When the Elmwood Village organization in Buffalo, New York, convened a debate for the candidates in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary, only community organizer India Walton agreed to attend.
Mayor Byron Brown, a four-term incumbent, and challenger Le’Candice Durham, a civil servant, declined to participate.
But Walton’s team asked the neighborhood group, which hosted the debate via Zoom on June 15, if they could feature empty chairs with nameplates to acknowledge Brown and Durham’s absence.
The host even symbolically offered Brown and Durham the chance to respond to questions and deliver closing remarks ― pausing briefly to highlight the dead air before turning to Walton.
“We are ready for change. And I am a transformative and servant leader,” Walton said in her final remarks at the debate. “This is a radical act of love for me ― a big risk. But I can feel it in my bones, we can win this thing.”
About a week later, Walton did just that, stunning the political world with a lead over Brown in in-person voting that all but assures her control of City Hall.
There is no Republican candidate in the race, but Brown is openly considering a write-in campaign against Walton in the general election.
Walton would be Buffalo’s first female mayor. She would also be the first self-described democratic socialist mayor of a major American city in half a century.
She owes her victory to a confluence of circumstances and decisions, including low (albeit not atypical) turnout; public dissatisfaction with Brown’s housing, development and policing policies; and a disengaged incumbent who declined to take his main challenger seriously.
Brown’s refusal to debate Walton ― he did not appear at a June 10 debate either ― embodied a bury-his-head-in-the-sand approach to the race that ultimately doomed his bid.
In many ways, it resembled then-Rep. Joe Crowley’s fateful decision to send a surrogate to debate then-candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June 2018 ― down to the negative reaction in the press. Both incidents drew scathing reviews from the incumbents’ hometown newspapers.
Brown’s absence at the debates was a “real turning point” in the race, according to Charlie Blaettler, political director of the New York Working Families Party, which endorsed Walton in February and provided critical professional support to her volunteer campaign staff.
“It was something that random people on the street would say, ‘I’m not voting for him ― he won’t even debate. He’s scared,’” said Blaettler, who embedded with the campaign in Buffalo in the final days before the election.
Phil Rumore, president of Buffalo’s public school teachers union, which endorsed Walton in June, had a similar assessment.
“This mayor took [the election] for granted, and people do not like being taken for granted,” he said.
Walton, who grew up on the city’s largely poor, overwhelmingly Black East Side, gave birth to her first child at the age of 14. She eventually earned her graduate equivalency degree and became a registered nurse and union representative in 1199SEIU.
Fed up with the Brown administration’s focus on attracting corporate investment in the city with tax incentives, and its refusal to turn over thousands of vacant lots to the communities where they are located, Walton became active in the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust. Walton had arrived in the Fruit Belt neighborhood as a middle-class renter in 2015, but by 2018, she had been priced out of the neighborhood herself.
The premise of the land trust, which Walton eventually led, was that Buffalo, under Brown’s leadership, was gentrifying predominantly working-class and low-income Black neighborhoods on the city’s East Side without regard to the needs of the communities already there.
The land trust fought to acquire 50 vacant lots in the Fruit Belt neighborhood, and is now using them to build affordable housing that would prevent more displacement of local families.
“This is huge,” Walton said in February 2018, after the land trust reached an agreement with the city to acquire the lots. “The existence of the ‘FB Community Land Trust’ is going to ensure permanent affordable housing.”
When Walton announced her plan to challenge Brown for the mayoralty in December, she cited the need for more affordable housing as a key reason for her bid.
“Mayor Brown is doing the best that he knows how,” she said at the time. “As a person who is a career politician I think he’s a little bit detached from what folks on the ground are feeling.”
Walton has signed an activist-sponsored “Homes Guarantee” pledge, affirming her commitment to eradicating homelessness and making affordable housing a right. She plans to begin the process required for Buffalo to take advantage of a 2019 state law that allows cities to opt into a rent stabilization regime of the kind already in effect in New York City; create a registry that allows renters to check on a landlord’s record; provide relief to small landlords in exchange for forgiving some tenants’ back rents; and eventually set aside at least half of the vacant lots owned by the city for public use.
“People saw a real opportunity to have a person who could really change a lot of these dynamics that are hurting so many people in Buffalo.”
“India has been in the trenches of all of these fights for years,” said John Washington, a Working Families Party activist in Buffalo. “People saw a real opportunity to have a person who could really change a lot of these dynamics that are hurting so many people in Buffalo.”
Some of the energy behind Walton’s bid also came from dissatisfaction with how Brown, who has received donations from top police union officials, responded to the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020.
Members of the Buffalo Police Department infamously knocked Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old progressive activist, to the ground during a demonstration, sending him to the hospital for a month with a brain injury and a fractured skull. Two of the officers involved with the incident were charged with assault, prompting 57 members of the city’s special response team to resign from the unit in protest. The city later dropped the charges against the two officers.
Brown promised to enact widespread police reforms, but disappointed activists with his insistence on taking credit for changes already mandated under state law, such as decriminalizing marijuana and banning police chokeholds.
Many progressives were already wary of Brown’s coziness with police, based on how he handled the firing of a Black officer, Cariol Horne. Horne sued the city and the police department for firing her two years after she intervened in 2006 to stop a fellow cop from choking a suspect who was already in handcuffs.
Last October, Brown signed “Cariol’s Law,” recognizing the duty of police officers to intervene when a fellow officer is acting inappropriately. And in April, a state Supreme Court judge ruled in Horne’s favor, restoring her right to a full police pension.
Washington, the Working Families Party activist, nonetheless faults Brown for not doing more to expedite the restoration of Horne’s pension.
“People saw Byron Brown take 15 years to give Cariol Horne her pension for doing the right thing as a police officer,” Washington said.
For her part, Walton ran on a platform of having mental health professionals respond to mental health calls in lieu of police; making it easier to discipline and fire bad cops; investing in summer jobs programs for young people; and enacting a modest reduction in a police budget that she considers inefficient.
But Walton, who always campaigned with a smile, pointedly avoided embracing the slogan “defund the police.” It was part of a broader strategy of speaking in plain language, while not hiding her ambitious policy ideas or her identity as a democratic socialist, that Walton and her allies say was a key to her success.
“The challenge of the left is that we use our jargony activist language and don’t take time to fully explain what we mean to those who may not be as ‘woke’ as we are,” she told The New York Times.
Walton had a shoestring budget, but with an all-volunteer staff, she poured her limited resources into a direct-mail and TV campaign that used the same easy-to-understand message she uses when she speaks.
“For 15 years, under the same mayor, Buffalo has not been working for us,” intones the narrator in a TV ad that Walton aired in the final three weeks of the campaign. “Corruption, investigations and financial mismanagement ― this year, we can change that.”
Of course, for all that Walton emphasized the elements of her platform with the broadest possible support in her paid media, her earliest institutional support came from the activist left, helping build an army of volunteers that vaulted her into contention. The Buffalo chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America endorsed Walton in mid-February. A couple of weeks later, after a vote by the WFP’s Western New York chapter, the New York WFP endorsed her as well.
The WFP had endorsed Brown for his previous mayoral runs, but saw in Walton a chance to rethink the city’s priorities after the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Louisa Fletcher-Pacheco, who chairs the Western New York chapter of the Working Families Party.
“We are a working-class city. We’re a blue-collar city. India being a nurse, and meeting with teachers, and talking about being a nurse in schools and saying that we need a nurse in every school” had an impact, Fletcher-Pacheco said.
More mainstream stakeholders also got behind Walton in the final weeks of the campaign, as local institutions saw the challenger developing momentum.
The teachers union was pleased with Walton’s support for more dedicated city funding for public schools and a cap on the number of charter schools. The union generally sticks with incumbent Democrats, but occasionally takes risks, such as when it endorsed law Professor Zephyr Teachout’s primary run against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in 2014.
This time, the decision was “easy,” according to Rumore, the union president.
“To stay out of it would have been hypocritical,” he said. “You really need to stand up for a person who is willing to say ‘I’m not afraid to fund the schools like they should be.’”
The union sent a letter to its 3,800 active members and thousands of retirees informing them of the endorsement, as well as an email blast encouraging members to get involved.
More critical still was the endorsement Walton picked up a few days later from The Challenger, a venerated newspaper that caters to Buffalo’s Black residents.
“We endorse India Walton in her noble quest, based on the strength that she dared to step to the plate to give voters a choice,” The Challenger’s editorial board wrote. “Not to mention that at 38 years young ― she is qualified, experienced, intelligent, organized, and as her campaign slogan touts: Real. Resilient. Ready!”
The Challenger’s endorsement likely helped Walton eat into Brown’s margins in the middle-class Black neighborhoods that make up a core part of his base.
Although Walton performed best in whiter and more liberal neighborhoods on the West Side of Buffalo, such as the Delaware and Niagara common council districts, she did respectably in some of Brown’s traditional strongholds as well.
For example, Brown still won the Masten common council district, where he has historically performed well ― but Walton received 40.6% of the vote there, according to a Buffalo News analysis of in-person voting results.
As a result, the Working Families Party’s Blaettler sees her candidacy as a successful model for other progressive insurgents, who have sometimes struggled to unite liberal professionals with working-class Black and Latino voters. Generally, a coalition of that kind is needed to win major elections, even in liberal cities.
“When you run people who are deeply connected to where they live, who speak with moral clarity and are authentic, and you combine that with an efficiently run campaign ― if you do those things, the left is competitive anywhere,” Blaettler said.