Buffalo, New York, Mayor Byron Brown won a fifth term in office on the strength of a highly unusual write-in campaign against Democratic nominee India Walton, according to official results released on Friday evening.
By the evening of Election Day on Nov. 2, Brown’s victory was apparent, since the number of write-in ballots heavily outnumbered votes for Walton. Brown eventually won by nearly 20 percentage points.
But New York State law prevented the Erie County Board of Elections from opening the write-in ballots until Nov. 15, the last possible arrival date for the ballots of U.S. military service members and Buffalonians living abroad.
Like most observers, Brown had long assumed that the lion’s share of the write-in ballots were for him, and declared victory the night after in-person voting came to a close.
“The people of the city of Buffalo battled heart and soul for the remarkable progress we’ve achieved over the past 16 years and against those calling for ill-conceived policies that would reverse our progress,” he told supporters on election night.
Walton conceded the race on Friday evening.
“This election was not an end, but a beginning,” she said in a statement. “The new ideas we articulated, the new energy we inspired, the new volunteers we trained, and the new relationships we built will only grow in the coming years.”
Walton, who would have been the first self-described “democratic socialist” to lead a major U.S. city in decades and Buffalo’s first woman at the helm, scored an upset victory over Brown in the Democratic primary in June after Brown failed to take her seriously.
But Brown didn’t make the same mistake twice.
Although his efforts to get his name back on the ballot fell short, he ran a spirited write-in bid against Walton in the general election that capitalized on support from the Democratic city’s sizable population of centrist and conservative voters, who set aside their differences in shared wariness of Walton.
“Experience matters, absolutely,” said Jacob Neiheisel, a political scientist at the University of Buffalo. “This is what happens when you actually campaign after more or less refusing to do so.”
On election night, Brown hailed his win as a vindication of those who oppose demonizing big business and law enforcement.
He extended a “special word” of thanks to Buffalo’s police officers and firefighters, and declared that business executives and entrepreneurs are “not the enemy.”
At the same time, in an apparent nod to Walton’s candidacy and the progressive criticism leveled against him, Brown added, “Together we will ensure that every Buffalo resident shares in the continuing revival of our great city.”
Brown’s win dashes the hopes of progressives who wanted the chance to prove their mettle in an executive office in less ideologically favorable terrain. And Walton’s loss provides more ammunition to figures in the Democratic Party establishment who insist that many left-wing policies and slogans are politically toxic, even in party strongholds like Buffalo, New York’s second-largest city.
“Don’t fix what ain’t broke.”
Particularly among Buffalonians who remember darker days, Brown enjoys some loyalty. He presided over the city’s exit from under the thumb of a state-imposed fiscal control board and led during a development boom that revived the city’s downtown and waterfront areas. He also oversaw Buffalo’s first period of net population growth since 1950.
Chris Warner, a salesman in South Buffalo, grew up in the suburbs but told HuffPost in late October that he was drawn to buy a home in the city by, among other things, its lower property tax rates. He said he didn’t vote in the Democratic mayoral primary because he assumed Brown had it locked up.
But he planned to vote for Brown over Walton in the general election. “There’s been a significant change and turnaround with everything here,” he said, referring to the city’s trajectory during Brown’s nearly 16-year tenure. “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.”
Many other Buffalonians are fed up with Brown, whose mayoralty began during the George W. Bush presidency. Over the years, several of his aides and city agencies have been mired in corruption scandals. The city’s poverty rate remains stubbornly high at 30%. And plenty of residents on Buffalo’s predominantly Black East Side feel frustrated by the uneven distribution of city resources and the disruptive effects of gentrification.
Walton capitalized on voters’ exhaustion with Brown enough to win the Democratic primary, capture the imagination of the city’s growing cohort of young, progressive voters, and make significant inroads in Brown’s base on the East Side.
As a single mother enrolled in Medicaid who had her first child at age 14, Walton spoke with the authenticity of experience about making development and growth work better for ordinary people. She planned to scale up the projects she had worked on as founding executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, which sought to convert the neighborhood’s vacant lots into affordable housing units.
“We’re not seeing in a lot of communities the material benefits of the types of development that have been happening, and our strategy for economic development is to put the resources at the neighborhood level,” she told HuffPost in an October interview at her campaign headquarters.
But unseating an incumbent elected official requires a two-fold strategy: discrediting the incumbent and presenting a viable alternative.
Leveraging an influx of Republican and business community cash that allowed him to raise twice the sum that Walton raised from mid-July to October, the longtime mayor successfully disqualified Walton as an alternative with a barrage of attacks that sometimes played fast and loose with the facts. Even New York’s state Republican Party spent money amplifying Brown’s fear-filled message.
From the moment he announced his write-in campaign, he painted her as both unqualified and extreme ― a “radical socialist” who would chase middle-class families out of the city with higher taxes, coddle the perpetrators of violent crime and fire 100 police officers. (Walton insisted that she would seek a $7.5 million reduction in the annual police budget through staff attrition and reduction in overtime hours, not through firings.)
He also seized on unflattering parts of Walton’s personal history, such as her 2014 arrest for allegedly threatening a co-worker at her nursing job with physical violence.
“She thinks she’s above the law,” the narrator says as ominous music plays in one of Brown’s final ads.
Walton denies that she ever threatened a co-worker with violence and claimed instead that she had offered to settle her differences with someone who she felt had been bullying her.
But the most effective political attacks work because they reinforce a candidate’s existing weaknesses in the eyes of voters.
For Walton, the stories about her personal life ― Brown also brought up a landlord’s eviction of Walton from an apartment in 2018 based on suspicions of drug sales by Walton’s family members that she firmly denies ― confirmed voters’ doubts about whether the first-time candidate was up to the task.
Mark Brown (no relation to the mayor), a retired state employee in the Masten district, said he didn’t find himself attracted to Walton as a candidate because of her inability “at this point in time to have her life managed.” He said he voted for Brown.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Walton did not help her case. In early October, the city impounded Walton’s car over an expired inspection tag and almost $700 in unpaid parking tickets. Walton suggested that the Brown administration had targeted her for political reasons, which is possible but not currently verifiable.
Walton also partially walked back a promise to reform how Buffalo uses a state-level real estate tax break after learning that the city had limited control over the circumstances in which it can be awarded.
“She has been responsible for some ‘own-goals’ that could have been avoided and come from her just being a novice candidate.”
“She has been responsible for some ‘own-goals’ that could have been avoided and come from her just being a novice candidate,” Neiheisel said.
Progressives fumed at the refusal of some prominent New York Democrats to endorse Walton, calling out an ideological double-standard when it comes to party unity. Notably, neither New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), a Western New York native, nor state party chairman Jay Jacobs ― who scored an own-goal of his own with an ill-advised analogy to David Duke ― got behind Walton’s candidacy.
Other influential blessings arrived late, depriving Walton of the chance to burnish her mainstream credentials or use the endorsements to raise more money. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York threw Walton their support less than two weeks before Election Day.
But Walton received significant outside help, especially from the Working Families Party, which both coordinated with her and mounted an independent, six-figure TV ad campaign on her behalf through separate arms of the organization.
Although Brown had the TV airwaves to himself for three weeks in September, Walton and her WFP allies jointly outspent him on TV in the final weeks.
The progressive group helped Walton refute Brown’s unfounded TV attack ads claiming that she intended to fire 100 police officers with a rebuttal ad of its own. And in her public appearances, Walton took pains to clarify that by reorienting police priorities away from responsibilities like mental-health calls and traffic stops, she would actually free up law enforcement resources to address violent crime.
In conversations with several Buffalo voters open to an alternative to Brown, however, no amount of rebuttals could assuage their concerns about Walton’s plan to cut police funding. Especially on the East Side, a common complaint about Brown was that the police weren’t coming often enough under his administration.
Less police funding is “the last thing we need,” said Andy Pleasant, a flea-market worker in Schiller Park. “That’s the only reason I would not vote for her.”