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A Moderate Revolt in Buffalo

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A Moderate Revolt in Buffalo

10 Blocks podcast November 11, 2021
New York
Politics and law

Dave Seminara joins Brian Anderson to discuss the Buffalo mayoral election—in which the socialist Democratic nominee lost a stunner to incumbent Byron Brown’s write-in campaign—and the future of the Queen City.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is the writer Dave Seminara. Though he lives in Florida, Dave hails originally from Buffalo, New York, and he's contributed a number of pieces to City Journal, most recently about the Buffalo mayoral election, which was very surprising. Today we'll dive into that result and what it means for the Queen City more broadly. So, Dave, thanks very much for coming on 10 Blocks.

Dave Seminara: Thanks for having me on the show. I appreciate it.

Brian Anderson: So you wrote a piece for us some months ago after the socialist India Walton captured the Democratic nomination for the mayor of Buffalo. Your piece at that time ran through her surprisingly checkered background, which included a conviction for food stamp fraud and her truly dreadful platform, which included a moratorium on charter schools, defunding the police, making Buffalo a sanctuary city, a whole series of very, very far left positions. Walton's success, you wrote, should be a wake up call for centrist Democrats. And it certainly turned out to be exactly that, after she won the nomination, the incumbent mayor, Byron Brown jumped in the race as an independent and he appears to have pulled off something that's very, very rare in American politics, which is a write-in campaign to retain his position. So what happened between July and election day, and how did Brown manage to pull this off?

Dave Seminara: Those are all good questions. So India won the primary with a total of about 11,000 votes. So you had something like 20 percent turnout, which is very low, obviously. So I think what we found out is a number of things. First of all, it's not that hard to get 11,000 votes, especially if you have a progressive platform and you're fairly well known as she is in the city and you're offering to give away a lot of things. You can create some constituency groups to get 11,000 votes to win a primary, but it's much more difficult to appeal to that broader group of people who show up in a general election. So I think that was part of the problem, is that you had any more people turning out to vote, obviously on election day in November, than for the primary.

So that worked against her. But I think more prominently is that it gave everyone a few months to really get to know India Walton because, as I said, she was relatively well known, but the media hadn't really dug into her story very much, really not at all. There were a few investigative pieces about her background during the primary, because I don't think anyone really thought she was going to win, and that's including the Brown campaign, which I don't know who ran the Brown campaign, but whoever it was was absolutely derelict during the primary because where is the opposition research? They really didn't find out a lot of the things about her that they really should have been able to find out. If you read the articles that I wrote for City Journal, there's many examples of things that came out about her, but I'll just give just a couple of examples.

For example, when she was working at a nurse at Buffalo Children's Hospital about six years ago, I believe, she was arrested for threatening to break one of her coworkers legs and telling her, "I'm going to take you out." She was living with a convicted drug dealer and a very serious convicted drug dealer, who I believe did two stints in prison of several years. And there were complaints from neighbors that were investigated by police that he was continuing to deal drugs out of the house that she lived in. And we're not talking about things that were 10, 20, 30 years ago, we're talking about, I believe, it was in 2018. And none of this came out prior to the primary, as well as a number of other little brushes with the law and even little embarrassing things, like I believe it was just three weeks before the election, she had her car towed and for more than $1,000 in unpaid barking tickets.

And she tweeted, "They towed my damn car," and she had a conspiracy theory that Brown was targeting her, that Brown had somehow sicced the parking goons on her. There was also a debate. So Brown refused to debate her during the primary, but then he decided to do so. And there was a debate that occurred, I believe it was about one week prior to the election, and I watched that and it could or should have been favorable for her because they actually allowed high school students from St. Joe's, which was the rival high school that I went to, I went to a school in the city called Canisius. The two big Catholic schools that are rivals in Buffalo are Canisius and St Joe's. And they allowed St. Joe's students to ask the questions. And the debate was actually sponsored by an Orwellian sounding group in the school, I believe it was called the equity and justice club, who sponsored the debate, and they allowed students to ask questions, almost all of which were softballs, but even on the softball questions, I felt like she didn't handle them very confidently.

And she was really under attack throughout the entire debate. So she did not have a good debate performance. A lot of negative things came out about her in the news. And Brown finally woke up and realized, wow, I could lose this job that I've held for 16 years. And I think he decided that he really wanted it badly. He woke up, he mobilized the business community of the city, started donating a lot of money to his campaign. And a lot of people in the city of Buffalo who did not bother to vote in the primary, were like, "Wait a second. Whoa, are you serious? We could have a socialist as mayor here." And I think that a lot of people just woke up and prevented that from happening.

Brian Anderson: But how did he pull off the write-in aspect of this? Just getting people to do that isn't easy. Was there any particular methods they used to rally support?

Dave Seminara: Yeah. They gave out thousands of, actually, rubber stamps with his name on it. And he actually succeeded in raising quite a bit of money, as I said, from the business community, even from some Republicans. India says that he was raising money from Trumpers, Trump people, which I think is a stretch, to be honest with you, but he did raise money from people on the write, no question about that, and the business community. He had plenty of money to distribute these rubber stamps, which I think was a very good idea. And they did quite a bit of advertising too, really instructing people of where to even look on the ballot to do a write-in, because you had to look way down on the ballot and off to the right to even figure out where to do that.

So I think he did a pretty good job of staging this comeback from the dead. And, as I said, I think, in one of the pieces, it might be a model for other candidates who get primaried and who think, wait a second, there was low turnout, maybe I can still do this on write-in. I didn't think he'd be able to do it. I honestly didn't. But [crosstalk 00:07:14]

Brian Anderson: On that question, it's certainly the case that the Buffalo race drew a lot of national and state attention from Democrats and they were split on it. So you had AOC really backing Walton, then Chuck Schumer threw his support her way as well. But the governor, or the acting governor at the time, Governor Hochul, stayed out of the race and the state party apparatus basically hammed and hawed about it. So say a bit more about that. Do you really think this could be perhaps a cautionary tale for moderates worried about the party moving too far left? Is this, as you say, maybe a way to challenge low turnout election outcomes that perhaps reward too much power to the far left.

Dave Seminara: I think so. I think this is actually a really important race that occurred. Generally, Buffalo, unless we're talking about the bills, doesn't get a lot of media attention, but I think this race reflected the tension within the Democratic Party, the war that's going on within the party right now between the progressives and the moderates. And I think that this race encapsulated all of that perfectly. AOC came to town, she came to Buffalo. I don't know whether she's been there before or not, but she came in the final weekend of the campaign. I don't think that actually helped India, but she did come to campaign with her. And if you look at India Walton's Twitter account, she's really a wannabe member of the squad. She wants to be be part of that crew desperately.

She's part of the Bernie Sanders squad group. And she was dubbed by MSNBC as the latest rising star of lefty politics in the U.S. and such. The media fell in love with her. The New Yorker ran this gushing profile that read like a 10,000-word endorsement of her. So I think she had a lot of momentum behind her and I think the media wanted to tell this story of yet here's another AOC, here's another woman of color, primaring a moderate or a centrist, but the narrative, it didn't play out the way that they wanted to. And I think that if you listen to or look at Mayor Brown's victory speech, it was quite a good speech.

It was quite a rousing speech. And I should say too that I'm not a fan or a supporter of Mayor Brown at all, but I felt like what he said in the victory speech was surprising and quite good. He really said that this should be a wake up call. And he said that for Democrats who want to promote defunding the police, look what happened here, here's what happens. And that was some of the central platforms of her campaign, she wanted to not only defund police in a city with rising crime, but she also wanted to have a moratorium on charter schools, which are very popular in Buffalo and are quite needed in Buffalo, quite frankly, because the education system there, particularly the high schools in Buffalo, are a mess. India received the endorsement of the teachers union in Buffalo, largely based upon that opposition to charter schools.

And that was another thing I think that he mentioned, because national Democrats are also quite the hold into teachers unions and are also against charter schools, which remain popular in many parts of the country. So there were so many national issues. Immigration also figured into the campaign as well too, because India wanted to make Buffalo a sanctuary city. And for those who don't know this, the Buffalo has actually taken in many refugees over the last 10 or 20 years. And the reason for this is because it is a relatively low cost area for charities to resettle refugees in.

The media of course portrays only the positive side of it. I think some refugees and immigrant groups have actually revitalized some tough neighborhoods of Buffalo, but on the other hand, it's been extremely difficult for a public school system that's already failing to absorb all of these people from around the world who speak many different languages and such. So I think that particularly from the educational aspect has been super challenging for especially some of the high schools in Buffalo that were already failing and are way below state standards to take in people. We've got high schools in Buffalo where something like 50 or 60 languages are spoken, which sounds great until you try to actually figure out how to educate students who speak 60 different languages.

Brian Anderson: Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. You mentioned that you're not a fan of Brown. This will be his fifth consecutive term if the election results hold, in a city that often ranks among America's very poorest. What's your overall assessment of the job that he's done so far, and how is he generally perceived in the city? Will he emerge from the scare perhaps a more moderate or sensible figure, or will his past predict his future?

Dave Seminara: Well, I certainly hope that he emerges as a more moderate and sensible figure. I would love to see him morph into a conservative Republican. That's not going to happen, but I do think that perhaps this contrast or getting primaried by someone with such far left viewpoints and then resurrecting himself here, reinventing himself here, I think that... Maybe it could be wishful thinking, but I would like to think that he becomes a bit more pragmatic from here on out. And I think also that perhaps this will help him to just not take the job and the people of Buffalo and the support for granted, because I think after you win four terms and believe you're coasting for term number five, at a certain point you think you're mayor for life and can do whatever you want.

So I do hope it is a bit of a wake up call for him. I'm not super optimistic that he's going to really do a tremendous job. You asked how is he thought of in the area? I think people are sick and tired of him, to be quite honest with you. Four terms of anyone, really it's quite a long time, isn't it? So I do think that people wanted someone different, but they weren't going to go for a socialist, particularly one like India Walton who really had no track record of ever running anything, at least successfully. She ran a nonprofit that was supposed to be building houses in the Fruit Belt, which is a poor neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo.

And as the mayor hit her on this very hard in the debates is there's no proof that she ever actually built a house. This charity which was supposed to be building houses, she claimed that two houses were built during her tenure. But as people looked into this a little further, it turned out that it was really habitat for humanity that built those two houses and she was just trying to claim credit for it. So there you have it. I think the people are sick of Mayor Brown, but they didn't want India Walton either. Thankfully, in my opinion.

Brian Anderson: Let's just discuss, for a minute, Buffalo itself. We published an essay several years ago by the urbanist Aaron Renn which talked about how the story of modern Buffalo has been in large part a story of obsolescence. So he wrote, "Buffalo's competitiveness eroded because its unique advantages as a city fell victim to changes in transportation and technology, rail and highways rendered its position on Lake Erie less important." You had globalization and right to work laws that really produced a de-industrialization in the area. I think the city's population these days is under 300,000, so about half the size it was during its peak. And the public services in the city, you mentioned the schools, but it's other services as well are not great.

But Buffalo, I've spent time up there. It still boasts some significant assets. It's got a low cost of living. It's got a vibrant, small cultural scene. It's some very nice architecture, a real sense of place in history, a good sports team, or more than one good sports team. So what's your overall view of the city's trajectory? What will it take for what is still the second largest city in New York to come back?

Dave Seminara: Well, I am pretty bullish on Buffalo, believe it or not. And I say that sitting here by my pool in Florida so I can't exactly defend Buffalo 100 percent because I left there and I did not come back after growing up there, although my parents still live there and one of my brothers still live there. So I go back often. But I will say that as someone who is an outsider, but one who returns multiple times each year, I find that it tends to get better every time I go back. And so I think if you look at the... You mentioned the population decline in Buffalo, that is undeniable, but if you compare it to other industrialized cities in the area, it's actually done a bit better.

I actually looked this up just a while ago this morning because I was curious. So I'm 49, and when I was born, Buffalo's population was about 462,000 and now it's 278,000. Sounds pretty bad, right? But then you look at Cleveland, so Cleveland and Buffalo both reached their peak of population around 1950, but Cleveland's population is almost a third of what it was at its peak. At its peak it was 900,000. It's now 372. Whereas Buffalo's peak was 580 and it's at 278. So within that context you've seen this trend around the country of move to the Sun Belt. So I think that there's a few different things that have gone on. During the time period that Buffalo's lost population, half of that population has gone to the suburbs. So if you look at where I grew up, a near end suburb of Buffalo called the town of Amherst, the population there when I grew up was something like, let's say, 60 or 70,000, now it's 130,000.

So within 50 years, the town of Amherst could be bigger than the city of Buffalo. So part of it is people just fleeing the city to the suburbs and then the other half of it is people going down here to Florida and to North Carolina and to warmer climbs. But I do think that in the last, let's say, 10 or 15 years, the city of Buffalo has improved. You mentioned some of the assets that the city has. To me, it is a very distinctive place. You mentioned the architecture. It is the opposite of a cookie cutter city. It is extremely interesting. We've got Frank Lloyd Wright houses there, you have super distinctive neighborhoods, century old architecture. It is actually a very interesting place. There is an industrial landscape of the city that's disused.

You have all of these mills and such that are just south of the city that once employed lots of people, the steel mills and the general mills factory and other granarys and things like that. And some of this industrial landscape is being repurposed in really interesting ways. If you go back to Buffalo now, there are brew pubs in an area of the city called Silo City, which is very interesting. They've repurposed some of these industrial buildings to be brew pubs, skating rinks, and in one case there's one huge grain silo that you can actually repel up and down. Not in the wintertime because it wouldn't be safe, but in the summertime you can repel up and down these things. So they've done some creative things to try to revitalize the city.

And from my perspective, every time I go back, it does seem to get a little bit better. However, that said is that these long term endemic problems of poverty and education, those are not things that are going to go away anytime soon. And it is supposedly the third poorest large city in the US. And so I don't think that those are problems that anyone is going to solve quickly in the city of Buffalo. But I do think that the ideas that India was onto were essentially the exact opposite of what the city needs to be doing. It doesn't need to be shutting down charter schools, it needs to be finding ways to make the public schools more competitive, and charter schools are one way of that. It certainly doesn't need to be encouraging lawlessness and trying to be a magnet for illegal immigrants.

And it certainly does not need to be defunding police as she wanted to. And she also wanted to raise taxes too. So that's another... Yeah. So as I said, I think a lot of the deep problems that Buffalo has aren't going away anytime soon. But I think that the ideas that India had in order to solve those problems would've been really counterproductive. And I think you would've seen really rather than attracting new businesses, which Buffalo has done a relatively good job of doing in recent years, there's a growing healthcare sector in the city, and I think that electing a socialist mayor would be essentially advertising the city to the whole rest of the country of here's a good place for you not to move jobs. So I think that would've been disastrous for the momentum the city had.

Brian Anderson: Sure. Well, thanks very much for that overview, Dave, and it's very, very interesting discussion and it's an interesting piece. Don't forget to check out Dave Seminara's work on a City Journal website. We'll link to his author page and the description and you'll see this Buffalo piece and some earlier work he's done for us. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @CityJournal, and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. And if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a ratings on iTunes. So Dave, thanks very much. And we'll have you back on again in the near future.

Dave Seminara: My pleasure. Thank you.

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Photos by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images (left) / Matt Burkhartt for The Washington Post via Getty Images (right)

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