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Buffalo Goes Red

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Buffalo Goes Red

Socialist India Walton will be Buffalo’s next mayor—can she bring the political revolution to the Queen City? June 23, 2021
New York
Politics and law

While New Yorkers waited to see whether the results of Tuesday’s primary would move Gotham politics even further to the left, an avowed socialist had scored a huge upset victory in the Empire State’s second-largest city. With all primary-day and early votes counted, four-term Buffalo mayor Byron Brown appeared to have lost his Democratic primary bid to India Walton, a 38-year-old registered nurse and union activist who has never held elected office. Assuming insiders are correct in predicting that “absentee ballots most likely will not affect the outcome,” as the Buffalo News reports, Walton will have no Republican opponent and will be elected in November.

Walton received an election-night congratulatory call from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose party line she enthusiastically seconds. The presumptive new mayor ran on a familiar array of progressive priorities couched in appealingly populist terms, including a call to reduce police funding by “remov[ing] police from responding to most mental health calls.” She also supports the vacancy study required by state law as a prerequisite to imposing rent controls, though prevailing rents in Buffalo are not especially high by regional standards. Walton wears her ideology on her sleeve: “Being the third-poorest midsized city in this country, we should be considering how we begin to eradicate concentrated poverty and disadvantage,” she said on primary night. “And democratic socialist leanings are a big step in getting us there.”

Also like Ocasio-Cortez, Walton had little name recognition and was given little chance to win at the outset—or even in the days leading up to the vote. But as in AOC’s Queens congressional primary three years ago, turnout in the Buffalo race was ultra-low (barely 29 percent of the votes cast on the Democratic line in last year’s presidential election), and the incumbent was an uninspiring figure who ran an overconfident campaign that was low-key to the point of near invisibility. In the ultimate sign of a poorly run reelection effort, Brown apparently will leave office with unspent money in his war chest. Walton, meantime, reportedly raised a respectable $150,000 from high-profile progressives, including singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, actress Cynthia Nixon, and New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams.

While Brown received the support of the civic establishment, Walton—who proposed a “moratorium” on charter schools and a fixed minimum amount of budget support for the school district—was endorsed late in the campaign by the Buffalo teachers’ union. Having a friendly mayor shaping the city’s annual budget proposal is obviously desirable for the union, though in Buffalo, unlike in New York City, an independently elected board of education governs the city school district.

As for charter schools, Walton’s promise of a moratorium was pure posturing. Outside New York City, charters in New York State are granted and renewed by the State University and don’t require approval by municipal officials. And charter schools are an especially popular alternative in Buffalo. The city has 20 of them, with more than 1,750 students on their waiting lists for 2021–22. Buffalo’s 11,000 charter school pupils consistently score higher on state achievement tests than do the 30,000 attending Buffalo’s city school district schools, despite the system spending $21,573 per pupil in 2018–19—62 percent above the U.S. average.

Buffalo has a traditional “strong mayor” system that combines patronage dispensation with operational oversight responsibilities, but the rookie executive Walton will hardly be in a position to dictate wholesale policy changes. Mainstream moderates dominate Buffalo’s nine-member, all-Democrat, all-male Common Council, chief among them council president Darius G. Pridgen. And while she’s Buffalo’s first woman mayor, Walton won’t be the city’s most powerful female or even African-American officeholder. That distinction will still belong to assembly majority leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a veteran pol rooted in the same neighborhood political organization that launched the career of Byron Brown.

There’s little reason to believe that the result represents a tectonic shift toward progressivism in the Queen City. To be sure, Buffalo’s politics have moved to the left since the heyday of conservative Democrats like the late Jimmy Griffin, the city’s mayor from 1978 to 1993. But the city remains a Democratic island in politically competitive Erie County, and its finances remain subject to a potentially renewed period of control by a state Fiscal Stability Authority (created when the city seemed in danger of going broke back in 2003, though it recently has grown complacent in the face of budgetary risks taken by Brown).

Nonetheless, Walton’s win will have ripple effects beyond western New York—bolstering the fear among the state’s incumbent Democrats of urban progressive cadres with nothing to lose in low-turnout primaries. To avoid such challenges, even moderately inclined officeholders have been willing to embrace more left-leaning positions—as reflected in the increasingly progressive voting records and policy stances of upstate Democrats in the state legislature. Walton may not be able to bring the revolution to Buffalo, but her victory will reinforce this political trend.

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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