That may sound trite. It’s not. It’s probably not possible to understand how disruptive Walton’s win has been unless you’re from here. But I’ll try.
Walton is a community organizer, former head of a community land trust, a registered nurse, a labor activist, and a single mother of four who earned her GED while pregnant with twins. This was her first race for political office.
Byron Brown has been an elected official for 25 years, treading the path established by his predecessors from Buffalo’s Common Council to the New York State Senate to the mayor’s office on the second floor of Buffalo’s beautiful art deco City Hall. The massive building went up in 1932 at the origin point of the city’s original radial street plan when the city’s power elite believed—or professed to believe—that Buffalo’s rapid growth over the previous 50 years would continue unabated, that this would be a city of a million people by 1950.
That’s not what happened. Disinvestment had in fact already begun in the 1920s, and, after an economic bump from World War II, the city’s industrial economy continued to decline, finally cratering in the 1970s.
Buffalo has been a client of the state and federal governments ever since. State aid provides one-third of the city’s revenue; federal money flows through the city bureaucracy to fund a network of anti-poverty nonprofits.
For the past 50 years, the private sector has been largely a publicly subsidized shell game, as economic assets are shuffled from one place to another, benefiting real estate developers and construction firms, as well as the banks, insurance companies, and law firms that service them.
The city’s mayors—there have been just three since 1977—all built and retained power by guiding the distribution of public funds, currying favor with real estate developers through tax breaks and grants of public property, and controlling patronage jobs in city government, in an alphabet soup of quasi-governmental agencies and authorities, and in the private sector.
Brown, a native of Queens who came to Buffalo for college, was elected the city’s first African American mayor in 2005. He has governed exactly as his predecessors, focusing on pleasing developers, keeping bankers and the business elite happy, promoting shiny projects in and around the urban core and affluent commercial strips, while the city’s poor neighborhoods rot, poisoned with lead paint and truck exhaust and the cruel legacies of generational poverty.
Brown came to office not long after the city had been rescued from near-bankruptcy by the intervention of state government. The economic boom of the 1990s reached Buffalo late, but it arrived, along with low interest rates and new tax policies that favored redevelopment of old buildings in aging cities like Buffalo. People began to talk about a “renaissance,” and Brown was politically fortunate to be the face of it.
Empowered by a political machine expert in swamping opponents with votes from the city’s predominantly Black East Side, and with support from the city’s white business class, Brown cruised to reelection three times. He seemed assured of winning a record fifth term, surpassing Jimmy Griffin, a South Buffalo Irishman and exploiter of racial divisions, who once advised Buffalonians during a blizzard to grab a six-pack and stay home.
Enter India Walton.
Walton flirted with a run for Common Council in 2019, but instead became the first executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, which aims to provide affordable housing and mitigate the effects of gentrification on residents of the city’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, adjacent to the rapidly developing medical corridor.
Then she resigned that job in December to challenge Brown, without the backing of the local Democratic Party—or any other regional power enclave. The chairman of the county Democratic Party—which is frequently at odds with Brown’s machine—wrote her off, telling the Buffalo News he didn’t imagine her candidacy would have any effect on Brown’s reelection.
She and her volunteers drew together a coalition comprising activist groups galvanized by last summer’s protests against police brutality, income inequality, inadequate low-income housing, and a host of other issues they believed the Brown administration gave short shrift. The Working Families Party (WFP) brought to this coalition its expertise in electoral politics and state-of-the-art techniques for reaching voters.
That coalition might have been the sole legacy of Walton’s campaign. At a press conference Monday, she excoriated Brown for taking $120,000 in big donations from billionaires in the final days of the campaign. She sounded like a candidate who intended to win but would be pleased, win or lose, with having created a blueprint for progressive candidates in future races.
The race wasn’t just about becoming mayor, she told the two reporters who showed up. It was about elevating progressive politics in Western New York.
In the end, she did both: She beat Brown by 7 percent of the dismal turnout. And she laid a path for other aspiring outsiders with their eyes on the city council, as well as the county and state legislatures.
Walton also broke the troika of power headed by Brown and his allies in the state capital, state Senator Tim Kennedy and Assembly majority leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. She dealt a powerful blow to the county Democratic Party’s leadership, too.
“If you hold an elected office in this region, you have been put on notice,” she told her supporters and a phalanx of cameras on Tuesday night. “We’re coming for you.”
The business community and the political establishment have been running around with their hair on fire ever since. Developer and right-wing demagogue Carl Paladino—the hero of a surprisingly powerful alt-right movement in the region and an early devotee of Donald Trump—announced his intention to raise $1 million from the business elite to fund a write-in campaign to keep Brown in office in the November general election.
(Walton is the only candidate on the ballot in November, and the deadline has passed for Brown to get his name on some other party line. He was so certain he would win, he didn’t bother to court any minor parties beside the WFP, which has endorsed him in the past but chose Walton this year.)
Meanwhile, a host of Brown’s deputies, commissioners, and political allies staged what was supposed to appear to be a grassroots “Keep Byron Brown” rally outside the downtown baseball stadium, home to the Toronto Blue Jays while the US-Canada border remains closed by the pandemic. Moving among the crowd was Deputy Mayor Betsy Ball, who runs the mayor’s political operations and is at least partly responsible for the “rose garden” strategy that had Brown acting as if there were no primary, no challenger, until the week before the election, when his campaign began flooding the airwaves with ads, underwritten by a last-minute influx of $140,000 from the real estate developers, construction firms, lobbyists and businesspeople who have backed Brown throughout his long tenancy.
Staffers in the outgoing administration are suddenly worried for their jobs. Developers are worried for their projects. Walton has promised that her administration will direct the fruits of the regional economy to those who need the most help, to infrastructure and public health, and other programs that benefit everyone, rather than the business class.
Popular socialism, in other words, in the place of the corporate socialism that has driven Buffalo’s economy for a half century.
Brown has not conceded the primary and is said to be consulting with the team that ran a successful write-in campaign in Detroit’s 2013 primary. Paladino postponed a conclave of his rich compatriots—but maintains that he and the rest of the business community will stop at nothing to prevent Walton from taking office.
Meanwhile, Walton has earned a place on the national stage for her historic feat: Come January, she is likely to be the first avowed socialist to be mayor of a major US city since 1960. She will be Buffalo’s first woman mayor and, at 39, its youngest. She is also the first challenger to beat an incumbent mayor in Buffalo since 1961.
She has been congratulated by members of Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, and her personal hero, Cori Bush—like Walton, a nurse turned community organizer turned progressive politician. Senate majority leader Charles Schumer, who did a last-minute robocall for Brown, called her Wednesday to introduce himself: “My friends call me Chuck.”
A write-in campaign is unlikely to succeed—but it would galvanize those who are cheering Walton’s election. It would draw money and volunteers and celebrity guest turns from the national progressive movement. It might strengthen the political machinery she and her volunteers built from scratch.
But it would be ugly: the city’s first African American mayor challenging the legitimacy of the primary win by young black woman, underwritten by many of the same right-wingers that tried and failed to overturn last year’s presidential election. Brown surrogates are already spreading dirt on Walton that they were too disengaged to try using during the primary campaign.
You’ve got to be from here to understand how momentous this is. In this city—where nothing seems to change, where the loci of power have seemed immoveable for decades—Walton has ignited a revolution. Let’s see if she can keep it.