In a stunning upset Tuesday night, political newcomer India Walton defeated longtime incumbent Byron Brown in the Democratic primary for mayor of Buffalo. Backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, Walton vanquished Buffalo’s four-term mayor and a close ally of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
With all precincts counted, Walton declared victory while holding a 1,507-vote lead, which amounts to a 7-percentage-point margin in a low-turnout primary race where only about 21,000 votes were cast. Brown did not concede during brief remarks at his election night rally, but The Associated Press called the race for Walton on Wednesday morning.
If Brown doesn’t mount an independent campaign this fall, Walton has a clear path to becoming the first female mayor of Buffalo, as well as the first socialist — and the first socialist mayor of a major city in half a century. There is no Republican candidate for the fall election, and President Joe Biden claimed close to 80% of Buffalo’s vote in last year’s presidential election.
“Mommy, I’m the mayor of Buffalo ― well, not until January, but yeah!” Walton said in a phone call to her mother Tuesday night, which was captured on video by The Buffalo News.
Like many cities, Buffalo was roiled by racial justice protests last year following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It attracted national attention when two Buffalo police officers knocked 75-year-old peace activist Martin Gugino to the ground while clearing a protest outside Buffalo City Hall. Gugino spent a month in the hospital. After the officers were charged with assault, 57 members of the city’s special response team resigned from the unit in protest. Charges against the officers were later dropped.
Walton put police accountability at the center of her campaign; she told The Appeal that she is running because Brown is “doing nothing to advance the quality of life for poor and brown people and hold police accountable.”
Brown did describe the actions of the officers in the Gugino case as “horrific” and implemented some policy changes last year — though they were panned by local advocates for police reform as insufficient. Some activists disrupted his State of the City address last year over lack of action against police brutality.
Walton, born on Buffalo’s primarily Black East Side, became a full-time working mother at age 14 after dropping out of high school. She worked as a nurse in the Buffalo Public Schools and became involved in the local SEIU union before turning to community organizing work, founding an affordable housing group that rehabilitated vacant homes for low-income residents.
She ran on a left-wing agenda in one of the country’s most segregated cities, which also claims the nation’s third-worst child poverty rate. Walton promised a tenant’s bill of rights that includes rent control, along with a heavy investment in social services, and shifting police away from homelessness and mental health calls. She shied away from outright “Defund the police” rhetoric, telling a local news station she planned to relieve police “of the responsibility of fixing the problems that our municipal government should have been dealing with.”
Brown, Buffalo’s first Black mayor, was running for a record fifth term and was heavily favored to win. He did not agree to any debates with Walton during the primary; she instead held forums on Zoom with an empty chair for Brown. Firmly entrenched in the city’s political machine, he had the backing of other local Democratic politicians, powerful business interests, The Buffalo News and dozens of unions. Walton raised far less money than Brown, but she did have the endorsement of the powerful Buffalo Teachers Union and The Challenger, a newspaper aimed at Buffalo’s Black community.
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.