BUFFALO — India Walton was being serenaded by a drag queen with songs that seemed to reflect the urgency of her mayoral race: “Maybe This Time” and “Holding Out for a Hero.”
Then she got onstage and reminded the packed crowd she would need a blowout (at least 58 percent of the vote, she’d said earlier that weekend) to beat the city’s four-time incumbent. “It can’t be close. It can’t be that I just squeezed by … It has to be unequivocally, ‘We reject the status quo!’ ” she said, stomping her foot for emphasis.
All around Walton, the room was filled with the diverse coalition who got her this far — “my island of misfit toys,” Walton has called them — including a young White woman with a spiked orange mohawk, a 72-year-old Black retired schoolteacher and Cynthia Nixon, the actress and progressive former New York gubernatorial candidate who’d come with her wife to host the fundraiser, in between day-long shifts of door-knocking.
In a matter of days, Walton, a 39-year-old native of Buffalo’s Black working-class East Side, who gave birth to her first child at age 14 and then put herself through nursing school before becoming an activist, may make history as the city’s first female mayor — and the first socialist mayor of a major U.S. city since 1960.
That is, if she rewins the election she thought she’d already won.
The saga dates back to June 22, when Walton made national news by defeating four-term incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary, knocking him off the ballot in a city that hasn’t elected a Republican in decades. The only snag is that Brown, who is also Black and quite popular, is still running. Not only did he not concede, but Brown, the former chair of the state Democratic Party, is defying his party’s nominee and is running as a write-in candidate.
“Write Down Byron Brown” lawn signs are ubiquitous around the city. Recent mailers calling Walton a “radical” who wants to defund the police showed they were funded by the state Republican Party. Brown received money from a company associated with Carl Paladino, a real estate mogul who was the New York co-chair for Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“This is crazy. S--- is getting messy,” said Jason Walker, a community activist and Brown voter who was hanging out at a polling site just to watch the action. Walker is 27 and can’t remember a time when Brown, 63, wasn’t mayor.
It’s difficult to overstate how unlikely a candidate Walton is. She’s never held public office, is a member of the Buffalo chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and didn’t come up through the traditional ranks of Democratic politics. Even among other Black women mayors elected in Chicago, Atlanta and D.C., Walton stands out. She wasn’t a federal prosecutor like Lori Lightfoot. Nor did she spend time on the city council like Keisha Lance-Bottoms and Muriel E. Bowser.
Her primary win was seen as a victory for the liberal arm of the Democratic Party that has managed some surprise wins in Congress, including for Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), but has yet to secure an executive office.
If Walton defeats Brown on Tuesday it would be “a shining light for the rest of the country,” a chance to demilitarize the police, increase affordable housing and show these types of policies work, Ocasio-Cortez said at a Walton rally held 10 days before the election. “We need to show we can do the damn thing. We need to show that we can govern in executive positions.”
Then it would be easier to enact those policies federally. “If we do it in Buffalo,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “we can do it anywhere.”
But Walton’s candidacy has also sparked a great deal of teeth-gnashing among some in the New York Democratic establishment and exposed the party’s angst about being branded the “radical far left” party by Republicans in what are expected to be tough 2022 midterm elections. Already the party is panicking about Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe, an ally of President Biden, potentially losing the gubernatorial race. Who prevails in Buffalo may be another indicator of which way the political winds are blowing.
When asked a few weeks ago why he hadn’t endorsed Walton in the general election, state Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs responded by reaching for a far-fetched analogy.
“Let’s take a scenario, very different, where David Duke — you remember him, the grand wizard of the KKK — he moves to New York, he becomes a Democrat, he runs for mayor in the city of Rochester … and he wins the Democratic line,” Jacobs said during an interview with Spectrum News.
“I have to endorse David Duke? I don’t think so. Now, of course, India Walton is not in the same category. But it just leads you to that question: Is it a must? It’s not a must.”
Jacobs eventually walked back the remarks, but not before fending off calls from Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez to resign his position as party chairman.
Meanwhile, other state Democratic leaders are remaining tight-lipped about their opinions on the race. “My focus right now is just what’s going on here in Cortland County, not Erie [County], not Buffalo,” said Timothy Perfetti, chairman of the Cortland County Democratic Committee and assistant secretary of the state party.
The race has also set off a scramble among some New York Democrats to position themselves as being on the good side of the party’s left flank. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is up for reelection next year, followed Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement with his own. Kirsten Gillibrand, Schumer’s Democratic Senate counterpart, has declared she’s Team Walton, too.
Back at the fundraiser, Walton spoke directly to a drag queen, Vanna Deux, whose bleach-blond bouffant was poking out of the crowd a foot taller than everyone else. In September, Vanna Deux says, she emceed a fundraiser for Walton and was fired from her job as a hostess at a local club that was set to host a Brown fundraiser a few days later. The club owners have said the firing was not about politics but about Vanna Deux telling people to show up at the Brown event in their Walton T-shirts. Regardless, Vanna Deux says she lost her main source of income. (She declined to share her given name for fear of losing her new job.)
“Vanna lost her job in support of me,” said Walton, who had tweeted about the performer’s predicament, resulting in a flood of donations to pay Vanna Deux’s rent. “I know we don’t often talk about politics and how the current administration has held a stranglehold on many of us over the years. There are people who have been afraid to be public supporters because there is retribution and revenge, and I’m going to say that aloud.”
As much as her message, Walton’s biography has served as part of her appeal to voters. After having her first child, Walton earned her GED and became a registered nurse. She ran a nonprofit, the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, aimed at building affordable housing. (Brown has questioned its track record.) Last summer, she was a leading figure in local Black Lives Matter protests. She’s talked about raising her four sons on welfare, and surviving sexual assault and domestic violence. But since running for mayor, Walton’s past financial struggles and legal issues have become campaign fodder, including once being caught driving with a suspended license and having her car impounded this year for unpaid parking tickets.
Her supporters dismiss the attacks as a smear campaign. Walton has said her past stumbles help her understand regular voters, telling Buffalo’s local ABC news affiliate that “Every challenge that I’ve faced has resulted in a remarkable increase in my capacity for compassion.”
Buffalo in 2021 is a postindustrial city searching for identity that isn’t centered on chicken wings, snowstorms or football. The steel factories are gone, and the pandemic has left the somewhat revitalized downtown, with its Art Deco City Hall and expensive new loft apartments, eerily empty. Houses in upper middle-class neighborhoods tend to look like mansions, while on the East Side, whole blocks are filled with vacant lots. But there are also thriving communities of immigrants and refugees, and a new socialist clubhouse and bar where Walton’s supporters gather at the end of canvassing shifts.
Outside the rally headlined by Ocasio-Cortez, the line to get into the venue stretched down a long downtown block. At various times, chants rose up: “In-di-a, In-di-a, In-di-a.”
A middle-aged man stood near the entrance, holding aloft a sign with the word “Socialism” with a red circle around it and a line through it. Passersby joined him, discussing the dangers of Marxism. Things got heated as several Walton supporters got in his face and told him to go home.
Then someone jumped out of the crowd to make peace. “Remember,” he shouted, “you’re both Bills fans, right? C’mon! You’re both Bills fans! That’s something we can all agree on!”
John Buckley, 61, who’s been joining protests in western New York since the Vietnam War, says he’s never seen anything like this. When Bernie Sanders nearly won Erie County in his 2016 presidential race, was up there, so was the rally after President Donald Trump’s defeat last year, and people were jazzed about George McGovern’s antiwar stance in the 1972 presidential race. But a mayoral candidate getting this kind of energy? “Never in my lifetime, not even close,” he said.
Despite the passion of Walton’s supporters, Brown’s support runs deep, not just in the Black community, but in South Buffalo, the predominantly White sector of the city populated by city workers, firemen and police officers, who once treated Brown with disdain but recently greeted him with a hero’s welcome during a “halfway to St. Patrick’s Day parade.”
Outside a community center that’s serving as an early voting site on the East Side, a steady stream of elderly Black women leaning on canes were coming in to write down Brown (or use a stamp that the campaign has been giving out). The people holding signs for him on the street corners were Black city employees who said they’ve known him during his decades in local politics, but some also remember when he was a Buffalo State College student who worked in city government, left to be a state senator, but came back because he felt he could do more good here. No Black candidate had been elected mayor of Buffalo before Byron Brown became the first in 2005.
At Brown’s campaign table were four Bangladeshi men who said the mayor had made them feel at home, and had made their neighborhoods safe. They feared Walton would get rid of the police. One of them, Mohammed Oman, said his entire community were Brown supporters. Just then, Kabir Howlader, decked out in Walton merchandise, walked by. “Not all Bangladeshi are supporting for Byron Brown!”
While even Brown will admit he barely campaigned for the primary, his voters say his loss was a fluke — the result of an earlier-than-usual primary and low voter turnout at the polls because of the coronavirus. (Brown lost by about 1,000 votes.) Tamara Hamilton, a 51-year-old substitute teacher, said she was always going to vote for Brown but thought she didn’t need to until November.
Hamilton says she was turned off by what she felt was Walton’s gloating in her June victory speech.
“It wasn’t so much, ‘Oh my God, someone might be mayor other than Byron. I was like, ‘Oh she’s going to be mayor.’ This is specific to her,” said Hamilton. Without a track record, that’s all she can judge Walton on. But with Brown, she said, she knows that he’s left the city better off than he found it.
Brown’s fans in the business community describe him as a steady, unflashy manager who helped revitalize a city reeling from deindustrialization.
“I’ve known Byron for a long time,” says Bill Maggio, a partner at private equity firm Lorraine Capital. “I find him to be incredibly supportive of the business community. He knows that he has a role to play, to help us achieve what we’re trying to achieve here, which is to build a sustainable, economic ecosystem.”
But the heart of Walton’s case against Brown is that while rich business owners have prospered during his tenure, poor and working-class voters have been left behind. Brown’s campaign didn’t return several calls for comment.
The message has even trickled into well-off Buffalo neighborhoods. “This is a good neighborhood, but Brown’s done nothing for poorer neighborhoods,” said Frank Gaik, 72, a retired airfreight broker who says he’s appalled by all the $1,500 apartments on the market when the median household income of Buffalo is less than $40,000.
But Gaik is not just a lone man on his block, he’s the lone Walton supporter in his household. His wife is voting for Brown.
“It’s a very precarious situation,” said Rep. Pamela J. Hunter, the first vice chair of the New York State Democratic Party. She hasn’t endorsed a candidate but isn’t pleased with Brown’s decision to carry on with a write-in campaign. “It’s lawful for him to do that,” she says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right.”
On a brisk Sunday after church, nine days before the election, Walton stood in the driveway of one of her supporters in a predominantly White, upper middle-class neighborhood that she will likely lose on Nov. 2. A handful of eager supporters were going to branch out and canvass, or knock on doors. Brown signs were on nearly every lawn.
Cynthia Nixon was there, too, and urged everyone to be ready to dispel misinformation. “If someone says they’ve heard that she’s going to, you know, fire 100 cops the first day, say, ‘That’s 100 percent not true and never has been,’ ” she said. When the word socialism comes up, Nixon said, “You can tell them, ‘Martin Luther King said you can call it democratic socialism or you can call it democracy, but what it means is we need to do a better job distributing wealth in this country to all God’s children. End of story.”
Walton said she wasn’t paying attention to any machinations happening in state or national politics around her candidacy; she was just trying to focus on creating a bottom-up movement in Buffalo.
But the race of her life would soon be over, and for a brief moment, she was going to focus on being a human in the midst of all this madness. Top on the agenda: grocery shopping for her children, she said. “They’re still alive, thank God, and they’re threatening that if they don’t get dinner, I’m going to miss out on a few votes.”
What to know about the 2021 election
New Jersey: governor