Politico

How a socialist captured Buffalo, a moderate Democratic stronghold


ALBANY, N.Y. — India Walton, a 38-year-old nurse, activist and avowed socialist, stunned New York’s political establishment on Tuesday night when she defeated four-term Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in a Democratic primary.

For the state’s insurgent left, it was a notable victory in a race for a high-level executive position after chalking up numerous wins in legislative races around the state. And that victory unfolded in a corner of the state that has a long history of electing moderate and conservative Democrats.

Here’s how Walton pulled off her improbable win:

The candidate herself: “India is someone who’s deeply connected to her community,” said Charlie Blaettler, elections director for New York’s Working Families Party. “Moving around to poll sites yesterday, it was almost unbelievable how many people were approaching us … not just people who had seen her on TV, but people who knew her.”

Buffalo, a blue-collar city that has been losing people and jobs for decades, showed signs of improvement during Brown’s tenure. But the gains have not been universal.

“There has been a lot of frustration with the lack of progress under the Brown administration,” said WFP member John Washington. “Last year, in particular, it reached a height with the George Floyd protests.” The city’s police department gained national notoriety after an elderly man was shoved to the ground and badly injured during those protests.

Washington also pointed to frustration with Brown’s “policies around housing and giving developers tax breaks … but neighborhoods feeling the pressure of paying higher taxes and people being pushed out, a real lack of concern with the people of Buffalo, and an old school patronage machine.”

Walton will presumably be the first female mayor in the heavily Democratic city’s history, at a time when every member of the Common Council is male. Her background in working on projects like a local land trust convinced hundreds of people to volunteer for the campaign.

“Basically, a group of women, a group of mothers got together and we decided that we saw something in our city that could be better and we wanted to change it,” said Victoria Misuraca, a volunteer coordinator for the campaign. “And India is the leader that inspired us to act to make these changes and so we leaned into it.”

Organizational help: “Our campaign team is 100 percent volunteer,” Walton said in an interview earlier this month, “and we’re all new to political campaigns, so [the WFP] has really come in and given us the institutional knowledge and capacity to be able to run a successful campaign, from media and messaging, to fundraising, to helping us create a really robust and effective field program.”

The party’s critical role in turning energy into an upset was acknowledged on Wednesday even by those who are not from Walton’s wing of the party.

“The Working Families Party knows how to run campaigns,” said former Assembly member Sam Hoyt, a Democrat.

But it wasn’t just the WFP — Walton’s campaign excited several groups around the state and country.

“We asked for people who were inexperienced on political campaigns, and we said, ‘don’t worry about it, we’ll find someone to help you,’” Walton said in her victory speech on Tuesday night. “And then here comes [WFP]. Run for Something, Elect Black Women, Democracy for America, DSA — Buffalo DSA, national DSA,” she added, referring to several activist groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America.

Turnout and the lack of a serious campaign by Brown: At a press briefing in Manhattan on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the primaries in New York City are evidence that the electorate is in the mood for something other than socialism. A moderate Democrat, Eric Adams, is leading in the campaign for the Democratic mayoral nomination, but the race’s outcome won’t be known for weeks because of the city’s ranked-choice voting system.

“You’re going to have anomalies … Buffalo was a different situation,” Cuomo said. “Super low turnout. Mayor Brown — who I know very well, and I have nothing but good things to say about Mayor Brown — but he decided … basically to avoid engaging in a campaign. And then you had a very low turnout. We know that combination, we’ve seen that before. That doesn’t work. Avoiding the campaign … and then you wind up with a very low turnout, and then the only people who vote are the people who are organized by the opponent. We’ve seen that movie before.”

Those comments are very similar to ones he made the day after the 2018 primaries in New York, when he sought to explain how he was able to run up a big primary win over Cynthia Nixon, an avowed progressive, a couple of months after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley. Cuomo dubbed Ocasio-Cortez’s victory a “fluke” caused by low participation. The governor spent millions driving up turnout on his own race to ensure that such an upset was not replicated and Nixon’s energetic supporters were not the only ones showing up to the polls.

Turnout on Tuesday wasn’t actually “super low” by New York standards. It’ll likely approach 25 percent after absentee ballots are counted. But Brown largely ran a rose garden campaign, avoiding debates and waiting until the last minute to spend at sizable volumes. And with a larger than normal swath of the electorate energized behind the challenger, that wasn’t enough.

Some observers noted the recent questions involving Grassroots, a political organization that aided Brown’s rise to power. The FBI began looking into the organization four years ago, and a grand jury heard testimony on “various City Hall activities” last November, according to the Buffalo News. It’s possible that some mayoral allies who could have helped turn out the vote were too distracted or exhausted by law-enforcement inquiries.

Not getting blown out anywhere: The Masten District in Buffalo is Brown’s base of political strength. That’s where he lives, and he’s won it in primaries of yesteryear by margins as large as 5,805 to 173.

The district is 82 percent Black and 12 percent white. It’s the type of district that invariably disappoints progressives when they fail to make inroads — in 2018, Cuomo defeated Nixon there by a margin of 3,655 to 791.

But Walton did not take a drubbing there. She trailed Brown by a margin of 1,668 to 1,244, according to the preliminary numbers posted by the Erie County Board of Elections late Tuesday night. And that meant her strong showing in parts of the city where progressives do well were enough for a majority.

“There’s this narrative with a lot of these progressive upsets that it’s white gentrifiers that are electing progressives. And we were seeing that in a lot of Byron’s strongholds on the East Side of Buffalo, she was running even with him,” said the WFP’s Blaettler. “It really was a multiracial coalition that helped elect her. We were competitive in every single precinct.”

Walton made an intentional push to tap into this community in ways that progressives have failed to do in the past. When asked earlier this month what her coalition would look like if she managed to win, she said it would include “the people who have traditionally been Brown supporters and who have noticed his failure to act, in many ways, to the benefit of our community.”

And that could pose a threat to other incumbents in New York. If future leftist candidates can add to their past performances in places like Manhattan’s Upper West Side and do what Walton did by winning over much of Buffalo’s East Side, there might be, for the first time, a viable playbook for the new model of progressive to win a statewide primary.

“My kids got to see what happens when people work together for a common goal. This kind of upset can happen anywhere, and it will. We’re just getting started,” said Misuraca, the volunteer coordinator. “There are a lot of people in power in this city who have been in power for a long time and have been enjoying that, and have not necessarily been responsible to their constituents. So I think that anyone who’s not interested in a collaborative leadership model where the people get to envision and implement the future that they want for their community should be nervous.”

“This is not about making India Walton mayor of Buffalo,” Walton said in her victory speech. “This is about building the infrastructure to challenge every damn seat.”

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