Socialist India Walton Faces Treacherous Path in Buffalo Despite Court Victory

Elements of Buffalo, New York’s political establishment and business interests are intent on making it as difficult as possible for Democratic nominee and socialist India Walton to take mayoral office in November. From waves of suspiciously timed opposition media to proposals to do away with the mayoralty entirely, Walton has already navigated a far more treacherous path to the mayor’s office than it had previously appeared upon her primary victory this summer. Powerful interests in the city, chief among them Buffalo’s deposed mayor, are doing their utmost to ensure that remains the case.

Still, though one-time mayor Byron Brown is mounting a bellicose write-in campaign, his effort to return to office has just suffered what may be a decisive setback. A legal struggle over Brown’s appearance on the ballot line has just been resolved — resoundingly in Walton’s favor. Two earlier judicial rulings had overridden campaign rules to place Brown on the ballot. One of those decisions was issued by a judge who was allegedly less than impartial, given his family ties to Brown. The Walton campaign and the Erie Board of Elections appealed — and, on September 16, Walton announced that both appeals had succeeded, and the previous decisions were overturned.

Brown has recently consolidated the support of some powerful unions. Had he emerged victorious in this legal battle, he would have found himself rendered a much more viable candidate. Instead, Walton is now in a far stronger position. In addition, she may be poised to collect some consequential labor endorsements of her own, as several other major unions have yet to back a candidate. This development could clinch a Walton victory in November, meaning that the city of Buffalo might see something truly rare: an elected socialist leader in a U.S. executive office.

Judicial Machinations

Upon its launch, erstwhile mayor Brown’s write-in campaign to restore him to the mayoralty faced an immediate obstacle. As Walton is the Democratic nominee, he has been forced to run as a third-party candidate. But according to Erie County’s electoral procedures, in order to appear on the ballot on a different party line, he would have had to file by a long-past deadline, back in May.

A Brown-less ballot promises to severely undercut the former mayor’s chances, as voters will have to manually write in his name. In an attempt to negate this disadvantage, two lawsuits, originating from Brown’s campaign and a group of three voter plaintiffs, were filed in federal courts, seeking an injunction that would allow the circumvention of election rules and require Brown’s name to appear on the ballot. The U.S. District Judge hearing the case, John L. Sinatra Jr., quickly moved to do just that: his order barred the Erie County Board of Elections from enforcing the established petition deadline. Judge Sinatra’s favorable ruling was intended to allow Brown to appear on the November ballot on a newly minted “Buffalo Party” line. Sinatra’s order was echoed by a companion ruling by State Judge Paul Wojtaszek, who made a similar determination.

Walton and her supporters quickly pointed out that the Trump-appointed Judge Sinatra has a brother, Nick Sinatra, who has contributed to Byron Brown’s campaigns “several times.” As the owner of Sinatra & Co. Real Estate, Nick Sinatra is the head of a powerful development interest. Yet Judge Sinatra denied any basis for recusal. (The U.S. Judicial Code of Conduct states that recusal is appropriate “in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned” if that judge has a relation “within the third degree” — which includes siblings — who is “known by the judge to have an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome.”)

Walton’s platform includes explicit promises to redirect the benefits of “trickle-down policies and subsidies that have increased income inequality.” Buffalo’s corruption-plagued Buffalo Billion redevelopment program — really, a speculative bubble that’s been a cash cow for wealthy companies, particularly real estate — was driven in large part by enormous tax breaks for major developers. (The Brown campaign has also been known to utilize tax loopholes to hide contributions from real estate interests.) Championed as a “revitalization,” the wasteful giveaways of the Buffalo Billion were mostly successful at funneling even more money to the rich, in a city marked by deep inequality that runs along stark racial lines.

Given Walton’s stated intention to redirect these tax breaks as part of her plan to ameliorate inequality (and Brown’s unflagging support from developers), the grounds for Judge Sinatra’s recusal were in fact glaringly apparent. Only last month, The Buffalo News reported that Nick Sinatra and Sinatra & Co. Real Estate were seeking tax breaks for their Elmwood Apartments development — just one of their many projects across the city.

Walton said on Twitter that Sinatra is the “farthest thing from an impartial judge,” and, in a statement, the Walton campaign contended: “Voters have raised serious concerns about Judge Sinatra’s refusal to recuse himself, especially in light of past financial contributions that he or his former law firm may have made to Brown’s campaigns, as well as the close and long-standing relationship between his brother — real estate developer Nick Sinatra — and Brown.”

Walton Appeals

Walton’s camp filed for a review of Judge Sinatra and Judge Wojtaszek’s rulings by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. At the same time, the Erie County Board of Elections, at a public hearing on September 7, moved to appeal the preliminary injunction that had temporarily allowed Brown’s placement on the ballot. Election Commissioner Jeremy Zellner and Republican Election Commissioner Ralph Mohr both voted to challenge Sinatra’s ruling, though Mohr did decline to appeal Wojtaszek’s secondary ruling.

Commissioners pointed out the precedent that allowing such a late entry on the ballot would set, both for later in this race (as other candidates are already throwing their hats in) and in future races. Mohr called the precedent “administratively untenable.” In the opposite corner, The Buffalo News editorial board, reliable cheerleaders for Brown, claimed that Brown’s appearance on the ballot would “promote moderation and maximum democracy” and serves “a greater good.”

Reached by Buffalo CBS affiliate WGRZ, attorney Barry Covert called Judge Sinatra’s decision “reasoned,” claiming there is “a preference in the law and rulings under the Constitution that we expand rather than restrict the individuals that are available for citizens to vote for.” Brown’s attorneys, among them voting rights specialist Bryan Sells, attempted to argue that the May deadline for ballot-line filing was too restrictive under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, according to WGRZ. Meanwhile, Walton’s legal team had asserted that allowing Brown on the ballot as a third party would offer him an unfair advantage, given that he would be aware of the outcome of the primary while running a third-party campaign.

Ultimately, state and federal courts agreed with Walton’s campaign and the Erie Board of Elections. On September 8, a state appellate court put a hold on the Wojtaszek ruling; on September 16, it was unanimously overturned. Later that same day, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned Sinatra’s ruling that had placed Brown on the Ballot.

Brown’s campaign has shown every sign that they will fight tooth and nail to restore their candidate to power — including, Walton alleged in an interview with Jacobin, listing the names of “known Republican operatives, known members of the Proud Boys, and local white supremacist groups” as petition carriers. But now that Brown’s legal efforts have failed and he will be denied an appearance on the ballot, his chances of re-election will likely be significantly curtailed.

Brown Consolidates Union Allegiances

Brown’s campaign, though it’s now suffered a critical setback, has generally been building momentum, amassing some powerful allies. It has long been evident that Brown’s base of labor support would be found in the building trades unions, which tend toward political conservatism and have benefited from Buffalo’s redevelopment. Structurally, they’re incentivized to back Brown, since his tax giveaways to development companies, along with his efforts to ensure project labor agreements, have made for increased union construction work. Few unions among the trades are likely to look kindly upon a socialist mayor, especially one promising to staunch the flow of tax abatements to developers in favor of funding public goods.

Predictably, Brown’s trade alliances materialized in the wake of the Democratic primary in June. One of the three plaintiffs in the federal legal challenge that unsuccessfully attempted to force Brown’s appearance on the ballot is an official representative of Carpenters Local 276, serving on the local Executive Board.

The Carpenters, especially in Buffalo, are no strangers to controversy. As previously reported in Truthout, the building trades, including the Carpenters Union, have collaborated with federal immigration authorities to crack down on undocumented workers on job sites — penalizing the immigrant workers instead of the employers who illegally hired them. Like many Building Trades Councils, the Buffalo trades have been criticized for over-representing white workers, and efforts to diversify them have been lackluster. These issues are part and parcel of broader systemic problems in many of the New York building trades, which recently led to federal corruption charges. Regardless, Brown has a number of trade unions in his corner: in one example, he has earned additional assistance from Ironworkers Local 6, which made their union hall available to train Brown volunteers.

Influential public sector unions have also come to the dethroned mayor’s aid. A Labor Day parade served as the backdrop to the announcement of two endorsements in Brown’s favor: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 35, and the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 815. Both are AFSCME affiliates representing a combined 6,800 workers across the city of Buffalo, including Buffalo Public Schools and City of Buffalo employees. These endorsements — a reiteration of the unions’ pre-primary positions — represent major coups for Brown’s third-party challenge. CSEA in particular is a significant powerbroker in New York politics and exerts influence throughout the state.

Quoted by WIVB4, Denise Szymura, president of CSEA Local 815 and a trustee of the Buffalo Central Labor Council, commented, “Our relationship dates back to [Brown] being a champion for the living wage in Buffalo … We need his leadership and experience — we support Mayor Byron Brown for Mayor.” CSEA has also mobilized to distribute literature on Brown’s behalf. Brown can also count the Western New York District 1 wing of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) among his boosters, as they’ve lent him their official endorsement.

Although loyalty to Brown on the part of the trades is, again, no surprise, public worker unions might be expected to be at least sympathetic to Walton, give that she has pledged to address the budgetary woes of the City of Buffalo and Buffalo Public Schools. But with AFSCME Council 35 and CSEA Local 815 secured for Brown, there are relatively few large union players left in Buffalo that Walton might court: potentially a crucial factor in an election that may come down to the respective candidates’ ability to muster voter turnout.

Labor support for Walton has been comparatively scant (though she has continued to draw support from the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which wields considerable power in Buffalo). However, dissent may be gathering in other union constituencies. Although the Western New York Council of the Communications Workers of America District 1 has officially endorsed Brown, CWA Local 1168 — which covers Kaleida Health, the largest employer in Erie County — has been friendly with Walton in the past, inviting her to speak on their behalf. She’s also been present at the picket lines of CWA 1168 and CWA 1133, both of which represent workers at Catholic Health. Catholic Health workers recently voted to authorize a strike impacting 2,000 health care employees.

Walton has also won attention, and potentially some union goodwill, by her proximity to the landmark campaign to unionize corporate-owned Starbucks stores in the United States for the first time. The campaign by Buffalo Starbucks employees, launched in response to chronic understaffing and unforgiving performance metrics, has recently grabbed high-profile headlines, and would set a unique precedent for store-to-store organizing efforts. The unionization campaign is being supported by the Rochester Joint Board of Workers United, which previously organized SPoT Coffee Shop in Buffalo. Workers United is an affiliate of the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Walton and Democratic Congressman Brian Higgins appeared at a press conference to speak in support of the effort. Workers at three nearby Starbucks stores who are hoping to unionize have also indicated their backing of Walton. At the very least, Walton has now affirmed her union sympathies.

The Long Road to City Hall

Plenty of unions have yet to come down on one side or the other — and the way they break could influence the power dynamics from now to November. The recent endorsement of the Erie County Democratic Committee could also be a major boost to Walton, and might encourage unions to follow suit. Jeremy Zellner, the party chair, has allegedly used his position to stymie progressive candidates, including Walton, in the past. Securing the Committee’s open advocacy neutralizes a potential threat to Walton’s campaign, and may be a green light to unions that remain uncommitted.

Notably, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is from Erie County and represented parts of Erie County in Congress, has declined to endorse Walton, commenting that she intends to refrain from making endorsements in local races, at least for the time being. Her hesitance to endorse the Democratic Party’s official candidate — when doing so could further decimate Brown’s odds of winning via write-in — denies Walton an easy path to the mayoralty and keeps a Brown victory possible. But despite Hochul’s reluctance, other politicians are choosing sides; for instance, New York State Sen. Sean Ryan recently came out in favor of Walton.

With a fluctuating political landscape, Walton’s path to victory still looks more fraught than it did in the wake of her stunning upset victory, despite her recent legal triumph. Brown is no stranger to New York’s bruising power politics, and despite insubstantial fundraising and his abandonment by some Democratic officials, he has managed to hold together a coalition of supporters that may still grant him a last-ditch chance at a fifth term. His performance at the mayoral debate revealed no major weaknesses, and his campaign has launched its first television ad. (It presents him to the viewing public as “Democrat for Mayor”— a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand.) As of this writing, Walton has not yet run any political ads.

However, the positions of some major unions — such as SEIU 1199, Walton’s former shop — are still indeterminate, and could shift the terrain dramatically. The Western New York Area Labor Federation appears uncommitted, as do large unions like the United Auto Workers, the Public Employees Federation and the United Steelworkers, which just concluded strikes at ATI Metals and Unifrax. In addition, fissures in the Communications Workers of America over Walton sympathies could blunt support for Brown, despite CWA District 1’s official endorsement.

Despite Walton’s comparative advantage in appearing on the ballot, organized labor may still exert influence and help determine whether Brown is finally bested by Walton’s insurgent campaign. It now appears like there is a distinct possibility that the avowed socialist will deny Brown a fifth mayoral term, one to which he seems to feel entitled — acting, as Walton put it, like a “sore loser.” How several prominent unions in Buffalo might wield their power remains to be seen, if they do so at all. Many have been conspicuously quiet. Some may intend to wait until they have a stronger sense of the race’s contours heading into November, or they may sit out the election entirely. Or perhaps, now that Walton and the Board of Elections’ appeals have managed to swat down Brown’s legal maneuvering, the point may be moot, and Brown’s campaign might be consigned to a loss.

These sociopolitical dynamics and campaign machinations alike are interacting in complex ways, making the path to the mayoralty for India Walton, though still riven with uncertainty, less fraught than it seemed before these favorable legal outcomes. Her campaign still sustains supporters’ hopes around an uncommon scenario: a socialist within arm’s reach of executive office in the United States.