Buffalo’s India Walton looks to be on track to become the first socialist mayor of a major American city since Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler left office in 1960. Her breakthrough win in the city’s June 22 Democratic primary, in which she beat the four-term incumbent mayor, Byron Brown, put the 38-year-old registered nurse and housing activist in the national spotlight. She’ll face strong write-in challenges by Brown and others in the November general election. But if she wins, with a grassroots campaign backed by the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and the Erie County Democratic Party, Walton promises to make Buffalo a laboratory of democracy.
JN: You have a background as an organizer and an activist. How did that help you as a candidate?
IW: I went from being a registered nurse to a community organizer to an affordable-housing developer, and in all of those roles, when we proposed sound policies that would benefit poor and working-class people in the city of Buffalo, our barrier was the City of Buffalo.
So I know that having a person like me in office is going to change so many lives, because finally we’ll be able to put resources behind all of these bold, visionary ideas that are going to reduce poverty, increase access to affordable housing, and close the racial wealth and homeownership gap in Buffalo. That’s what I’m so excited about.
Those are messages that are resonant with people. Buffalo’s the third-poorest city of its size in the nation, and people are tired of being destitute and desperate, frankly. Folks have seen the decline of our city over the last few decades, and it’s not gotten better under the current administration, especially for Black and brown, poor, and working-class people. We have shiny buildings downtown, our waterfront and
Canalside is beautiful, and that has not translated into any material benefit for people who work the hardest—and folks are tired of that.
JN: Can Buffalo serve as a model for the rest of the country?
IW: Absolutely. A lot of people, when I said I was running as a first-time candidate, they’re like, “Well, why mayor? Why not school board, or why not city council?” And I said, “The things that I want to get accomplished don’t happen at the school board level or even at the city council level, right?”
Education is vitally important, and I want to do what I can as mayor to help support that, right? City council legislation is vitally important, and I want to work with the city council to make sure that we’re passing sound legislation that benefits the majority of Buffalonians. But in order to have an impact on poverty, in order to improve health outcomes and decrease disparities in health care, and in order to close this racial wealth and home ownership gap that I keep talking about, you need the purse strings.
You have to be able to control the budget and the prioritization of the resources of the city, and that happens in the executive office, and that is the reason why I wanted to run for mayor: because we need the purse strings.
JN: If you win in November, you will be the first mayor of a major American city in decades who identifies as a socialist.
IW: It’s so exciting. It’s so exciting.
There was a term they used to describe socialist mayors in the past: “sewer socialist.” They were called sewer socialists because one of the things that they prioritized in Milwaukee was indoor plumbing, right?
So this whole controversy about what socialism means, it just means that government functions in a way that is to the benefit of its residents.
It baffles me that this is a debate that we’re having right now, coming out of a pandemic where people are enjoying things like stimulus checks, like SNAP benefits for families with children, like relief from rent and past-due water bills.
In 2021, there were families—in the midst of a pandemic when they’re saying the single most important thing you can do to stay healthy is wash your hands—and they don’t have running water in their homes because they owe some company money…. People know that’s not right.