A Socialist Dream Deferred in Buffalo

India Walton. Photo: Joshua Bessex/AP/Shutterstock

Buffalo’s India Walton appeared to be on the verge of becoming the first openly socialist mayor of a major U.S. city in more than a half-century after her shock win in the Democratic primary over the city’s four-term incumbent in June.

Hopes were incredibly high for Walton, who quickly became an inspiration for other progressives who hoped to conquer similarly challenging political territory. Instead, she and the left were crushed on Tuesday night when Mayor Byron Brown defeated her as a write-in candidate by a wide margin. Walton conceded Wednesday afternoon in a statement where she accused Brown of allying with Republicans to use “every dirty trick” against her.

The young activist, who had led a community land trust, hammered Brown for his city’s distressingly high poverty rate, decaying infrastructure, segregated schools, and abusive police. A product of the Black working-class area where Brown had built his political base, Walton campaigned on her compelling backstory: A single mother at 14, she defied violence and poverty to become a nurse and later a leader in Buffalo’s growing progressive scene. Brown had taken the race for granted, hardly campaigning in the primary.

Though the race was local, it began to take on national import in the final weeks, with a visit from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and endorsements by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. For leftists, who have won a large number of legislative seats in New York and elsewhere, Walton’s campaign was a chance to prove that one of their own could seize a high-profile executive branch, which has not happened in recent years. An outright victory might have shown how far democratic socialism could really go, winning hearts and minds in a blue-collar city with the support of the Working Families Party and the Buffalo chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Instead, Brown spent the final months of the campaign blasting away at Walton’s brand of socialism — and it appeared to pay off.

Unlike virtually every other incumbent who has been felled by a leftist challenger in recent years, Brown did not concede the election after narrowly losing the Democratic primary. He immediately decided to keep campaigning, drawing support from the city’s business and real-estate elite as well as rank-and-file Republicans, organized labor, and the Black working class. The Walton-Brown clash pitted new Buffalo against old, left against center (and right), and youthful organizers against entrenched political machines. Though Brown’s campaign was unorthodox, he possessed near-universal name recognition and an enormous war chest, thanks to his 16 years in office.

The general election was far more vicious than the primary. Brown and his surrogates portrayed Walton as a radical unfit for elected office, dragging up old legal troubles and claiming she would never be able to run a large American city. His campaign enlisted the help of Republicans and Trump supporters, including the real-estate developer Carl Paladino, a former gubernatorial candidate known for his racist and incendiary statements. The Police Benevolent Association fell in strongly behind Brown as he attacked Walton for wanting to defund the police department. He promised socialism would never triumph in Buffalo.

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

Brown offered little in the way of a policy platform or affirmative vision for Buffalo in the fall campaign. It was one of the most furious — and strange — efforts anyone could recall, a fallen incumbent running without any ballot line. An effort to secure an independent line failed in the summer, after a higher court overturned the ruling of a Brown-connected judge. By then, Brown had been flooding the city with “Write Down Byron Brown” signs. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of Detroit mayor Mike Duggan and Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, who both won write-in campaigns, Brown strained to rally as many voters against Walton as he could.

The spectacle, at times, was bizarre. The chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, refused to endorse Walton after she became the Democratic nominee, likening her to David Duke, the white supremacist leader. Governor Kathy Hochul, who hails from the Buffalo area, also refused to back Walton. Local labor unions divided support, with the Buffalo teachers endorsing Walton, a critic of charter schools, while more moderate unions sided with Brown.

In the closing days, Walton did gather more Establishment support. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand both endorsed her, a sign that her campaign was gaining momentum and beginning to win over mainstream Democrats. Cash poured in. Walton volunteers hammered doors, trying to turn the vote out. It appeared, however, Brown was able to overcome Walton’s grassroots push.

Walton’s loss does not deflate a movement so much as deny it another lodestar. Walton was clearly talented, but she won’t as of now have an office to show for it.

A Socialist Dream Deferred in Buffalo