On the Agatha for Congress campaign trail. Photo credit: Eloise and Abigail Kirn from Fellow Americans 2020

If Your Dreams Do Not Scare You, They Are Not Big Enough

Running for Congress and losing is not a loss


I ran a 2020 congressional campaign and lost. (I didn’t earn enough votes to advance to the general election). It’s not the ending I dreamt of, but there were many wins along the way, and I still feel incredibly hopeful.

Looking back to the beginning

Most years, I commit to at least a dozen new year’s resolutions. But on January 1st, 2019, I only committed to one: run for Congress.

A page from my journal

I launched this campaign because I was heartbroken. I was heartbroken by how we treat immigrants, black Americans and people of color; how our planet is being destroyed; how few young people get involved in politics and how many politicians are out of touch with what so many ordinary Americans are struggling with — struggles that are on display every day as I walk around my neighborhood in the Mission and across San Francisco.

Running for Congress and joining the movement of upstart progressive leaders was an idea that I spent months reflecting on. It was not an easy decision nor one I took lightly. I knew how audacious and taxing the endeavor would be. I checked in with mentors, listened to the world around me, and everything I heard seemed to reinforce my inspiration.

I watched the San Francisco premiere of Knock Down the House at the Castro Theatre and paid attention to the audience’s reaction to the documentary. Throughout the film, people hooted and hollered for AOC and the other protagonists. They hissed when Joe Crowley appeared on the screen. At the end, everyone stood for a roaring standing ovation.

I kept a spreadsheet of 300 conversations I had with friends, family, and San Franciscans from all walks of life. Again and again I heard how hungry people were for new leadership and how many would support me if I ran.

My boss at the time: “Leap, and the net will appear.”
My acupuncturist: “There’s a lake you want to jump into, and every year you wait, the lake gets smaller.”
My father via Shakespeare: “to thine own self be true.”

I listened; I leapt; I hope I was true.

“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough”
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Of course, many people also told me that my mission was futile. Nancy Pelosi is arguably the most powerful woman in the world and was in the headlines everyday for leading an impeachment against one of the most dangerous men in the world. I considered running in another district, but in the end nowhere else felt like home. And ultimately, I wanted to challenge the leader of the Democratic establishment and the system that allows corporate influence to crush everyday people and progressive policies.

By all measures it was a Sisyphean challenge. We ran a grassroots campaign of individual donors, against the most prolific fundraiser in the history of the Democratic party. And we were up against a crowded field of Democrats and Republicans, many of whom had run before.

In the end, we lost. During the week leading up to Super Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi spent $197,000 in Facebook ads alone. That’s on par with what Elizabeth Warren spent during the same week for a presidential campaign ($257,000). Shahid Buttar ran a robust campaign to claim second place. I applaud Shahid and his team, and I’m relieved and grateful to see a progressive champion advance to the CA-12 general election for the first time in over 30 years.

Speaking at the San Francisco Universal Basic Income March

Taking risks and welcoming failure

Running is all about telling a story of what’s possible. Our campaign had many firsts: I’m the first Latina Democrat to run for this seat, and the first to support Universal Basic Income and liquid democracy. I know we are on the right side of history, albeit ahead of the curve.

It’s still controversial in this country to say that everyone deserves their basic needs to be met. That healthcare is a human right. That we can guarantee everyone a basic income. That in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country in the world, homelessness is our collective moral failing. That we can have a future with more modern, digital ways of voting.

I hoped to become a legislator and actually implement those “controversial” policies. Short of that, I still believe it was worthwhile to have pushed that narrative, brought people into the fold who were never politically involved, and united the people who are ready to keep fighting.

As I grappled with my own electoral defeat, I thought about the other candidates who I had followed and been inspired by. I thought about what I’d say to the San Francisco DCCC candidates that I proudly voted for but who didn’t win or to Jessica Cisneros—a young, promising progressive who fell short of defeating Henry Cuellar in Texas. I’d want them to know that while they lost their elections, they should be proud of the work they’ve done and the people they’ve inspired. And I’d want to make sure they don’t give up on the fight. Thinking about them helps me stay in the fight and not give up.

“We fear that we’ll be socially shunned if we fail. But this is to miss how profoundly reassuring and endearing failure tends to be to onlookers.”
~Alain de Botton, The School of Life

American culture loves to celebrate “rags to riches” stories, but we don’t share enough “riches to rags” stories. Fear of failure and shame hold so many people back, especially in the United States where we lack a social and economic safety net. When people fall here, they can fall really hard.

In my case, I left a comfortable job and lifestyle and lost in one of the most public ways someone can fail. The first time my name appeared in the New York Times was alongside our devastating election results. I spent all of my savings in order to run (and a little more) and won’t recover financially for a long while. (If you’d like to speed up my recovery, my venmo is account is Agatha-Bacelar.)

I hope my candidacy inspires others to do more, stand up for what they believe in, and reach for the things they might be holding back on — even if they don’t succeed the first time. I learned a lot from running for office. Most importantly, I learned how to be courageous and fearful at the same time. If any one is thinking about running for office or doing something audacious, please reach out to me. I’d love to help you.

I kept these cards in my purse as reminders of encouragement.

What’s next?

Before the election results came in, I felt proud of the campaign we built and at peace with either outcome: whether I advanced to the general election or not. That being said, the low voter turnout (in our district and races around the country) stings. We have to change this — democracy takes all of us.

Experiences like this provide clarity and resolve. I feel a renewed sense of urgency to reform campaign finance, advance UBI, and upgrade our voting system to the 21st century. I’m not sure what my future holds just yet, but I still want to increase political participation among my generation. At 40% of the electorate in San Francisco, Millennials have the power to get money out of politics and literally save the planet, and our future. It’s a challenge I welcome. We have everything to gain.

In an upcoming post, I will endorse candidates and initiatives I recommend people support. Similarly, if you think there are opportunities I should know about, pursue, or promote, please let me know.

Thank you to our volunteers and supporters. | Pictured here: our final mobilization before the election.

Thank you

Thank you to everyone who contributed to our campaign with your donations, time, enthusiasm, and creative talents. Your belief in me has truly been the honor of my life.

I have received an outpouring of messages from friends, new acquaintances, and people I’ve never met. Thank you for your kind words. I’m sharing some of them below.

Now let’s go out, organize, and build the future we want to live in.

In solidarity,
Agatha Bacelar