The race for governor of New York won’t be decided for more than a year, but potential contenders for the Democratic nomination are lining up on different sides of the question of whether their party’s leaders should back the Democratic nominee for mayor of the second-largest city in the state. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is all in for India Walton, the choice of Democratic primary voters for mayor of Buffalo. But another prospective contender, US Representative Tom Suozzi, swooped into Buffalo last weekend to endorse the candidate Walton beat in the primary, incumbent Mayor Bryon Brown, who is mounting a sore-loser write-in campaign with substantial support from Republicans. Meanwhile, Governor Kathy Hochul, who hails from the Buffalo region, is taking hits for refusing to endorse Walton. What gives?
Walton won the Democratic nomination for mayor of Buffalo on June 22, prevailing over Brown by more than 1,000 ballots in one of the most widely noted election results of the 2021 election cycle. The upset win for a newcomer over a four-term incumbent with close ties to the administration of ousted Governor Andrew Cuomo, and to Hochul, who served as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, gained national attention for lots of reasons. It’s not often that sitting mayors are beaten in their own party primaries. And Walton was a candidate with a compelling story of overcoming hardship and achieving big things: A mother at 14 who dropped out of high school but went on to earn her GED while pregnant with twins, she eventually achieved a nursing degree, became a prominent union activist, and served as executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that has fought to keep housing affordable in gentrifying neighborhoods of Buffalo.
But most of the attention focused on the fact that Walton would be the first democratic socialist to serve as the mayor of a major American city since Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler left office in 1960. Like other democratic socialists who have run for and been elected to top posts as Democrats—including US Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—Walton is bringing a new generation of young activists into the party.
That dynamic was in evidence in the primary election campaign, which saw Walton and her supporters build a grassroots movement to upend politics as usual in an election where she would be the only candidate on the November ballot—as there were no Republican or independent contenders.
So, of course, state Democratic Party leaders would be excited to support her campaign, which promises to make Buffalo a national leader in the struggle to provide affordable housing, reform policing, and address economic, racial, and social injustice, right?
Jay Jacobs, the chair of the New York State Democratic Committee, signaled in mid-September that the party was not planning to make an endorsement in the race of either Walton, whose name is on the ballot, or Brown, who tried and failed to get on the fall ballot as a third-party candidate. Why? “One way or another, a Democrat is going to be elected mayor of Buffalo,” asserted Jacobs, who replaced Brown as state party chair in 2019. Both men have long histories as allies of Cuomo, who blamed low voter turnout for Walton’s primary win and announced, “I have nothing but good things to say about Mayor Brown.”
Brown definitely has a long history as a Democratic insider. But he’s now running a relentlessly negative campaign against the Democratic nominee for a major post in New York state, a campaign that is relying on big-money support from Republican-aligned landlords and developers.
If a party primary means anything, it ought to secure support for the nominee from the party machinery and its most prominent elected officials. Yet, on Saturday, Suozzi appeared at Brown’s Buffalo headquarters to deliver a robust endorsement of the write-in candidate. “The eyes of the country are going to be focused on Buffalo,” declared the Long Island Democrat, who would like to run to Hochul’s right in a primary. “We don’t want to wake up on Nov. 3, and people say, ‘Buffalo just elected the first socialist mayor in the past 50 years.’ We can’t make that happen in Buffalo!”
“I’m here to say very, very clearly that we need to elect Byron Brown and defeat the socialists!” shouted Suozzi.
The governor, a native of Buffalo who has known Brown for decades, has refused to endorse in the race. When Hochul appeared in Buffalo on Labor Day, Walton was standing nearby. But the Buffalo News reported, “Walton was asked to leave the area because the event was an ‘official government event’ —a bill signing—and the spots were reserved for elected officials and labor leaders, according to the governor’s office.” Brown remained for the photo-op—and got a shout-out from the governor.
Walton’s “Republican-Backed Opponent”
Hochul’s approach drew a rebuke last week from Williams, who said, “This should be a race where the governor is stumping for the first female mayor of Buffalo.” Williams, who challenged Hochul for the lieutenant governorship nomination in 2018 and who has not been shy about suggesting that he might bid for the party’s 2022 gubernatorial nomination, has also called out Jacobs and the state Democratic committee with regards to the Buffalo race.
Jay Jacobs’ efforts to shield the current powerbrokers and power structures from a challenge aren’t remotely surprising. His role, and that of the highest ranking Democratic officials in our state, should be to uplift Democratic candidates, Democratic voters, and democratic values. Instead, he is clinging to the systems that have empowered him, in the same way he and many others in Albany clung to Governor Cuomo—until it was politically impossible to do so, but long after it was in any way justifiable.
Governor Hochul should be using this moment to demonstrate a new direction of leadership for the state party, not continuing the practices of Andrew Cuomo’s Albany. If she, Jay Jacobs, or any other Democratic state leaders are more interested in supporting Democratic candidates than cynical incumbency protection, they would be focused less on avoiding a 2022 primary, where Jacobs should be impartial, and more on the 2021 general election where they still refuse to endorse the young Black female Democratic nominee for Mayor in New York’s second largest city as she battles against a Republican-backed opponent.
That description of Brown as “Republican-backed” wasn’t hyperbole. When Brown mounted an unsuccessful effort to get on the ballot as a third-party candidate, Republican Party leaders and prominent conservatives helped gather the signatures. “He’s openly taking the support of Republicans, and working with them,” said Jeremy Zellner, the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, which has backed Walton. Last week, Buffalo’s Investigative Post reported that “a number of prominent Republicans” were among the big donors who have helped Brown raise “about $851,000 since he lost the June 22 Democratic primary.” In September, the Post reported that Carl Paladino, the 2010 Republican nominee for governor of New York and a close ally of Donald Trump, had “circulated an email invitation to a fundraiser for Brown hosted by the owners of a restaurant in a building Paladino owns.”
After Walton won the Democratic nomination in June, Paladino announced, “I will do everything I can to destroy her candidacy.”
Paladino said he was upset with Walton and others who called him a racist after he wrote in 2016 that he hoped President Barack Obama would die of mad cow disease and that first lady Michelle Obama would be sent to Zimbabwe to live in a cave. The Buffalo School Board, on which Paladino sat, voted to condemn his remarks as “unambiguously racist, morally repugnant, flagrantly disrespectful, inflammatory and inexcusable.” In 2017, the New York State Education Department ordered Paladino’s removal from the board after he disclosed confidential information from an executive session.
Buffalo’s mayoral election takes place November 2. Brown’s well-funded campaign is flooding the airwaves with ads making false and unsubstantiated claims about Walton. Walton’s not quite as well funded, but she has an ad up that says. “I’m running to make the government work for us, and not just the big money crowd.” It concludes with the words