Buffalo—the city famous for lake-effect snow, chicken wings, and table-smashing tailgate parties—appears poised to elect socialist India Walton as mayor. I grew up there, and it’s the kind of place coastal elites who have never been there mock. As you enter the city on the New York State Thruway, a sign proclaims that Buffalo is an all-American city. An unpretentious place, it’s an unlikely hotbed for revolutionary politics, despite the best efforts of a left-wing teachers’ union. But Walton’s victory exposes a growing disconnect between moderate Democratic voters living between the coasts and the progressive Democrats running in, and winning, low-turnout elections.
Walton’s life story would make for a great film, but her platform is a horror show. She grew up poor on Buffalo’s predominantly black East Side; her mother kicked her out of the house at age 14, when she got pregnant. She lived in a group home for single mothers, and later, at 19, gave birth to twins, born dangerously premature. Walton told a reporter from the webzine Qween City that the experience inspired her to become a nurse because she felt slighted by the mostly “white middle-aged suburban nurses” who lacked “cultural competency.” Walton got a degree and became a union leader and a community organizer focused on affordable housing. In 2003, she was the target of a food-stamp fraud investigation and paid a small fine for the fraud three years later. Though Walton plans to raise property taxes, she and her husband took five years to pay an unpaid tax bill from 2004. She credits her union membership, rather than her own pluck, for lifting her out of poverty.
Education was a crucial issue in the race. The Buffalo teachers’ union endorsed Walton in part because she pledged a moratorium on new charter schools, though the plan is likely to inspire more city residents to flee to the suburbs. She has three education-related goals for her first 100 days in office: to send a staffer to Board of Education meetings, to support a “whole-child, whole-school, whole-community agenda of trauma-informed and culturally and linguistically-responsive teaching,” and to “advocate for locally-sourced and culturally-appropriate meal options.”
The woman MSNBC recently dubbed “the latest lefty star in U.S. politics” is also a fierce critic of the police. When asked by the socialist magazine Jacobin to describe her idealized version of Buffalo, the first thing she said was, “the Buffalo that I envision is one free from militarized and hostile policing.” The murder rate in Buffalo was up 40 percent in 2020, and shootings are up 200 percent over the last two years. Yet Walton proposes to cripple police by “reimagining public safety” with police-pullback programs, enacting “crime prevention through environmental design,” and ending enforcement of low-level drug crimes. Walton also wants to invest in “violence interruption programs” and slash the police budget by $7.5 million. She plans to address the “toxic culture of policing and police brutality,” and, after the January 6 riot in Washington, D.C., tweeted that “bigotry, misogyny and white supremacy are a part of the DNA of police culture in departments all over the nation.”
Walton’s plans to help Buffalo will be counterproductive in every domain. She wants to make Buffalo a sanctuary city, provide benefits and services to those in the country illegally, halt all police cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and establish “neighborhood caucuses that encourage democratic participation regardless of voting/immigration status.” She also proposes to use city funds to pay attorneys to help immigrants find ways to stay in the country. Walton wants to create a public bank and has four economic-development goals for her first year in office, each aiming to provide explicit advantages to women and minorities. (Her goal to “make appointments based on expertise, diversity, and inclusion, rather than political patronage” is a contradiction.) She recently tweeted, “If you give people money without strings attached they will do things that help to lift them out of poverty.”
Byron Brown, the four-term incumbent mayor, hasn’t been a huge success by any means. In some ways, Buffalo improved under his tenure: every time I return home, the city seems livelier, more attractive. Nevertheless, Brown has made scant progress in tackling the city’s most intractable problems. After falling to Walton in the primary, he has launched a longshot write-in campaign.
Buffalo is an unlikely breeding ground for Walton’s brand of socialism. Most Democrats are old-school types, people who elected Jimmy “Six Pack” Griffin—a crusty, conservative Democrat from Irish South Buffalo—as mayor for four terms when I was a kid. But with Walton promising to hand out cash in a city plagued with poverty, it isn’t hard to see how she could rustle up a bit more than 11,000 votes to win by 7 percent in an off-cycle election with just 20 percent turnout.
If a socialist can win in meat-and-potatoes—or wings-and-pizza—Buffalo, it says more about the Democratic Party than about the city. Walton’s success should be a wake-up call for centrist Democrats who have grown complacent with Donald Trump out of office. For four years, they obsessed over the president; meantime, centrist pols like Jimmy Six Pack have become an endangered species. Yet moderates who vote for Democrats remain numerous. They ought to take back control of their party, before it’s too late.
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