When India Walton defeated Buffalo’s four-term incumbent mayor, Byron Brown, in the Democratic primary in June, she called her mom and said, “Mommy, I’m the mayor of Buffalo! Well, not until January, but yeah!” The 39-year-old had every reason to believe she was a shoo-in to become the first socialist mayor of a major U.S. city since 1960. Buffalo is a Democratic stronghold, and Republicans didn’t even bother to field a candidate in the mayor’s race. But on a bloodbath of a night for the Democratic Party in races throughout the country, Brown appears to have risen, Lazarus-like, to beat Walton badly with a surprisingly effective write-in campaign.
Walton hasn’t conceded, and election officials still need time to confirm Brown’s win because of the large number of write-in votes. But we know that 58 percent of ballots were cast for a write-in candidate—presumably almost all of them for the incumbent—against just 41 percent for the Democratic nominee. Walton made history, but not in the way she hoped, losing by nearly 20 points to a write-in candidate, despite a major-party endorsement and running against no official major-party opposition. Speaking after her apparent loss, Walton blamed Brown for “actively cooperating and colluding with Republicans and dark money to defeat a person who was going to be a champion for the little guy.”
The media fell in love with Walton after her stunning primary victory. MSNBC dubbed her “the latest lefty star in U.S. politics,” and numerous media outlets portrayed her as part of a movement of young progressives shoving aside moderate Democrats with bold primary challenges. The New York Times ran a flattering opinion piece on Walton, arguing that her victory challenged the idea “that surging crime has made progressive politics toxic.” Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Walton has shown that even in a city where shootings have surged a staggering 116 percent so far this year, a socialist promising police reform can win.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton, penned a lengthy profile of Walton for The New Yorker that read like something from a fanzine. Walton secured endorsements from Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Buffalo’s powerful teacher’s union, plus a host of celebrity locals like Ani DiFranco and the Goo Goo Dolls.
What went wrong for the socialist darling of Buffalo? Just about everything. As I noted in July, Buffalo is an unlikely hotbed for leftist politics. I grew up there, my parents still live there, and I visit often. For the most part, people vote Democratic there out of habit and tradition. Portland it is not.
Turnout for the Democratic primary was a paltry 20 percent. Anything can happen with turnout that low. Walton, who is black, performed best among white progressives, while Brown, who is also black, beat her on the city’s predominantly black east side. (Buffalo is about 37 percent black.) This is noteworthy because Walton wanted to defund the police—a cause that’s more fashionable in safe, white, liberal neighborhoods than in poor, dangerous, black ones. She tried to repackage this message as “reimagining” policing, much as have Democrats across the country, but Buffalonians didn’t buy it.
Several of Walton’s brushes with the law also became public after the primary. In 2003, she was the target of a minor food-stamp fraud investigation and paid a small fine for the fraud three years later. Walton campaigned on raising property taxes, but she and her husband took five years to pay a tax bill from 2004. While working as a nurse at Buffalo Children’s Hospital in 2014, she was arrested for threatening to break a co-workers legs and saying, “I’m going to take you out.”
The Buffalo News reported that Walton’s landlord evicted her in 2018 after police investigated a neighbor’s complaint that drugs were being sold from the house. Walton and her four children were living with a convicted felon, who had, according to the report, “spent more than a dozen years over two separate stints in prison for selling cocaine, assault and possession of a weapon.” Walton said she knew he was a felon but never asked him about his criminal record.
Three weeks prior to the election, Walton tweeted, “they towed my damn car.” News reports indicated that she had more than $1,000 worth of parking tickets and an expired inspection sticker. Two weeks later, Walton apologized to a city councilman after an expletive-laden Facebook post.
Taylor, author of the New Yorker hagiography, chalked up all of these legal and personal problems to racism: “The allegations against Walton . . . are obvious dog whistles; they are also petty compared with the investigations into Brown’s administration.” Taylor rightly notes the serious corruption allegations against the incumbent mayor, but voters clearly didn’t buy the race-card explanation. Both candidates, after all, are black, and the city’s lone newspaper, which broke some of the stories, is as liberal as any in the country.
While Brown refused to debate Walton in the primary, they tangled, along with a conservative-leaning independent candidate, in a recent debate held at a local high school on a weekday morning. It’s unclear how many Buffalonians watched the debate, but the mayor attacked Walton for her affordable-housing charity that has built no houses and for her defund-the-police stance.
After running a dismal primary, Brown woke up and ran an effective write-in campaign—though Walton’s missteps certainly helped. He raised money from the city’s business community, and his campaign staff gave out thousands of ink stamps with his name on them so that voters didn’t have to write his name on the ballot by hand. In his victory speech, the mayor claimed his win had national implications, and that Democrats would be foolish to nominate more socialist candidates. His victory, he said, was not “just a referendum on the City of Buffalo; it was a referendum on the future of our democracy.”
Walton wasn’t ready to run a city of Buffalo’s size, and her ideas are dangerous and counterproductive. But, as I wrote earlier this year, her personal story is sympathetic. She grew up the child of a poor single mother, got pregnant at 14, had the child, got pregnant again at 19 with twins who were born premature, spent six months in the hospital, and eventually become a nurse. Even during the campaign, she continued to make deliveries for DoorDash to make ends meet. “I’ve got to feed my children,” she explained.
Buffalo is a historically blue-collar town that’s become more white-collar in recent years. The city has improved under Brown’s watch, though it’s debatable how much credit he deserves for that. Buffalo is still the third-poorest city in the country, and the metro area’s population growth is almost all concentrated in the suburbs. Ideally, Buffalo could use fresh leadership after four terms of Byron Brown, but the silver lining is that pragmatic Buffalonians said no to socialism last night. Let this be another warning to Democrats everywhere that socialism is a loser at the ballot box.
Photo by Matt Burkhartt for The Washington Post via Getty Images