By Gregory Krieg, CNN
On paper, India Walton is a shoo-in to become Buffalo’s next mayor. The Democratic nominee, who defeated incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in a June primary, is the only name on the general election ballot for the city’s top job.
But in reality, Walton, a 39-year-old Democratic Socialist and first-time candidate, is locked in a tough race with Brown, who after losing the nomination and failing in the courts to create a new party line ahead of the November 2 vote, launched a write-in campaign.
The showdown between Walton and Brown, who is seeking a fifth term, escalated over the summer and into the fall as a proxy fight between the city and state’s growing progressive movement and more business-friendly, establishment Democrats determined to block Walton’s ascent — and prevent her from becoming the first socialist mayor of a major American city in more than 60 years. As early voting begins 10 days out from the election, both candidates are running fiery campaigns that have drawn attention from well outside Buffalo, as the Democratic Party’s ideological split comes under the spotlight in New York’s second largest city.
If she can defeat Brown a second time, Walton would become the first woman, and first Black woman, to serve as mayor of Buffalo.
Brown, who is also Black, first won the office in 2005. In 2008, he was among the rumored replacements for Hillary Clinton, who was leaving the Senate to become then President-elect Barack Obama’s secretary of state. The appointment ultimately went to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Brown stayed put, winning re-election three times. But a backlash to his handling of the protests against police violence following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota last year, the city’s uneven economic revival, and an increasing level of organization among progressives helped set the stage for his shocking primary loss.
Brown, by his own admission, hurt his own cause by largely refusing to engage with Walton early on. He did not debate her during the primary campaign and was seen by many as missing in action on the trail. Then, in late June, Walton won the nomination in a low-turnout election — with fewer than 25,000 Democrats voting — that sent reverberations across the country and immediately made Walton a new champion of the working class left. Democrats in New York and around the country took note — and sides — as it became clear that Brown would not quietly concede and get behind his challenger.
Erie County Democratic leadership quickly backed Walton and has stuck by her as Brown, after his efforts to get his name printed on the November ballot under a newly-created Buffalo Party were rejected, ramped up his general election campaign — and his slogan, “Write Down Byron Brown,” took flight. But Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state party chairman, Jay Jacobs, have remained neutral. State Attorney General Letitia James, a potential gubernatorial candidate next year whose investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against former Gov. Andrew Cuomo led to his resignation, has not yet issued an endorsement.
Other have been less coy.
On Thursday night, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — who has held progressives close ahead of his own re-election campaign in 2022 — announced his support for Walton, calling the nurse and activist an “inspiring community leader” with a “clear progressive vision for her hometown.” And on Saturday, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be in to Buffalo for an event with Walton, who has already been joined by Jumaane Williams, the New York City Public Advocate and another potential candidate for governor in 2022. The most prominent out-of-towner to campaign in Buffalo for Brown is New York Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Long Island Democrat, who is also rumored to be considering a challenge to Hochul next year.
Though Jacobs, the state party leader and a close ally of Cuomo during his decade in office, has not officially chosen a side, he set off a firestorm this week when, in an interview with Spectrum News, he defended party leaders’ decisions not to back the nominee.
“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, and he runs for mayor in the city of Rochester, which has a low primary turnout, and he wins the Democratic line. I have to endorse David Duke? I don’t think so,” Jacobs said.
The parallel provoked outrage across the state and Jacobs quickly issued an apology. But his comment underscored the tensions animating the business end of the campaign. Walton, speaking to CNN shortly after the initial remarks began to go viral, said she was disappointed but “not surprised.”
“I won the Democratic primary. I won because I worked hard. I won because people are ready for change. I won because Democrats turned out and voted for me,” Walton said. “But we have corporate Democrats who are so desperate to cling to what little power they have left and stave off the progressive wing of our party.” (She later publicly accepted Jacobs’ apology.)
Brown also denounced Jacobs’ comment, saying “there was no place” for the analogy and that it was “wrong.”
‘The stakes are dire’
But the mayor’s scorched-earth general election campaign has also drawn condemnation from Walton and her allies. Brown has repeatedly questioned Walton’s qualifications, her record as a nurse and nonprofit leader, and accused her of wanting to defund the police — the latter charge clashing with Walton’s campaign proposal, which offers a more moderate path that does not include lay-offs, but would redirect more than $7 million from the force.
Brown stood by his attacks, citing documentation in local news outlets. And in an interview with CNN this week, he doubled down.
“The stakes are dire and extreme if she was to get elected,” Brown said. “She would take our city horribly back. She would compromise our public safety. She would raise our taxes. She would attack other elected officials up and down the ballot. It would be a nightmare for every person in our community.”
Brown also accused Walton of hubris, touted the city’s economic gains during his tenure — the so-called “Buffalo Renaissance” — and confidently declared that his rival’s narrow advantage in the primary would dissolve when a larger share of the more than 150,000 registered voters across the city have their say.
“After the primary, she already began calling herself the mayor-elect, just another example of her inexperience or lack of understanding of this process,” Brown said. “And what we’ve seen from public polls, our internal polls and all the data that has come into us, there are many more people in the city of Buffalo that want to vote for me than want to vote for Ms. Walton.”
Walton, though, has not stood still since prevailing in June.
She received early support from the Working Families Party, a New York-based progressive organization that has continued to spend on her behalf, including with a more than $100,000 ad buy announced last week. She also hired a new communications director, Jesse Myerson, and campaign manager, Drisana Hughes, who previously worked as the deputy campaign manager for Alvin Bragg’s successful bid for the Democratic nomination to be Manhattan’s next district attorney.
Brown’s increasingly hardline rhetoric, Walton said, was misleading and an attempt to demonize her in front of the broader electorate — with Democratic turnout expected to rise and independents and Republicans now going to the polls — that will decide the race. The “honorable” route, she added, would have been for Brown to concede after he lost the primary and not, as he did afterward, accept help and support from Republicans.
“Every ad that he comes out with is an attack on me and making people feel afraid of me or attempting to do so,” Walton told CNN. “An honorable campaign would be him sharing the plans that he has for the future of Buffalo. An honorable plan would be him owning up to the fact that he disrespected Buffalo voters by not running a primary contest.”
Brown’s performance, or lack thereof, in the primary puzzled some local political experts.
Jacob Neiheisel, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, said it had become clear that the incumbent could be vulnerable after last summer and, as Walton has hammered away at on the trail, “that for a number of years there have been sort of two recoveries in Buffalo. There are certain zip codes where things are on track. They’re doing well by a lot of different metrics. And then there are others that are not.”
“He didn’t campaign, he didn’t debate. The rationale that was articulated was that he didn’t to give free coverage to his opponent. I think he, or someone in his camp, should’ve seen this coming. If you look at the FCC filings, India Walton has a real media team working for her,” Neiheisel said. “And all of that was public well in advance of when (Brown) decided that he should be worried.”
In addition to the growing ranks of high-profile support from outside of Buffalo, including an endorsement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Walton also asked for and secured the support of the Erie County Democratic Party. Its chairman, Jeremy Zellner, has stuck by Walton despite split loyalties within his own committee and the party’s desire to focus on boosting Democrats in local races against Republicans.
“The rhetoric has gone through the roof,” Zellner told CNN. “We’re facing a lot of Republicans in our county who are throwing bombs about policing and so forth. The fact is, India Walton wants a safe community. She’s lived here her whole life. She’s raised her family here her whole life. She wants to have a safe city of Buffalo and anything contrary that’s being said about that is just not true.”
Zellner said he hopes that voters, in the final stretch of a race that has reached “a fever pitch here with the negativity,” would focus on the facts and the candidates’ plans for the city.
“The only thing that’s going to matter now is, in the next two weeks, who can get their people to the polls?” Zellner said. “Both candidates are well-funded, both candidates are strong and I’m really looking forward to hopefully staying positive and seeing what happens over the next two weeks.”
The Democratic ‘brand’ in the balance
His wishes seem unlikely to be granted as outside interest in the campaign grows and Democratic officials from around the state seek to set the stakes and make their mark on the race.
Suozzi, the congressman from Long Island who endorsed Brown at a rally earlier this month, said victory for Walton would be a stain on the Democratic brand and invite new and more damaging attacks from Republicans.
“If the Democrats keep on allowing the socialist message to infiltrate the Democratic platform, we will lose. We’ll lose in Buffalo, we’ll lose in New York state, we’ll lose in the country,” Suozzi told CNN. “If you want to be a Democratic Socialist, then start your own party.”
Walton, who chalked up Suozzi’s interest in the race to his own political aspirations, dismissed those claims and took aim at the moderate and centrist factions of the Democratic Party.
“The brand of the Suozzi-type Democrats is one of the disappointment,” Walton said. “We are not seeing the policies that Americans, in general, want being most forward. And that is the reason for the rise of the India Waltons of the world.”
Progressive leaders are indeed hoping to see more candidates like Walton. Many view the coming election as an opportunity to entice more working class candidates with backgrounds in community organizing into the electoral ring.
Walton’s success, said Sochie Nnaemeka, the New York Working Families Party state director, could mirror the knock-on effects that followed the victories of other previously unknown, upstart candidates who knocked off entrenched figures who had lost touch with their constituents.
“I think we’ll see the pipeline grow,” Nnaemeka told CNN. “We saw a whole wave of new and diverse class of hungry, clear leaders running for office either pulled in by the excitement of candidates like AOC, (State Sen.) Alessandra Biaggi, or pushed in because of disgust at the Trump moment.”
That wave, she added, has not only changed the dynamics of state politics, but been crucial to influencing the parameters of the debate in Washington, where leading Democrats have embraced many of the progressive movement’s top priorities.
“The shift away from the cynical, small incrementalism of the Democratic Party toward big programs, big universalist ideas, and how it’s actually being espoused by the sitting president is because progressives are leading,” she said. “It’s because the progressive way of governance is actually leading that we have a moderate president like Joe Biden leaning toward that.”
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