she views the Democrats as prolonging the war.
"Cindy, when I first knew her, was pretty much focusing intensely on George Bush and the Republicans and the war," said Debra Sweet, director of the New York-based World Can't Wait, a grassroots anti-Bush organization. "When she got into the process she began to understand that there were a lot of Democrats who were enabling this to go on. This was a loss of innocence for her."
Sheehan calls her candidacy the "second-most important race right now, if not the most important.
"Many people recognize that Barack Obama and John McCain fundamentally and policy-wise aren't that much different."
She sadly notes that the organized peace movement, deeply invested in the election of the Democratic ticket, is not officially supporting her. The protest group she is most closely identified with, Code Pink, based in Venice, Calif., cannot endorse her because of its nonprofit status. Co-founder Medea Benjamin says that while many activists are Sheehan sympathizers and donors, the consensus within the anti-war movement is to vote Democrat.
Sheehan acknowledges the dilemma of her outsider status. "When you challenge the whole imperialistic system," Sheehan told Women's eNews, "it's really hard. But I don't think anything that's worth anything should be very easy anyway."
Lorraine Orlandi is a freelance journalist in California who has written about women's rights in the United States and Latin America.
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