Buffalo Democrats nominated a self-identified socialist as their candidate for mayor, as nurse and activist India Walton scored an upset victory over four-term incumbent Byron Brown in Tuesday’s primary.
“We set out to not only change Buffalo, but to change the way progressive politics are viewed in upstate New York,” Walton told supporters as she declared victory Tuesday night. “All that we are doing in this moment is claiming what is rightfully ours.”
The Associated Press projected Walton, 38, as the winner Wednesday morning. She held a lead over Brown with most in-person ballots counted and with a few more than 1,500 absentee ballots left — fewer than the margin in the mayoral primary. Brown, who refused to debate Walton during the campaign, had not conceded the race by Wednesday morning.
Republicans have not fielded a candidate for mayor and have not won City Hall in Buffalo since the 1960s, making the Democratic primary winner all but certain to take office in January. If victorious when all ballots are counted, Walton will be Buffalo’s first female and first Black female mayor. She is a union organizer and nonprofit founder who had her first child at age 14 and later earned her GED while pregnant with twins.
The results stand as a triumph for the left as centrist Democrats have racked up a string of wins, from Joe Biden capturing the party nomination last year and the presidency to Terry McAuliffe securing the gubernatorial nod in the Virginia Democratic primary earlier this month.
Turnout was low in Buffalo, with fewer than 25,000 ballots cast in a city of nearly 260,000 people. That was comparable to the vote four years ago, when Brown prevailed over a divided field. In an interview, Walton credited her volunteers for the apparent upset, with endorsers from the Working Families Party (WFP) to Democratic Socialists of America reaching voters at their doors. In a statement, the WFP claimed to have helped Walton raise more than $140,000.
“We saw billionaires from all across the country or the hundreds of thousands of dollars into Mayor Brown’s campaign in order for him to fight against having a voice for working class people,” Walton said. “I’m bracing myself for the future.”
It’s been more than 60 years since a socialist was elected mayor of a major industrial city, Milwaukee, and 40 years since the victory of Bernie Sanders, now a senator, in Burlington, Vt. Unlike Sanders, but like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Walton identified as a socialist inside the Democratic Party, and she saw her campaign as a way to dispel worries about the label and its ideological goals.
“One of the things that our campaign has been really good at is storytelling — being able to explain to people why socialism is not this evil monster that the establishment wants you to believe it is,” Walton told the socialist magazine Jacobin last month.
Brown, an ally of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, entered the primary with several vulnerabilities. In 2019, the FBI raided the office of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, which Brown chairs; in 2020, Brown faced anger from liberal activists over the city’s handling of racial justice protests. A 75-year old White activist, Martin Gugino, was shoved to the ground as one protest was cleared, sustaining a head injury.
On Tuesday, Gugino was spotted at Walton’s election night party, as the candidate argued that Buffalo had embraced a new politics to rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic. On the trail, she pledged to sign a “tenant’s bill of rights,” including rent control and a city-run fund to help struggling renters. While she did not support cutting police funding, she favored removing police from the response to mental health calls, putting officers on unpaid leave if investigated for brutality, and attacking crime through more social programs.
“We’re set to receive $350 million in COVID relief from the federal government, and I’m excited that the people will have a real say in how that money is allocated,” Walton said. “We’ve seen enough of the same, old, trickle-down economics strategy, waiting for resources to get to poor and working-class people. We’ll be able to really build from the bottom up.”