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India Walton’s Mayoral Defeat in Buffalo Sets Dangerous Precedents for the Left

Byron Brown’s victory is a grim lesson about the lengths to which power will go to protect profit and capital.

India Walton (in foreground on right), the Democratic Party nominee in the 2021 election for mayor of Buffalo, New York, walks to a polling place with supporters on October 28, 2021.

As results were tallied on Tuesday, it became clear that incumbent Buffalo, New York, Mayor Byron Brown’s campaign to restore himself to the mayoralty of Buffalo via a last-ditch write-in campaign had succeeded, defeating democratic socialist and Democratic Party nominee India Walton. Brown will now serve his fifth consecutive term. Walton’s defeat comes as a major blow to many on the left who were heartened by the socialist woman of color’s ascendancy in an unlikely blue-collar city, as well as her espousal of policies like criminal legal reform, economic redistribution, local democracy, and other core left ambitions.

Brown’s write-in campaign initially appeared quixotic: a grasp at retaining power by a jilted mayor who was felled by his own hubris. He failed to debate or significantly campaign against Walton in the primary, dismissing her as a potential threat. However, despite a slow start to the write-in, Brown, drawing upon the kind of connections that come with two decades in the mayoralty, was able to gather powerful allies and amass momentum to overcome the socialist Democratic nominee, literally rubber-stamping his return to office and ensuring the continuation of punishing neoliberal austerity in a city marred by yawning racial and class inequalities.

Pulling Out All the Stops

The forces arrayed against Walton were formidable. Business interests and local power brokers had an intrinsic incentive to maintain Brown, who was a friend of real estate development and a major player in an entrenched New York Democratic Party machine, formerly headed by now-deposed Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Brown and his allies leveraged his deep donor networks, a friendly media establishment, and a local elite who were “running around with their hair on fire,” panicking at the notion of a socialist executive. With these powers aligned behind him, Brown was able to chart an unorthodox path to victory.

After Walton took an early lead in fundraising, Brown’s ability to mobilize his longstanding alliances with developers and the business elite meant that the leftist candidate’s head start was soon negated, granting Brown a late advantage. Brown’s fundraising operation included the generous use of loopholes to obscure the fact that he was receiving contributions from real estate LLCs, in defiance of campaign finance law. Corporate and development interests opened their coffers to him, and Republicans also rushed to his aid, including arch-reactionary Carl Paladino, a real estate baron and bigot notorious in the region. Brown saw no need to disavow or disclaim any of these compromised sources.

An early, coordinated wave of opposition drops in local media seemed calculated to stir up controversy around Walton’s “scandals,” which consisted of, at worst, minor peccadilloes. Later, Brown attempted to use the courts to allow himself to run on a third-party line, despite his months-late application. (The case was adjudicated by a judge whose brother was, egregiously, a real estate developer and Brown donor.) At one point, the possibility of a Walton victory led some members of the Buffalo Common Council to venture the idea of doing away with the mayor’s office entirely, in favor of a “city manager” system.

These fervent measures are indicative of just how threatened capital and power were by the prospect of a democratic socialist in an executive seat. It was of course inevitable that Walton would face an establishment reaction to her insurgent candidacy, but it comes as something of a surprise that entrenched interests managed to boost a write-in candidate over the Democratic nominee. Still, first-time candidate Walton’s campaign was not without strategic errors; she made missteps in messaging, occasionally faltered in her reaction to attacks and failed to establish some crucial vectors of support, particularly with labor.

As with any loss, there are lessons, and portents, for the left. Now that Walton’s upset has itself been upset, the tactic of a do-over write-in campaign to thwart a leftist challenge has been proven viable. The precedent set in this race is a worrisome one for socialists: The establishment has just been handed another weapon in their perpetual war against candidates who even hint at pursuing anything other than the uninterrupted flow of profit.

Party Abandonment and High-Profile Endorsements

It may be tempting to ascribe Walton’s loss to the general reluctance of the New York Democratic Party to back their own nominee. Gov. Kathy Hochul, notably, refused to lend her endorsement. Meanwhile, State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs made some revealing comments while justifying the party’s refusal to issue any support, comparing Walton’s surprise primary victory to a hypothetical campaign by former KKK leader David Duke. The tacit implication was that Walton’s platform was extreme, and comparably repugnant to Duke’s — a telling glimpse into just how averse people in power are to even the vaguest socialism.

But Walton — unlike Brown — was not bereft of party supporters in the mainstream, even if some offered their support reluctantly. The local Erie County Democrats, despite some initial hesitancy, did ultimately endorse Walton, and criticized Brown’s flirtation with the Republican Party. Walton received further support from the likes of, perhaps surprisingly, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Chairman Jacobs’s incendiary comments about Duke late in the race also backfired; he was subject to strident criticism for the gaffe, apologizing after initially doubling down.

Brown, despite his status within the party, received little to no overt support from prominent officials. Though some doubtless wished to see the mayor reinstalled, they were likely unwilling to publicly condone his recalcitrant write-in. Meanwhile, Walton had figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigning for her, as well as the endorsement of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as actor Cynthia Nixon, among others. Her loss cannot be entirely attributed to hesitance on the part of Democrats, though their withholding of the state party’s endorsement certainly distracted from campaigning.

Future left candidates might draw conclusions: While media coverage and recognition is a necessity, a candidate risks being undermined if material, on-the-ground campaign architectures are not equally vibrant. Walton did have the support of numerous passionate and dedicated volunteers, the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and community housing activists, among others. Yet ultimately, she was left vying for executive office in the critical absence of progressive infrastructure and the backing of institutional power brokers like organized labor.

Bad-Faith Attacks and Messaging Stumbles

It became clear early in the race that Walton would face an antagonistic media siege. A steady stream of anti-Walton articles issued forth, and multiple opposition drops and unfriendly reports relied on making forays into her past to concoct “scandals” out of the troubles she had faced as a Black woman and parent on the lower end of the income scale — things like parking tickets, taxes underpaid by a few hundred dollars, and other attempts to make hay out of minor personal foibles. The narrative that emerged, in Buffalo News op-eds and elsewhere, was that she was unequipped to handle executive office, and generally could not be trusted. Much of this relied on conjecture, stereotyping and innuendo.

However, Walton also stumbled into unforced errors. Her assurances of friendliness to business interests and developers — likely intended to ease establishment concerns — distracted from the message that had initially buoyed her to a primary victory. Such declarations, along with some social media messaging, seemed calculated to soften her image as a “radical,” presumably to stave off media attacks and win over more liberals by tacking to the center.

These gestures at moderating may have done far more harm than good; the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF), which backed Walton in the primary, declined to endorse her in the general election following comments she made to business leaders indicating that she supported “school choice,” i.e., charter schools. Although Federation President Phil Rumore declined to elaborate on the local’s decision, it was Walton’s earlier assurances that she was opposed to charters that had helped secure BTF’s primary support. Another gaffe involved a Walton campaign mailer sent out to constituents prematurely touting a BTF endorsement, when in fact the union had remained pointedly neutral. Other small mistakes accumulated; Walton demonstrated a lack of familiarity with the tax abatement programs she campaigned on opposing, and mistakenly construed Buffalo’s charter schools as for-profit.

Another possible contributing factor was a late-summer personnel shakeup: Walton had brought in a new campaign manager fresh off of two New York City campaigns, with no clear background in local Buffalo politics. A broader restructuring of the organization may also have made it more difficult to find solid footing in post-primary messaging. Walton spent much of her time on the defensive, reassuring landlords and business owners while distancing herself from initial positions like defunding the police.

The campaign may have been hampered by a sense of inevitability, characterizing Brown’s write-in as the doing of a “sore loser,” rather than a serious challenge — perhaps overconfident that victory was assured by virtue of the fact that Walton was the Democratic nominee. Meanwhile, polling continually showed that Brown had a significant lead on Walton, even as her campaign seemed to downplay his write-in effort.

Unions Send a Clear Message

In post-election analysis, the support of unions may prove to have been a critical hinge. Curiously, Walton, despite her working-class bona fides and former union membership, attracted relatively little labor support. Worsening things were further missteps, as when Walton mailers were sent out without a union bug: meaning they were printed by non-union print shops. Union officials noticed, and were highly displeased. Major unions like the Service Employees International Union 1199 and Communications Workers of America District 1, both of which have shown willingness to work with progressives, declined to endorse Walton — even though she was once an 1199 member.

Although Walton wasn’t entirely without union backers, few, with the possible exception of the New York State Nurses’ Association, were significant political players in Western New York. Again, losing the support of the Buffalo Teachers’ Federation robbed Walton of her largest and most politically influential labor ally. Meanwhile, major unions like American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and an AFSCME affiliate, the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), aggressively campaigned for Brown, mobilizing their members to support his write-in effort.

A complex series of interests and factors delivered Brown an advantage in union support that may have tipped the scales in favor of the dethroned mayor. Some unions, especially those in the building trades, lean conservative, and have an interest in maintaining the high rates of development spurred by Brown’s tax abatements and real estate-friendly policy. Many significant unions seemed to hesitate over the summer, then either intervened on Brown’s behalf or sat out the race entirely.

As November approached, Brown, with major union advocacies secured, looked to those backers for help distributing the rubber stamps meant to facilitate ballot write-ins. Supporters in both the CSEA and the Transport Workers Union of America were deputized to spread the stamps to voters. The stamps, legal under New York election law, were a mundane but likely essential factor in overcoming Brown’s disadvantage as a write-in candidate. In addition, labor mobilized for a member-to-member program, as detailed in HuffPost, that urged their fellow union members to back Brown.

Walton also missed out on potential advantages that could have been conferred by connecting major issues, such as tax abatements, to the challenges faced by key unions like AFSCME. Buffalo’s financial woes have been exacerbated by expansive development and tax giveaways for developers, starving the city of resources needed to support an increasingly strained infrastructure and workforce. Even though those issues directly impact municipal workers, Walton, though she regularly spoke on tax abatements, never seemed to make the connection.

Although some mistakes are to be expected from a first-time candidate (and it was always unlikely in any case that a majority of organized labor would support Walton), the resounding lack of labor support raises questions about Walton’s strategy. Her campaign may have missed other critical opportunities by failing to do early and sufficient outreach to unions. In a city with little standing progressive infrastructure, these missteps could have been deciding factors in bestowing Brown with his own unlikely ascent to power.

Lessons for the Left

Walton’s loss underscores a troubling pattern for democratic socialist insurgents: To this point, victory has most often proven viable in low-turnout primaries in solidly blue areas, against entrenched incumbents who decline to seriously campaign. These were the conditions under which Ocasio-Cortez prevailed against Rep. Joe Crowley, and Jamaal Bowman against Rep. Eliot Engels. However, in these cases, the incumbents acknowledged their loss and allowed left nominees to run against Republicans without intervening. Brown has now proven that, for candidates defeated in a primary, gallant concession of November’s race is not an absolute necessity, and that an ascent to power can be continued unbroken — if they’re willing to run against their own party line.

Democratic socialists do not compete on equal terrain; any missteps are seized upon and magnified. Yet another hurdle has now been thrown up against leftist candidates, who already face towering structural disadvantages. With a newly viable pathway to November victory, incumbents — especially those with independent relationships and power networks that aren’t reliant on party power brokers — may now salivate at the chance of a second shot. The consequences for the left could be dire.

One of the lessons that socialists might take away from this painful defeat is that national media attention and popular surrogates speaking on a candidate’s behalf are no substitute for robust campaign infrastructure and supportive local coalitions. Although Walton scored high-profile endorsements and a late campaign visit by Representative Ocasio-Cortez, she lacked the support of local institutions with the trust of and access to voters. Ultimately, local organization and power proved more of a determining factor than star power. The volume of national attention obscured weaknesses where they mattered most: in Buffalo.

More than any other recent loss by progressives, Walton’s brings with it a troubling set of implications, on top of the sting of dashed hopes. Analogously to recent disingenuous attempts to use recall processes to remove leftist officeholders like Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, it seems that the write-in, a mechanism of ostensible democracy, has now been weaponized. The widespread assumption that write-ins are a long shot, an exercise in futility, has now been shattered. Already facing an uneven playing field and the reliable opposition of powerful interests, socialist candidates may find themselves stymied by yet another tactic now added to the formidable arsenal of capital and power.

Walton’s loss means that the neoliberal project will continue in a city with deeply entrenched inequality, and that Brown’s machine will persist, at least for the time being, having survived its most critical challenge in decades. The dynamic of Buffalo’s supposed “redevelopment” — really, a hollow shell of expensive projects and tax giveaways that assured corporate profit and did less than nothing for the poor — now seems destined to continue, to the detriment of Buffalo’s people, particularly its people of color.

Though the Walton campaign’s own missteps may have damaged her chances, Brown’s glorious return is still a grim lesson about the lengths to which power will go to protect profit and capital. The world is worse off for having been denied a chance at democratic socialist governance in Buffalo.

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