the city politic

Will Buffalo Elect a Socialist Mayor?

It depends on the success of the incumbent’s extremely unusual write-in campaign.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Lindsay Dedario/REUTERS/Jeffrey T Barnes/AP/Shutterstock
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Lindsay Dedario/REUTERS/Jeffrey T Barnes/AP/Shutterstock

In October, Byron Brown emerged in the converted post office that had become his campaign headquarters, grinning and shaking hands. In a dark-blue suit and dark-blue tie, a golden buffalo glimmering from his lapel, he looked every bit the incumbent that he was, a political institution cruising to yet another reelection.

“Progress is continuing as we speak. I want to keep the progress growing. I don’t want to see the city go backwards,” the 63-year-old Democrat said dryly. “I’m running for reelection because there are great opportunities in front of this community and I believe that I have the experience, the proven track record to move this city forward.”

But Brown had already lost. The man who had chaired, at one time, New York State’s Democratic Party was not the Democratic nominee for mayor in the city of Buffalo, where he had served since 2006. Like David Dinkins, he was the first Black mayor to ever run his city, and like Michael Bloomberg, he had presided over it long enough that his name, punchy and alliterative, was just about synonymous with the office that he dominated.

In June, a little-known registered nurse and local activist, India Walton, narrowly defeated him in the Democratic primary. Walton ran with the support of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, a candidate fully in the mold of other successful insurgents, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and the rest of the Squad. She campaigned on taxing the rich, cutting the police budget, and protecting working-class tenants. As the former director of a local land trust, she vowed to bring the model, which involves local nonprofits owning and managing land for permanently affordable housing, citywide.

Walton’s win made national headlines. As Eric Adams stormed to victory in New York City bashing the left, Walton offered a clear alternative: a Black candidate willing to align, fully, with young progressives and socialists, and someone who had proved an unapologetic activist could win an election in a city of more than 200,000 people. Walton was poised to become the first openly socialist mayor of a major American city in more than a half-century, harkening back to an era when municipal or “sewer” socialism could be found in places like Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

Yet something curious started happening. Unlike Joe Crowley, Eliot Engel, and every other moderate Democrat who has been felled by a leftist challenger over the last few years, Brown did not concede the election. He had no ballot line to run on anymore, but he did have one last option: a write-in campaign.

Soon, the city of Buffalo was flooded with “Write Down Byron Brown” signs and one of the oddest, and most furious, election seasons anyone could recall was here.

“We are in an unprecedented time now with this race,” said Jeremy Zellner, the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, which is now backing Walton after endorsing Brown in the primary. “This is not like something scripted out in the past, that anyone can look to.”

Competitive general elections are increasingly rare in deep-blue big cities. Republicans are vanishing fast and Democratic primaries are the terrain where ambitious politicians joust for their futures. Buffalo is no different: A Republican hasn’t been mayor of Buffalo since 1965.

A Democrat losing a primary and campaigning into the general election as a write-in candidate would, in almost every other instance, be greeted with howls of protest from Democratic elites. Party unity is celebrated and enforced. Third-party or no-party candidates are ridiculed and ostracized.

Buffalo, though, is different. The real-estate developers, labor leaders, police officers, and various power brokers who know Brown well and prize stability — and believe he has helped usher in a revival of the beleaguered city — immediately rallied around him, validating the second campaign. Buffalo’s most prominent Democrats, like Governor Kathy Hochul and Representative Brian Higgins, refused to endorse Walton, though she was the only candidate on the Democratic line. Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the State Democratic Party, declared his refusal to back her as analogous to the party withholding an endorsement of a notorious white supremacist. “I have to endorse David Duke? I don’t think so,” Jacobs told a TV station. “Now, of course, India Walton is not in the same category, but it just leads you to that question: Is it a must? It’s not a must.” (Hochul came to Walton’s defense and condemned the comments, though maintained she wouldn’t endorse Walton or Brown.)

“It’s unfortunate but not shocking,” Walton said of her lack of institutional support, speaking from her own campaign office inside a sleek co-working space across the street from Brown’s HQ. “I know how entrenched our local and state Democratic Party is. I know that I am the unknown and I represent a very difficult change and I’ve been saying since the very beginning, folks are welcome to come along when they’re ready.”

Such a closing of the ranks among Buffalo’s Establishment would not have happened had another longtime council member or state senator defeated Brown. It was Walton, the 39-year-old Bernie Sanders–endorsed democratic socialist, who terrified and angered them most.

Yet the candidate herself is not as radical as portrayed by her opponents — or by the media.

A mother of four who gave birth to her first child at 14, Walton battled poverty to earn a GED, become a nurse, and eventually rise to become one of Buffalo’s most prominent activists and nonprofit leaders. “India is me. She’s the common person who knows what it is to be an African American female living in the city of Buffalo,” said Tanya Johnson, a retired biology teacher who used to be a member of Brown’s political organization before deciding to support Walton this year. “If things haven’t changed after all this time, what do you expect moving forward?”

On the stump, Walton talks often about fixing city services and pumping more money, both local and federal, into schools and infrastructure. Her enthusiasm for public schools has won her the endorsement of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, one of several labor unions that have spurned Brown for Walton. As a municipal candidate, Walton’s vision of socialism is far closer to the ground — filling potholes and repairing sidewalks are what animates her, and what many people around the city cry out for.

Walton’s social-media following has grown, but she’s not a natural firebrand there. One-on-one, she is cautious and soft-spoken, more seasoned activist than radical-chic thought leader. “The thing that makes me the most pleased is that there’s a mainstream conversation about local politics right now,” she said. “Folks are talking about the mayor’s race in the grocery store and in their living rooms and I think that’s the level of engagement I would like to see sustained in a city like Buffalo. Our voter turnout, in general, is very low and we have an electorate that tends to be very disengaged.”

Walton is cognizant of where she is situated in the national context and just what’s at stake if she wins — or goes down in defeat. In addition to Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, most of New York’s high-profile progressives have endorsed her, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is mulling a gubernatorial bid. While Walton first name-checks local politicians who have mentored her, she does note that she speaks with AOC regularly.

The congresswoman’s advice? “It’s mostly to remember to take care of myself, it’s mostly to remember to get rest, to be gracious and be forgiving and make sure I keep my values at the center of what I do.”

But Walton, as she navigates a treacherous final stretch, is less willing to take on the cultural battles of the Squad. Though she has campaigned on reallocating money from the police budget to social services, she appears wary of the language activists have employed, especially as Brown and his surrogates hammer her over the issue. She’d rather eschew certain jargon and practices popular with the college-educated left, arguing that working-class voters may not understand why some people might introduce themselves by stating their pronouns.

“I’m not that woke,” Walton said with a smile. “I’ve learned a lot over the last year but I also believe in meeting people where they are.”

“If you’re a member of DSA or ultra-progressive, your friends are going to tend to have the same political leanings,” she said. “So we use certain terminology when we speak with one another which is not resonant with average working-class folks. Anyone who uses the word ‘defund,’ you can never make it sound like a positive thing because you haven’t taken the time to explain what that actually means, right? It doesn’t mean we’re going to rid ourselves of the entire police force.”

Walton invoked her experience as a nurse. Medical professionals have language they use with each other, but that is not how they might talk to a patient. “We have industry language and we have lay language. A lot of language that we use in progressive circles is industry language and we have to begin using more lay language and being a lot more patient with people when they don’t understand it.”

She’s an idiot,” said Carl Paladino, the powerful Buffalo real-estate developer and Trump backer who once ran for governor. “She has absolutely no track record of having done anything constructive in her life. She’s gotten in all kinds of trouble, punching people out, getting fired from jobs. She’s really off the wall with her platforms. She wants to defund the police, you name it. The woman is wacko, okay?”

He promised Republicans would be “out” for Brown in the November 2 election and lashed out at Brown’s chief of staff for attempting to put distance between himself and the mayor. “She advised him, ‘Carl Paladino is not the kind of person you want to tell people is supporting you in the Black community,’ which is total bullshit.”

Paladino, who in 2017 was booted from the Buffalo school board not long after sending racist remarks about Barack and Michelle Obama to a local publication, has become one of Brown’s bigger behind-the-scenes boosters. Brown said publicly he doesn’t want Paladino’s support, though Paladino has worked with the Brown administration in the past and encouraged the mayor to remain in the race after the primary.

Paladino’s incendiary attacks on Walton stem, mostly, from local news coverage that has assailed her campaign of late. The Buffalo News, the sole daily newspaper in the city, reported that she was once arrested, in 2014, for “second-degree harassment for physical contact” in a clash with a former co-worker, though Walton denied touching the woman. The News also reported that Walton’s former landlord blamed her for fostering an environment where drugs were allegedly sold out of her house, a charge Walton denied and one never substantiated by the police.

At an October press conference where Walton unveiled her agenda for uplifting the impoverished in Buffalo’s overwhelmingly Black East Side neighborhood, where Walton grew up, local reporters mostly obsessed over a tweet she had sent out about her car being impounded over unpaid parking tickets and an inspection that had expired. “I should have paid the parking tickets, and yes, I should have gotten my car inspected. What happened yesterday was unfortunate, but it’s yesterday’s news,” she said that day.

To defeat Walton, Brown is attempting to stitch together an unlikely coalition, uniting many of the white conservative Democrats and Republicans who long opposed him with the Black working-class that has always been his base. Enormous mansions boast Brown lawn signs, as well as a sizable number of weathered homes on the East Side. His control of the municipal government and its patronage networks means that there is a large chunk of regular voters who fear losing out on jobs they’ve held for decades. And various labor unions, including the Police Benevolent Association, are working the phones hard for the mayor.

“The progressive movement or platform, it does not make people safer, it does not make the community better,” said John Evans, the president of the Buffalo PBA. “She’s very anti-police.”

All the rancor is a striking departure from the primary. The campaign, on Walton’s end, had been electrifying, but both detractors and supporters of Brown concede he didn’t really campaign at all. “He read his own press clippings in the primary,” said Peter DeJesus, a Brown backer who is president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. “He felt like he wasn’t going to lose this race.”

Brown refused to debate Walton and hardly referred to her in public. He did not fundraise or stump across the city aggressively. He figured history was on his side: Buffalo has had only three mayors since 1978, including himself. Term limits don’t exist and incumbents don’t lose. Another four-year term would naturally materialize.

After all, Brown had loomed over Buffalo’s recent resurgence — a  revitalized waterfront, new gleaming office towers, and a proliferation of bars and restaurants are enticing a young professional class — and taken credit for its growth. He is proud to align closely with the real-estate industry and hand out subsidies for their building. He refuses to raise property taxes. Like other business-friendly mayors, he has embraced privately run, publicly funded charter schools.

But the case critics press against Brown is that the city remains, beyond a few pockets of glitz, distressingly poor. The poverty rate is near 30 percent, with childhood poverty exceeding 40 percent. Potholes still riddle roads, sidewalks crumble, lead paint plagues old homes, and the public schools continue to struggle.

City services, critics say, are woefully underfunded.

“Our roads and streets are in pretty crappy shape. The budgets are out of whack. Police are as problematic as they are anywhere else and the incumbent has been there 16 years,” said Geoff Kelly, a reporter with Investigative Post, a local nonprofit news outlet that has brought scrutiny to the Brown administration. “These problems aren’t all his fault but they accrue to his ledger because he is mayor.”

After his defeat, Brown thought he could possibly have a ballot line to face Walton. In the summer, a federal judge whose brother had donated more than $11,000 to Brown over the course of a decade ruled the mayor could appear on a new independent ballot line despite his campaign missing the state-imposed deadline for petitions by months. Court rulings eventually overturned the judge’s dubious decree and Brown was banished from the ballot.

Since New York law allows voters to stamp names onto their paper ballots, Brown said he has ordered tens of thousands of stamps, to be mailed to voters and handed out at polling sites. His campaign, which has raised more than $800,000 for the general election, nearly twice Walton’s haul, can well afford them.

Though write-in campaigns face inordinate hurdles, there are precedents that can give Brown hope. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s Republican senator, triumphed in one in 2010, as did Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, who won a write-campaign as a first-time candidate in 2013.

Public independent polling on the Walton-Brown clash is scant, but Brown’s name recognition, cash advantage, and political muscle give him a strong chance next month. More than 60,000 people could vote in the race, far more than in the last few general elections.

“There’s probably no one that you can talk to that has not heard the slogan, that does not know the slogan, ‘Write down Byron Brown,’” Brown said. His triumph, he declared, “will be a defeat of the term ‘socialism.’ Part of it will be a defeat of Miss Walton’s brand of socialism.”

“I think she shows a level of disrespect for this position, though, and the complexity of the position to even put herself forward with her lack of experience, her lack of qualifications that are relevant to this job,” he added. “I would never do that. I’ve worked in senior levels as a staffer in city, county, and state government before I even ran for a council seat. I served three terms in the city council, then three terms in the state senate before I even ever considered running for the office of mayor.”

Brown’s playbook in the final days leading into the November election is obvious enough: Hammer Walton on defunding the police and portray her as a young radical unfit to lead a major city. Spook every Republican and middle-of-the-road Democrat into rushing to the polls to write or stamp the name of the mayor they know so well. There is little in the way of an affirmative vision for the future — Brown is banking on not needing one. There is no campaign platform listed on his website.

The race, observers say, might come down to the very East Side neighborhood where Walton grew up. Renters, multiracial immigrants, and more affluent urban professionals are firmly in Walton’s camp, while Brown has a lock on all right-leaning voters in the city. The Black working class, which is traditionally wary of leftists but may also be tiring of Brown, could be willing to give enough votes to Walton to put her over the top.

“Rather than put their stock in a candidate that might seem like a risk, they decided to sit at home. That nonaction is an action. It enabled her to win the primary,” explained Russell Weaver, a quantitative geographer who produced extensive analyses of the June primary. “It’s now about pulling them into the election.”

The significance of a Walton victory, if it comes next month, cannot be undersold. Her win is very much in reach, though betting sites have Brown, even sans ballot line, as the clear favorite. Leftists have rarely, in modern times, seized executive offices, where tangible power resides and hard, unpopular decisions must be made. AOC has no say over the public-school system, the public parks, or the police, but Walton, in her own city, would. It is easy to tweet, hold rallies, and make demands — and far harder to force calcified bureaucracies to function for ordinary people. Walton gives every indication she is ready to do that.

In the meantime, she must endure the fury of a Brown machine that still can’t quite believe it lost to her in June.

“I’m struggling to figure out why people are so angry, as if I’ve done something wrong. I participated in the democratic process that is supposed to be open to us all,” she said. “I wish people would, like, chill.”

Will Buffalo Elect a Socialist Mayor?