Hours after election results delivered India Walton a solid lead in her Democratic primary bid for mayor of New York state’s second-largest city, the candidate was asked by a Buffalo television anchor to explain her ideology.
“Now it’s a Democratic primary, but you have said over and over again you’re a democrat socialist. Explain the difference,” he prodded. “What does that mean, and what does that do to your platform in City Hall?”
Walton, a 38-year-old working mother, union activist, and community organizer was ready for that one.
“That means that we put people first,” she said. “That means that we prioritize the working class, the marginalized, the often unseen, unheard people over profits, corporations, and developers.”
That won’t be the last time Walton gets asked about her people-over-profits perspective. Her upset primary victory over a four-term incumbent, who has yet to concede, positions her as the likely winner in November. So she’s on track to become the first democratic socialist mayor of a major American city since Frank Zeidler, a one-time Socialist Party presidential candidate, led Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960.
It also sends a powerful signal about the prospects for a more radical politics at a time when the message from the nation’s largest city—which also chose municipal leaders on Tuesday—is still being sorted out. In the race for mayor of New York City, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a centrist who has resisted calls for bold reforms in policing, led with almost 32 percent of the vote in initial returns. Civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, a progressive who supports an overhaul in policing, was second with 22 percent. Her campaign had secured the late backing of Democratic representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman and the Working Families Party. But because tens of thousands of ballots have yet to be counted, and because the city is using a ranked-choice voting system that will redistribute votes from losing candidates, it could be weeks before a final result is confirmed.
Wiley’s late surge into second place was an encouraging sign for progressives after her campaign had trailed for months far behind Adams and early front-runner Andrew Yang. So was the easy win for Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who secured over 70 percent of the vote. As was the clear lead established by City Councilmember Brad Lander, another AOC and WFP favorite, in the initial count for the office of city comptroller. Alvin Bragg, a former federal prosecutor and civil rights lawyer, established a narrow lead in the crowded Democratic nominating contest for Manhattan district attorney. If that lead holds, Bragg will be the first Black leader of a high-profile prosecutor’s office that has targeted former president Donald Trump for investigation.
New York City’s potent Democratic Socialists of America chapter did not endorse in the mayoral race, instead targeting six city council contests. Several DSA candidates were leading, with Tiffany Cabán claiming victory in a Queens contest and Alexa Avilés running well ahead in a Brooklyn race. Several others were trailing but could get a boost in the redistribution of support under ranked-choice voting.
Even as the New York City count continued, however, attention shifted to Buffalo, where India Bani Walton surged on Tuesday night.
Backed by DSA, Walton ran a grassroots race that began in the snowy winter of last year and was frequently dismissed by politicians and pundits. A newcomer to electoral politics taking on an entrenched incumbent, she positioned herself from the start as a working-class contender whose experience mirrored that of the people she sought to represent.
“India Walton embodies Buffalo’s sense of resilience,” trumpeted her campaign. “Born and raised on Buffalo’s East Side as one of six children, India became a full-time working mother at the age of just 14. She earned her GED while pregnant with twins who were born prematurely, an experience that inspired her to become a nurse in the same NICU where her boys’ lives were saved.”
After working as a school nurse and becoming a leading activist with her 1199 SEIU, Walton became the founding executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, a group that works to develop permanently affordable housing in the city.
“I’m real, I’m resilient, and I’m ready,” Walton said on the campaign trail. “Are you ready?”
Incumbent Mayor Byron Brown, who has led the city since 2005, didn’t think so. The business-aligned mayor refused to take his challenger seriously. “There was no acknowledgement of my candidacy,” said Walton. “There was no debate. There has been no communication…”
As it turned out, Buffalo was ready for a candidate who declared, “When I make it to City Hall, I’m bringing all of you with me.”
Walton put an intense focus on organizing that recognized the failure of the Democratic Party’s entrenched leadership to embrace change. On snowbound winter days in the midst of a pandemic, she went door to door gathering the petition signatures that got her on the ballot. She reached out to volunteers one by one, neighborhood by neighborhood. She delivered her own yard signs. And she was on the street Tuesday with one of them, encouraging people in passing cars to get to the polls and vote.
Walton won endorsements from the New York Working Families Party, People’s Action, and the powerful Buffalo Teachers Federation for a campaign that promised to “bring accountability, transparency, and community-centered service to the Buffalo Police Department” and “to prioritize addressing the root causes of crime such as concentrated poverty and lack of living-wage jobs; emphasizing harm reduction and restorative justice programs rather than punitive measures.” She made a commitment to sign a tenant’s bill of rights, to implement “a comprehensive land use policy that sets aside 50 percent of city-owned vacant parcels for public good,” and to “support the creation and capacity of a city-wide land trust federation with democratic decision-making at the neighborhood level.” And she pledged to “advance a just recovery from the pandemic, putting peoples’ health and well-being first by strengthening social safety nets, supporting essential workers and training new workers for the just transition to an inclusive economy.”
“India ran a courageous campaign that uplifted the needs of working-class people and centered issues like affordable housing, police accountability, and climate justice,” said New York Working Families Party Director Sochie Nnaemeka, who spoke of how Walton’s election could “make Buffalo a national beacon for progressive governance.”
That’s what big-city Socialist mayors like Dan Hoan and Frank Zeidler did in the 20th century when Milwaukee and other cities with left-wing leadership served as laboratories of democracy. With a “for the many, not the few” sensibility, they developed social democratic policies that became models for public health, public safety, and equity. They were not afraid to break with the traditional politics of their cities or the nation.
Neither is India Walton.
“This is the work of a well-meaning group of rebels and revolutionaries that had a bold vision for what we want the future of our city to look like,” announced Walton in a Tuesday night victory speech. “We set out to not only change Buffalo but to change the way progressive politics are viewed in upstate New York.”
It won’t stop in upstate New York. India Walton’s “outside-the-system” politics is going to resonate nationally, as will her restatement of the gospel that democratic socialists preached a century ago and are now preaching anew: “When we organize, we win.”