Buffalo Rising: Socialist India Walton is on the Verge of Making History

Issue 267

John Tarleton Oct 25, 2021

On June 23, a registered nurse and first-time mayoral candidate defeated Buffalo’s four-term incumbent mayor, Byron Brown, in the Democratic primary to win one of the more shocking political upsets in New York history. After India Walton delivered her victory speech to a raucous crowd, an incredulous reporter asked if she was in fact a socialist.

“Oh, absolutely,” Walton said without missing a beat. “The entire intent of this campaign is to draw down power and resources to the ground level, to the hands of the people.”

Brown lost the primary by seven points but never conceded. He is now running a well-funded write-in general election campaign that seeks to portray his opponent as a dangerous extremist who will hike taxes, defund the police and let violent criminals run wild.

Walton has a compelling biography — grew up poor, had her first child at 14, got a GED, had premature twins at 19, became a nurse, a union activist and a community organizer — and she has proven to be a nimble campaigner with a gift for making “radical” ideas seem like common sense.

Housing should be decommodified, she insists. The community should benefit when private developers receive public subsidies. Cops should be held accountable for their actions. Schools should receive more funding, not less. Crime is reduced and public safety increased by alleviating poverty and the destabilizing effects it has on the lives of low-income people.

“We’re not ‘against’ the wealthy,” she tweeted in mid-October. “We just don’t believe they have a right to dominate our society.” Should Walton win on November 2, she will be the first socialist to lead a major American city in 60 years. It would also be a milestone in the growth of the democratic socialist movement that took root during Bernie Sanders’ two presidential runs. More than 100 democratic socialists have been elected to city councils, state legislatures and Congress since 2016.

Legislating and holding committee hearings is one thing. Wielding executive power and overseeing the day-to-day affairs of a major city is another. Not that it hasn’t been done before. The “sewer socialists” — who were derided by their more ideologically-minded brethren for focusing on practical governance — presided over Milwaukee for much of a 50-year stretch that ended in 1960. More recently, Sanders was credited with revitalizing Burlington, Vermont during his four terms as mayor from 1981-1989 before he was elected to Congress.

Buffalo is closer geographically to Cleveland than New York City and normally goes unnoticed here in the Big Apple. Michael Niman, a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State University, says the city already had the building blocks of a progressive political culture. This includes a high rate of unionization, long-running support for gay rights, a Black community with roots dating back to the Underground Railroad, a sprawling public parks system built at the height of Buffalo’s late 19th century prosperity and numerous community land trusts which are a common, though chronically underfunded mechanism for creating permanently affordable housing in a city that was later ravaged by decades of deindustrialization. However, Niman cautions that Walton’s ascent shouldn’t be seen in strictly ideological terms. After 15 years in office, he says, the incumbent mayor has simply alienated many people with an approach to city government premised on rewarding his well-heeled friends and punishing his foes.

During Byron Brown’s time as mayor, the city’s poverty rate of 28% has remained largely unchanged while child poverty rests above 40%.

“Byron Brown doesn’t wake up each morning asking, ‘What can I do to make life in Buffalo better?’” Niman said. “He’s more Nixonian and wakes up asking himself, ‘How can I fuck over my enemies today?’” According to Rob Galbraith, senior research analyst with the Buffalo-based Public Accountability Initiative, Brown has emphasized heavily subsidized, “silver bullet economic projects” such as the University of Buffalo’s downtown medical campus and an unused $950 million Tesla auto factory in South Buffalo. During his time as mayor, the city’s poverty rate of 28% has remained largely unchanged while child poverty rests above 40%. The neglect by city hall has led to “an escalation in organizing,” Galbraith said, and a growing awareness among various community groups of a shared foe. “Among the activist community here,” he added, “there’s been an emerging class consciousness so that all of their [particular] critiques are genuinely critiques of capital.”

Faced with a political insurgency that might put one of its own in city hall, western New York’s ruling elites have responded by pouring money into Brown’s write-in campaign. According to Investigative Post, a Buffalo-based, non-profit news site, Brown as of October 1 has raised $851,000 for the general election with two-thirds of that sum coming from donations of $1,000 or more. Brown’s donors include Republican real estate developers who previously supported Donald Trump. Walton, meanwhile, has raised $617,000 with more than half of that made up of small donations of $100 or less. Brown’s financial advantage allowed him to go on television first with ads slamming Walton. His campaign website offers no information on what he would do with a fifth term in office.

“He’s literally offering nothing but red baiting and just general, dishonest fearmongering about India,” Galbraith said.

Walton has come under scrutiny for her use of food stamps as a young mother, for unpaid traffic tickets and for a 2014 arrest over a conflict with a co-worker. Niman suspects the attacks may backfire and make Walton more sympathetic to the many Buffalonians who have experienced similar difficulties in their own lives. With Brown running as a write-in candidate, both Niman and Galbraith said the race was too unpredictable to forecast a winner.

“People have been resigned to the idea that government does not work for them, that it works for the people who are already rich,” Galbraith said. “It’s a very simple kind of bone-deep understanding a lot of people in Buffalo have. It’s what propelled India to win in the first place in June, and it’s the strongest tailwind for her going into November.”

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