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Buffalo Democratic Machine Considers Axing Mayorship to Evade India Walton

It’s a sobering reminder that establishment Democrats often go to great lengths to preserve power and isolate the left.

People vote during the Primary Election Day at The Caton School - P.S. 249 on June 22, 2021, in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood in New York City.

Democratic socialist India Walton’s groundbreaking victory in the mayoral primary of Buffalo, New York, was destined to earn the ire of the local powers that be. Longtime Democratic fixture and top ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Byron Brown, was caught off guard and ousted in a startling upheaval, and Walton will now run unopposed by any Republican candidate in November.

Walton’s win is enormously disruptive to entrenched power, leaving “the business community and the political establishment [running] around with their hair on fire,” as Geoff Kelly vividly put it in The Nation. Walton’s social-democratic agenda includes police accountability, affordable housing, public banking, and — of particular note in a city marred by the legacy of industrial manufacturing — a climate action plan. Her plans will likely meet significant resistance from not only reactionaries, conservative unions, police and capital, but also her former opponent in the primary — and, as some developments indicate, the same Democratic power brokers who had outwardly pledged Walton their support. The dethroned Byron Brown is planning a long shot write-in campaign to reclaim his title, but Democratic party leaders, perhaps recognizing the unlikelihood of its success, appear to be readying other measures to hedge their bets.

Prominent area Democrats, including city leaders on Buffalo’s Common Council, had initially acquiesced to Walton’s candidacy with little protest. On June 29, the Erie County Democratic Committee, the county-level party apparatus run by Chairman Jeremy Zellner, declared the Committee’s support for Walton. But before long, following the appearance of multiple sensationalized reports in the local press, the Erie County Democrats, through Zellner, took the chance to declare that their support was wavering. The stage appears to be set for the Erie County Democrats to execute a heel turn against Walton — with some on the Buffalo Common Council even expressing tentative interest in a move as drastic as doing away with mayoral governance entirely.

It’s not surprising that the establishment in Erie County, perceiving a threat to hierarchy and profit, would mount an organized backlash. Yet ending the mayorship in Buffalo would be a drastic move, to say the least. To understand how the incentive has arisen, it’s useful to look at how Democratic politics and certain media dynamics have played out in the aftermath of Walton’s victory. These machinations underscore how, whenever socialists have come within striking distance of power in the United States, capital and its allies have always reacted swiftly to attempt to curtail any chance of redistributive change.

From Write-Off to Write-In

Brown, seemingly stunned by his loss in a race he’d taken for granted, was quick to decry “socialism” and Walton’s “inexperience” and announce that he would be contesting the mayoralty in November with a write-in campaign. A Buffalo News article, citing no source, is bullish on Brown’s chances: “Most political observers believe that […] Brown is mobilizing his once-vaunted City Hall machine for an unprecedented write-in effort [and that] the campaign could generate turnout on the scale of a presidential year[.]”

This is an unduly optimistic assessment. There are numerous factors impeding the chances of a write-in victory. Brown won’t be on the ballot, and he’ll have to run as an independent — as Walton is, of course, the Democratic nominee. His fundraising has reportedly been “dwindling,” while the opposite is true of Walton (though Brown currently has a little more in the bank). And any challenge to Walton’s ascent will face fierce resistance from the Working Families Party, the Buffalo Democratic Socialists of America, and other leftists and liberals in the area.

Still, Brown is evidently willing to go to some lengths to mount a serious attempt, hiring a major campaign consultant, reaching out to elite business and political allies, and even tacitly signaling that he would not balk at Republican backing. For their part, the GOP is suddenly finding it in their interest to consider supporting Brown.

Brown has received the endorsement of reactionary real estate mogul and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, known for his racist comments, among other sterling examples of thought leadership. Though Brown preemptively disavowed the endorsement, Paladino was already rallying business leaders to endorse a write-in option and expressing his wishes that Brown “destroy” the “communist” Walton.

Unsurprisingly, Brown also has the backing of wealthy developers who have profited from the superficial “revitalization” of Buffalo during his tenure, which did less than nothing to address a high poverty rate, only exacerbating inequality. Developers, who often possess an individual LLC for each property they control, have taken frequent advantage of a loophole that allows LLCs to exceed individual donation limits. In defiance of campaign finance disclosure law, Brown’s campaign has neglected to identify the owners of LLCs from which he has received donations.

Erie County Democratic Party Chair Zellner, a key player in Byron Brown and Governor Cuomo’s Democratic machine, has remained skeptical of Brown’s write-in — publicly, at least — and says that courting Republicans for limited votes would hurt the effort. (Democrats outnumber them 7 to 1 in the city of Buffalo.) The Common Council is more mixed; some councilmembers are allied with Brown, with three of them joining him onstage as he announced his write-in campaign. Others have not yet settled on a clear stance.

There are some indications that local elites are exploring additional options to thwart Walton, which could be construed as bet-hedging, a vote of no confidence in Brown’s write-in, or both. One sign that forces are consolidating against the socialist candidate is a recent pattern of anti-Walton stories in the press, which have supplied a pretext for Zellner’s Erie County Democratic Party to begin reneging on their support for Walton, isolating her and her campaign.

Sensational Broadsides

After the primary election, in late June, western New York’s Investigative Post alluded to rumors that Walton might have a few skeletons. In that article, Post editor Jim Heaney, a reliable critic of Brown, observed that Brown “sounded a dog whistle for political operative[s] to pry into her past.” Heaney’s hints were quickly followed by a flurry of antagonistic reporting. Since the primary, local media has steadily doled out allegations, reporting on her past employment history, evidence-free allegations of drug dealing out of her home and a 2014 arrest.

Much of the reporting has been flimsy. The Buffalo News resurfaced a police report that contained a complaint of drug dealing taking place at Walton’s house, quoting her landlord at the time. The article’s framing de-emphasized the complete absence of evidence for the accusation, and the fact that it was secondhand, based entirely on hearsay. The landlord admitted he had seen nothing, and declined to provide his name. Walton steadfastly denied that any drug dealing went on at the house and stated that she believed the landlord was retaliating for her stance against gentrification in the area.

Other reporting on Walton strayed even further into hyperbole, breathlessly relating numerous supposed scandals. WKBW’s headline read, “Walton says she is not running from past legal and financial issues.” The full extent of her dirty financial dealings: $295 in food stamps that the state overpaid her, and some back taxes that, including penalties, totaled $749. Behind the sensationalism lay commonplace issues faced by many residents of a city in which a third of the population lives in poverty. Walton responded that her problems were honest mistakes and amounted to “poor taxes,” defining these as, “Late fees and fines that occur because of things that you are really unable to do because of your financial situation.… Again, this is what the working-class people go through all the time.”

Another charge was that Walton had been stopped for driving on a suspended license. Further “criminality” included parking and fix-it tickets — tickets targeting vehicle conditions and maintenance. That a working-class Black woman might be subjected to traffic stops and repeated penalties in a city that deploys tactics of broken-windows policing is hardly surprising; it’s an experience shared by many in Buffalo. Walton has pushed back against all this criticism, telling WIVB 4 that she’s an “open book” and that her opponents are seeking to “weaponize my experiences against me.”

All of this oppositional reporting seems intent on manufacturing controversy. For instance, another Buffalo News article adopted the frame that the drug dealing allegations had “…cast new perspectives on her campaign.” Such insinuations didn’t go unnoticed by Walton’s supporters. At a demonstration protesting the paper, some, claiming that the decision to run this story was politically motivated, criticized the News for “half-truths, misstatements, and misallegations,” an NBC affiliate reported. (Initial headline for that article: “India Walton supporter attacks newspaper over unflattering story.”) Indeed, editorial decisions and reporting from The Buffalo News evince a pattern of adversarial and poorly substantiated coverage. Tellingly, the Buffalo News editorial board derided Walton’s candidacy in an opinion piece, writing that the mayoralty “is not an entry-level job,” and allowing an “inexperienced and self-proclaimed Democratic socialist” to take it would be “irresponsible.”

The Challenger, a regional Black newspaper that endorsed Walton, charged that the Buffalo News coverage of the drug complaint was founded on sensationalism and innuendo. They sharply criticized Zellner’s hedging on the county Democratic Party’s support, noting that he “should have expressed outrage” in support of his party’s candidate and that “residents deserve stronger and more forceful leadership.” However, taking Zellner’s interests and recent behavior into account, it is not entirely incomprehensible that he hasn’t leaped to her defense.

Zellner Waffles

All of this hostile media coverage has paved the way for Democrats to distance themselves from Walton. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s chief of staff stated that Poloncarz is in continual communication with party leaders, and that the allegations would be addressed further. Increasingly, Walton is isolated from the party; few Democratic politicians in Erie County have even commented on her candidacy.

Rather than backing up Walton as he’d pledged, the spate of antagonistic reporting gave Zellner an opportunity to instead stress that the party has yet to issue their endorsement. Commenting on the latest allegations in The Buffalo News, he noted that doing so would be dependent on leadership feedback: “Could [the party’s support of Walton] change? The answer is yes. Anything could change. We’ve asked her to be upfront with us… but I don’t know what else is out there.” Zellner seems eager to cast doubt on his own candidate, hinting not-so-cryptically that his support is contingent and imperiled.

Some would allege that this kind of double dealing is in character for Zellner. Walton, other candidates and policy analyst Tom Speaker, among others, have charged that Zellner has abused his positions as both party boss and chief election administrator, and that his dual roles present inherent conflicts of interest. It’s not the first time that this particular power dynamic has resulted in controversy. Former candidate Nate McMurray called for Zellner’s resignation on the grounds that he used “party resources and his role as chair to attack progressive candidates.”

Zellner has allegedly used his powers as election administrator to capitalize on procedural technicalities and disqualify candidates in favor of his picks. Walton asserts that he sabotaged her chance to appear on the Working Families Party line, and has obstructed the campaigns of other insurgent and progressive Democratic candidates.

Drastic Measures

Isolating Walton from party support may not be the only strategy. Buffalo Common Council members are evidently weighing a nuclear option: eliminating the mayoralty altogether.

The Council recently approved a resolution to research the process of replacing Buffalo’s “strong mayor” executive with another governance mechanism: the “city manager” system. Also known as a council-manager model, this form of local government, less common in major cities, employs an administrator appointed by a city council in lieu of a democratically elected mayor. (Some also elect mayors, but it’s often a figurehead position.) Councils exert influence over the manager, as they have hiring and firing authority — though longtime managers may possess far more institutional power than elected councilmembers.

Common Council member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt proposed the research, saying, “It is about this mayor, but there’s been numerous mayors before him and … I’m going back as far as 1980 so you can’t put it all on this mayor, but seeing that he’s been mayor for 16 years, it does speak to that.” Wyatt justified the inquiry on the grounds that the mayoralty system had resulted in “disinvestment” in poor neighborhoods. That rationale is particularly incoherent, given that the presumptive mayor — whom Wyatt pointedly neglected to mention — is a socialist whose platform includes explicit promises to increase investment in poor areas.

Transitioning to a city manager system would require a ballot referendum, meaning that there’s effectively no chance it will be put to a vote by November. Although such a move would rob Walton of power (at least, of a second term, after a hypothetical referendum), it can’t be said for certain whether it’s only intended to stop her. Two of Brown’s Common Council supporters opposed the resolution, while its sponsor Wyatt is generally an opponent of Brown. Other Council members could see an opportunity to stop Walton without public opposition, or to gain a stronger position in the vacuum caused by Brown’s primary defeat by a political outsider.

In response to news of the inquiry, Walton tweeted: “The Common Council’s recent inquiries confirm what we already knew: those committed to preserving the status quo would fight hard against the interests of working class Buffalonians. But we will overcome & build a Buffalo with dignity for all. Together.”

The More Things Stay the Same

In the wake of Nina Turner’s defeat in a vicious Ohio special election, the likelihood that closed-doors political maneuvering against Walton is underway in Buffalo is a sobering reminder that establishment power brokers, liberal and conservative, will do everything they can to preserve power and isolate the left.

Even if Brown fails to reclaim his throne in November, his allies won’t be content to let Walton, who owes nothing to the entrenched power structure in Erie County politics, fill the void. Party leaders like Zellner and Poloncarz and state legislators like Tim Kennedy are likely to use every option at their disposal to maintain tight control over the Party machinery and resist any attempt to build power external to it. Whether or not they eliminate the mayoralty (again, quite an unlikely outcome), their fundamental motive will likely remain: to ensure that Walton is unable to govern effectively without them.

Incentives to sabotage the left are structurally inherent to capitalism in the United States. When Victor Berger ran for and won a representative seat in 1918, becoming the first socialist in Congress, the House refused to seat him, with the justification that he was involved in a legal battle over his antiwar beliefs. The same tactics persist; a disingenuous recall campaign has targeted Seattle’s socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant, and flagrant attacks on her position have poured in from all sides, from liberals to the far right. Notoriously, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee instituted a blacklist to maintain their control over the electoral field and fend off primary challenges backed by increasingly powerful groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, Justice Democrats and Our Revolution.

The potential for a socialist to wield real power in the second-largest city in New York heightens the stakes and presents a crisis — not only for worried developers, but for the Erie County Democratic Party. The mayor of Buffalo is the highest elected official within the local party and has considerable sway over the party’s internal politics. Walton will not merely command a lone vote in Congress. She will have executive authority over a major U.S. city.

Party officials are increasingly freezing her out, and she’s already faced a slow drip of hostile media coverage. If these facts are any indication, the Walton campaign will be under siege through November. Although Brown’s campaign appears to be floundering right now, the field could shift in a way that makes him, or another contender, far more viable.

Whatever the upshot — a convincing Walton mandate, an immediately embattled new mayor or a devastating loss — the events will be seismic. Although the Democratic Party’s political machine remains formidable, socialists have an opportunity to seize executive power in an impoverished, post-industrial city that has been gutted by neoliberal policy.