A Democratic Socialist Agenda Is Possible in Buffalo. It Depends on Labor Unions.

In an upset reminiscent of the 2018 victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, socialist underdog India Walton has bested a powerful Democratic insider in the primary race for the mayor of Buffalo, New York. With the Democratic nomination secured, and in the absence of any Republican challenger, the path to the inauguration of a socialist mayor, a vanishingly rare event in major U.S. cities, seems clear.

Having defeated incumbent Byron Brown — Buffalo’s mayor since 2006, a close associate of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and, as a former state party chairman, a key player in the New York Democratic machine — Walton’s win is a testament to both the growing appeal of leftist policy and the extent of her opponents’ underestimation. (Brown, displaying the same kind of hubris that felled Rep. Joe Crowley, dismissed Walton as a threat, declined a debate and neglected to campaign against her until late in the race.)

But unlike Crowley, Brown has refused to concede defeat, instead launching a write-in campaign to reclaim his title — despite opposition from some elements of organized labor and the Erie County Democratic Party. In announcing his decision, Brown shared his thoughts on the differences between “socialism and democracy” and attacked Walton as an “unqualified, inexperienced radical socialist.” Although a write-in campaign is a long shot, Walton’s ascent is not yet a foregone conclusion. Brown will not lack for funding, with developers and other businesses alarmed at the prospect of a socialist wielding executive power.

Those private interests do have cause for concern. Identifying firmly with the left, Walton, a member of the Buffalo Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), has promised to spend her mayoral tenure working to repair the conditions of severe inequality and racial injustice that mar the depopulated, deindustrialized city — in part by taxing business and the wealthy and ending remunerative tax breaks. Still, owing to decades of neoliberal policy, a gutted budget and opposition stemming from the intersecting interests of capital and labor, Walton will face towering barriers to the implementation of her ambitious plans.

Ambitious Designs

Walton’s far-ranging platform is aligned with longtime democratic socialist aims, including public banking, rent control measures, a tenant’s bill of rights, and increased taxes on upper brackets and corporations. Other leftist hallmarks include her support for municipal broadband, cannabis legalization and criminal record expungement. She also seeks to strengthen investment in public housing, infrastructure, cooperatives, women-owned businesses, businesses owned by people of color, green jobs, food access and the arts.

Several of Walton’s long-term proposals revolve around land use — a central question in a city that has undergone considerable population loss over the past 50 years. Her platform calls for half of all vacant city-owned properties to be set aside for public usage. Concurrently, the plan would expand community land trusts and allow democratic input on neighborhood planning, along with other means of bolstering local democracy.

But in her campaign, Walton first and foremost emphasized major policing reform: establishing an independent police oversight board and investigative task force, implicit bias training, more stringent disciplinary consequences for officers and public input into “police department functions and union contract negotiations.” She would also spearhead the replacement of police with city workers for traffic enforcement, domestic disturbances and mental health calls, the cessation of enforcement of low-level drug offenses, and, more broadly, a shift to restorative justice over punitive outcomes.

Buffalo police conduct has prompted numerous complaints of brutality and excessive force, to say nothing of regular “officer-involved” shootings. Two officers were spared any consequences for putting a 75-year-old man in the hospital with a violent shove to the ground during a racial justice protest last year. Compounding on momentum after George Floyd’s death, rounds of demonstrations and accountability campaigns aimed at the Buffalo department have followed, readying the public for a candidate promising major changes to policing. Yet any reform will not go uncontested by Buffalo’s police union, the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), which has already indicated that they will back a write-in campaign to restore Mayor Brown.

A History of Handouts

In recent years, Buffalo has undergone what proponents describe as a “revitalization” — increased construction and development, largely in downtown, waterfront, and other nightlife areas. However, such initiatives have done little more than burnish a thin patina of vitality, underwriting slick offices, condos, retail outlets, and other lifestyle businesses that are patronized largely by the white and wealthy. In their eagerness to spur growth and attract investment to the city, local and state elected officials have offered massive tax abatements to developers, amounting to flagrant giveaways to powerful interests. Luxury real estate enterprises are showered with lucrative tax breaks, while the losses are made up by slashing municipal budgets — meaning that the people of Buffalo are, in effect, subsidizing the profits of real estate corporations.

The “Buffalo Billion” investment plan epitomizes the disastrous neoliberal “revitalization.” A much-touted billion dollars was invested around the Buffalo area — chiefly, to lure developers, high-tech companies and the medical industry with grants and tax breaks. Their arrival was marketed as a replacement for once-plentiful manufacturing jobs. The deal, brokered by Governor Cuomo, has been badly tarnished by scandal, including egregious waste, dismal returns and bid-rigging to reward political cronies. Companies like Elon Musk’s Tesla were all too happy to take advantage of Cuomo’s largesse. (Even before the Billion, as far back as 2013, New York was dangling $750 million in front of the carmaker to entice it to Buffalo.)

Buffalo’s ostensible development has done little to improve dismal conditions for the populace — from environmental damage (the city’s industrial heritage has blemished it with several Superfund sites) to neglected infrastructure, including a pattern of frequent water main breaks. Poverty remains widespread, and what job creation has occurred has largely been limited to the low-wage, high-turnover service sector. Few of the stable, permanent jobs promised to the public by development apologists have materialized.

Neither has there been significant progress on ameliorating the serious issues of racial injustice in Buffalo, not least among them the city’s racially correlated income disparities and de facto segregation. On the latter, Buffalo is one of the worst cities in the nation; it’s also the only community in western New York where wealth inequality is higher than the national average.

As a result of profligate handouts to capital, the city’s tax base has been severely undermined. Many tax abatements, facilitated by Section 485 of the state tax code, were authorized by the municipal government under Brown and are effectively irreversible — though new applications can be denied. A possible alternate revenue mechanism exists in “Payment in Lieu of Tax” (PILOT) agreements, which permit sourcing funds even from untaxed entities such as nonprofits or the recipients of tax abatements. Still, Walton as mayor may struggle to secure funding within these constraints. She will have to hope for not only the continued backing of the all-Democrat Common Council, but also that allies are soon elected to the Erie County legislature.

Governor Cuomo is not inclined to look favorably upon the replacement of a top ally with an outspoken socialist, of course, and might leap at opportunities to stymie the new mayor. Relatedly, it wouldn’t be surprising if State Senators Chris Jacobs and Tim Kennedy (both closely aligned with real estate interests; Kennedy’s largest donor is the Real Estate Board) attempted to thwart Walton from Albany.

Walton is aware of these obstacles. In her victory speech, she spoke directly to the need to build infrastructure to elect political allies. The Common Council elections in 2023 will be a key initial test of any infrastructure assembled in the interim, and of whether she has a shot at governing with efficacy and retaining her mayoral seat. At the moment, none of these prospects are clear. Although Erie County Democratic officials have pledged their support, it’s unlikely to be full-throated, or to extend to assistance in building her political base.

What is evident is that fulfillment of Walton’s campaign promises will be dependent on her securement of funding — either by easing tax abatements to increase city budgets or by identifying other sources. Cuts to the police budget could provide a new revenue stream, though this will be stridently opposed by the Police Benevolent Association and the right.

Union Allies, Union Opponents

Further analysis of the terrain Mayor Walton will have to navigate during her term requires consideration of the complex union dynamics operative in Buffalo. The Police Benevolent Association isn’t the only combative union she may encounter, though it will certainly be one of the most vehement adversaries. Her proposals to intensify oversight and disciplining of officers and allow public input into police functions (and union contracts) seem guaranteed to infuriate the cops. The PBA exerted a heavy influence over Mayor Brown, whose police accountability measures minimized substantive changes. One PBA strategy might involve the weaponization of union privileges (as codified in New York’s Taylor Law) to file grievances or unfair labor practice charges against the incoming administration in an effort to stonewall any attempts at reform.

Walton does have some advantages. She was, in her past employment as a nurse, a representative in her union, 1199SEIU. Although 1199 did endorse Brown, it has pivoted from supporting establishment candidates before — for instance, backing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2020 reelection campaign. It’s plausible that Walton could win the support of Buffalo health care unions like 1199, the New York State Nurses Association and the Communications Workers of America, which represents a wide range of professional workers at Kaleida Health, the largest private sector employer in Erie County. As a result of the city’s successful campaign to court medical sector investments like the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, health workers have become a large and influential contingent. Securing the blessing of health care unions will be crucial. Walton was also formerly employed as a Buffalo public school nurse and can probably expect the continued backing of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which endorsed her in the primary.

Reining in developers is a crucial issue for public workforces that rely on property tax revenue; most have seen little benefit from the increase in development. Any future efforts by Walton to reduce tax abatements or negotiate payment in lieu of tax agreements will bolster public funding and will likely curry favor with public sector workers and unions like AFSCME — a major potential bloc of support. Seventy-four percent of public sector workers in the Buffalo metropolitan area belong to a labor union, comprising the majority of union members in the region.

Conversely, some unions, particularly in the building trades, have an interest in maintaining present development conditions, regardless of how such tax deals strengthen the bosses — even bosses like developer CEO and arch-reactionary Carl Paladino. Many developments have been accompanied by project labor agreements favorable to building trades unions. Their leaders have leveraged these prior bargains into additional union-friendly agreements on major projects, such as renovations to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Building trades affiliates in Buffalo often have strong conservative streaks; controversy has cropped up around the hiring of undocumented workers, with unions turning to federal immigration authorities to crack down on worksites. Racist attitudes abound within the trades. This is the case in many local building trades councils in major cities, though it is particularly pronounced in Buffalo. Limited workforce diversity also means that it is largely white workers who have profited from the influx of capital. Local disparities in Buffalo are symptomatic of more pervasive problems — including corruption — in the building trades across New York State.

Walton’s fraught pathway to effective governance isn’t only complicated by the trades. Much of the area’s remaining heavy industry lies outside city limits, where major employers like GM Powertrain and Ford (represented by the United Auto Workers) still operate. Other legacy manufacturers include Allegheny Technologies Incorporated, where the workforce is represented by the Steelworkers. Courting the support of these manufacturing unions may prove difficult. They often face threats from management of offshoring or relocation to the largely non-union South: a management tactic to secure bargaining concessions. The election of a socialist mayor could supply a pretext for companies to claim concern over the business climate, especially if their facilities receive tax deals. Labor might be convinced to attribute unfavorable management proposals to politicians like Walton, rather than their bosses.

The necessity of courting labor is amplified by the absence of significant campaign architectures for left candidates and policy goals. Buffalo’s Democratic machine exerts tight control over local politics: The Erie County Democratic Party Chair Jeremy Zellner also serves as the Democratic commissioner on the Board of Elections, giving him the power to remove candidates from the ballot. The Working Families Party, which served as the primary engine of the Walton campaign, has historically been marginal in the area, and it’s far from certain that Buffalo’s DSA chapter will be able to singlehandedly organize the requisite support for the sweeping reforms laid out in her platform. Although activist organizations like PUSH Buffalo will be able to assist with some mobilization, without organized labor, a still-influential powerbroker in the region, the path forward for Walton looks even more treacherous.

Consequential Decisions

Still, helpful to Walton is that the local Democratic establishment has seen it fit to back the winning horse, declining to sanction Brown’s write-in campaign to restore his mayoralty. This is somewhat unusual, since the city, and Brown, were key allies and centers of power for Governor Cuomo and his firm grip on the reins of New York State. For the time being (in contrast to the case of Nevada, where Democratic Party staff quit en masse after the election of a DSA slate), the Democrats on Buffalo’s Common Council are tentatively respecting her win, as is the local party structure. Their immediate acquiescence is curious, and it remains to be seen how their relationship with their new mayor may grow more complicated.

The obstacles Walton will face are a microcosm of broader ideological and material conflicts that the burgeoning socialist movement will encounter as they seek to build majorities and win executive offices. To do so will require joining forces with unions and tailoring political priorities to meet the needs of potential allies in labor. This could be a significant challenge — some unions persist in identifying their interests with those of capital, imprinted with its logic of profit and growth and hewing to largely obsolete mid-century models of labor-management partnership.

That legacy runs deep. Well-paid union manufacturing jobs at employers like Lackawanna Steel were once the norm, and many Buffalonians believe that a similar bounty of opportunity could return. The recent investment in the region has given rise to hopes that the prosperity of postwar Buffalo could be reincarnated in the form of a high-tech manufacturing and medical sector. But initiatives like Tesla’s “Gigafactory 2” facility — originally the controversial “SolarCity” project that was bankrolled by the Buffalo Billion — have roundly failed to realize those visions.

The success of Walton’s mayoralty hinges on convincing union members and leaders that the path to true revitalization of Buffalo doesn’t run through public-private partnerships. Although she has ample evidence of neoliberal policy’s painful consequences, this will not be easy. Unions will have sharply differing appraisals of her candidacy, which could trigger internal division within Western New York labor, and perhaps labor statewide. For now, most have remained quiet, likely assessing the developing situation.

Their eventual decisions will be of significant import. With very few exceptions, the Buffalo mayoral race is the first chance in generations for socialists to wield executive power in a major U.S. city. Doing so in a place that bears the scars of deindustrialization and decades of slash-and-burn neoliberal austerity would be especially meaningful. The new mayor and her allies will need to overcome skepticism from organized labor and outmaneuver entrenched party machines simply to exercise the power to govern. If they succeed, India Walton’s tenure could make Buffalo, New York, a testbed for a radically different model of urban governance in the United States.

Note: This article has been updated to clarify that Walton is no longer employed as a school nurse at this time.