They say you always remember your first.
Alexandria Silverstor was 3 years old when she came from southern Sudan to Buffalo, the only home she knows. She’s 19 now, and less than a week before Election Day she was in front of a polling site on the hard West Side of the city raising her voice for India Walton, exuberant. It was her first campaign, the first “job” she’s ever loved, she said, the first bright moment of political possibility in a city where too many for too long have been counted out or contained.
On November 2, Walton didn’t succeed in becoming “the first socialist mayor of a major American city in 100 years”—an idea that was wildly oversold by the progressive press nationally and used as a cudgel locally by Mayor Byron Brown, the putative victor in the mayor’s race, who ran as a write-in candidate after suffering a stunning loss to Walton in the Democratic primary last June. What Walton did was galvanize a new electoral coalition in the city—across colors, ethnicities, generations, neighborhoods, classes. It wasn’t enough to win, and her official campaign organization was raggedy, but at the watch party, even as the outcome of the vote became clear, Alexandria and other young folk who’d been working with the independent group Our City Action Buffalo, making calls and knocking on doors, talking about the state of things with their neighbors, were dancing. They’d tasted the joy of politics, and they aren’t going away.
We won’t know the actual numbers for the mayor’s race for some time. Officially, Walton got 41.2 percent of the vote to Write-In’s 58.8 percent. Four other candidates besides Brown had put themselves forward as write-ins, and the hand count separating valid votes from others—those marked incorrectly as well as familiar protest-cum-joke votes for Mickey Mouse, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, and the like—won’t be reported until all the mail-in, absentee, military, and provisional ballots are also counted. There is no mathematical possibility, though, for Walton to prevail. (The fringe write-in candidates are no more likely to be a factor than the Bills QB, whose name, linked with that of his favorite wide receiver, has adorned Allen/Diggs yard signs posted around the city by football fans.) Although she did not formally concede to Write-In on Tuesday night—someone, after all, should respect the process—Walton identified herself to supporters as no longer a candidate but part of their collective next struggle for the city’s future after what she called “the beginning of the beginning.”
Time and space are too short for a comprehensive analysis of what happened and what’s next, but a few contradictions are notable.
Byron Brown may have captured his fifth term as mayor, but he did so with no vision for the future and surprisingly little touting of his achievements after 16 years in office. Having lost the primary, he presented himself first as a whiner, then as an entitled special pleader, suing to try to force the Board of Elections to violate its own rules and put him on the ballot, before settling into his ultimate role as fearmonger.
Danger, danger! became the through-line of his message, whether propounded by his official campaign or by the Republican Party, which endorsed him, or by groups that sprouted up to make expensive media buys on his behalf. His television ads were designed to scare public workers into believing that Walton would fire them, and to scare other Buffalonians into believing that their safety was at stake. At their last debate, he called her an “apologist for criminals.” In other public remarks, he spoke so persistently of Walton with a bullhorn that it became ridiculous even to call it code: Here was a loudmouth, angry Black woman out to rob the store—a sentiment condensed by a reactionary Black columnist who called Walton a “hood rat” in a Black paper, The Buffalo Criterion. On Halloween, the local radio broadcast of the Bills game was peppered with spooky ads made by a political action group warning that a dangerous socialist loomed to put the city at risk. The Buffalo News endorsed Brown, calling Walton “dangerously inexperienced,” a “threat” who was “driven by grievances”; only the steady hand of Brown could move the city “safely forward.” Commenters to the newspaper’s online editions throughout the campaign chucked polite racism for full-on screeds against Walton as a welfare queen and grifter, and outside election sites some voters, white and Black, spoke with equal admiration for Donald Trump, the January 6 ruffians, and Byron Brown.
The scare campaign, and the mayor’s formidable machinery to energize the right, had intended consequences for Brown, even as it sent a message that should give no comfort to his more liberal voters, some of whom had supported Walton in the primary only to tell canvassers they were too anxious now. In other races in Erie County, the emboldened right flung ‘socialist’ as an epithet at Democrats who had never embraced the label. They welded the Democratic candidate for sheriff, another Black woman, former deputy police commissioner Kim Beaty, to the slogan “defund the police.” It was a lie and she’s trailing—no minor matter considering the county jail has been rife with scandal and violence, including the death of 32 inmates since 2005. Beyond those particulars, the Brown alliance’s message prompts a deeper question: If the city is indeed so precarious, so capable of being destroyed by a newcomer advocating participatory democracy and pledging accountability and shared progress, then what kind of foundation has the mayor built over 16 years?
The specter of danger is a grim joke for people in the city who have felt little safety. Walton made the city’s uneven development and a broad definition of public safety central to her campaign, lifting the veil typically used to pretend away the vast stretches of devastation on the predominantly Black East Side and the more camouflaged poverty in other parts of the city, much of it afflicting immigrants. Brown made a feint in the direction of those whose fortunes have barely changed over his long tenure, performing a little Mayor 101 late in the campaign with the promise of paved roads, repaired sidewalks, better street lighting, and attention to all sections of the city. He didn’t address Walton backers’ arguments that safety is a chimera when police haven’t been able to solve homicides (80 percent unsolved when victims are Black, 58 percent when latinx, 44 percent when white); and that priorities are perverse when high-end developers and Brown campaign contributors have got $20 million in federal antipoverty funds while the poor cling tenuously to home. He claimed victory on November 2 saying, “Today’s election was not just a referendum on the direction of the city of Buffalo. It was a referendum on the future of our democracy and our vision for our future.”
It would be an error to presume that all or even most of Brown’s voters were reactionaries, as it would be to presume that Walton had unified the poor or the working class behind her banner. People are not categories. It was telling, though, that voters expressing what seemed to be sincere approval of the mayor frequently made a point of saying that they had nothing against Walton. The mayor’s boogey-woman campaign was unmistakable, which makes talk of the election result as a referendum on anything but anxiety particularly empty. Emptier still because voters opting for Write-In constitute a mere 21.9 percent of the city’s 155,958 registered voters, and, as noted, we don’t yet know how many ballots belong to Brown.
Walton’s 23,986 votes, a little more than double what she had in the primary, constitute only 15.4 percent. Psychologically, it must sting the mayor that she won his home turf, the Masten District. Otherwise, he benefited from her early mistakes, chiefly her failure immediately after winning the primary to reach out to try to consolidate support while Democrats were stunned and Brown was twisting in the wind. It might not have worked, and detractors would have been plentiful, but instead she declared war on every sitting official in her victory speech and then left them alone to nurse their grudges. Once Brown rallied, the knife fight was on, and the party in chaos. Most Democratic local and state officeholders made no formal endorsements, and one, Attorney General Letitia James, didn’t even do her job of defending the state constitution when Brown’s lawyers stomped all over it trying to get him on the ballot belatedly as an independent.
Even before Election Day, some Walton backers, impressed by the Brown team’s organization in early voting—their tents and pens and plastic stampers, their translators at strategic polling sites—had started drafting postmortems in their head. Assessments of what went wrong, what went right, what they couldn’t control, what they could’ve done better, have deepened in the wake of defeat.
Electoral engagements always matter in relation to their potential for organizing. The vast pool of voters who sat this one out, and those people not yet registered, present an opportunity more for the social forces backing Walton than for those who enthusiastically wrote in Brown. A few days before the final vote, a man who’s been involved in politics for years and who’d worked to elect Brown in his first mayoral race, back in 2005, remarked that the mayor is stuck. His dreams of higher office have not panned out. He has the big-developer money and the benefits of office (represented most visibly during the election by city workers who staffed his poll operations, voluntarily or not). But the uneasy and unalluring coalition that gave him a fifth term—that 21 percent of the potential electorate—is probably his limit.
The new people who came into the coalition for Walton, many of them Black people who had sat out the primary not sure what to make of her, still signal what made this race so compelling, and not just for Buffalo or one election cycle: possibility. How expansive that may be, how the best ideas of the campaign may be advanced non-electorally, how far a broader ecosystem for change, electorally and otherwise, can be built out among the many, across class, who need it—all that remains the challenge. Despite this outcome, a winning political strategy is not inconceivable. Despite the dog whistles of the campaign, the constricting politics of Black or white seems to be coming unstuck.
At Walton’s watch party, Henry Louis Taylor, who directs the Center for Urban Studies at SUNY Buffalo, remarked that the contest for mayor revealed, among other things, that not all Black people care about what happens to Black people, and not all white people don’t care. The sense of possibilities, for breaking new ground where that had seemed impossible, for breaking out of long-reinforced silos, is part of what had the young ones dancing. “November 2,” Taylor said, “is our independence day.”