- Interview by
- Hadas Thier
India Walton is a Democratic Socialists of America–endorsed candidate for mayor of Buffalo. Her campaign staged a major upset to defeat four-term incumbent Byron Brown in the Democratic primary in June. Democrats have occupied the Buffalo mayor’s office since 1966, and winning the Democratic primary is usually enough to secure victory in the general election. But after losing the Democratic primary, Brown has gotten back on the ballot under a newly created “Buffalo Party.”
Despite the Erie County Board of Elections dismissing the new ballot line — which missed the filing deadline by several months — as invalid, District Judge John Sinatra (brother of Brown supporter Nick Sinatra) has filed an injunction to allow Brown onto the ballot. Yesterday, Walton’s campaign filed a notice of appeal, asking the US Court of Appeals to review Judge Sinatra’s ruling.
In an interview, Walton spoke to Jacobin’s Hadas Thier about Brown’s attempt to circumvent democracy, and what’s at stake for Buffalo.
Byron Brown is a four-term incumbent. He had his chance at the ballot box during the Democratic primary. Your campaign staged a major upset and defeated him. But he’s also had his chance for sixteen years to prove himself as a leader of Buffalo. What does his record show for the past sixteen years?
His record over the past sixteen years shows that he doesn’t have much care, compassion, or empathy for the people of Buffalo, unless they’re wealthy developers or heads of large corporations.
We’re looking at unprecedented child poverty, a looming affordable housing crisis and housing crisis — not only of affordable units, but we have one of the widest racial wealth and homeownership gaps in the country — and some of the worst health outcomes, like a childhood lead problem that is comparable to Flint, Michigan. That is the legacy that this man leaves behind. And he won’t move on so that someone who has a bold and visionary plan to improve our city can begin the process of governance.
Byron Brown is a sore loser. He did not work to earn the votes of Buffalo residents. And this is just proof that, when he’s wrong, he doubles down rather than trying to rectify the harms that he’s caused.
Who are the forces that are lining up behind him?
This effort is being backed by the GOP and the far right. In going over his independent nominating petition, there are known Republican operatives, known members of the Proud Boys, and local white supremacist groups whose names are listed as petition carriers. We also know that his donor base tends to be the ultra-wealthy and members of the developer class. That has not changed. The only thing is that now it’s more blatant.
He has not shied away from accepting support from Republican donors. It’s obvious that this is a desperate attempt to hold on to power and privilege, and continue to enclose wealth to keep the working guy down.
The developer class has been a central part of his campaign from the start. What have they and Brown been responsible for in Buffalo?
I’m not against development. I’m against development on the backs of, and out of the pockets of, the working class and taxpayers in the city of Buffalo. And that’s what we’ve seen.
We’ve seen big donors supporting Brown’s campaign, and in return, they get large development deals, contracts, and tax breaks. We’re having conversations about my willingness to work across sectors and across political beliefs, but not in a way that compromises my values. What I value most is people over profit. So there will still be development, but it’s not going to happen at the expense of Buffalo residents and taxpayers. And it’s not going to be a quid pro quo. There won’t be a bunch of patronage positions in the Walton administration. Things are going to be just, equitable, and fair.
That’s the power elites are really concerned most about: that there will be equity brought to Buffalo, New York.
It’s striking to me that when people who are trying to challenge the status quo run on an independent ballot line — and they’re held to very stringent rules in order to do so — they’re usually called spoilers. Now, Byron Brown is trying to paint his maneuver to get on another ballot line as a show of strength.
Why are Brown and the forces that back him unwilling to accept defeat? What are they afraid of?
Byron Brown is not an independent candidate. He was once the head of the state Democratic Party. He’s run as a Democrat for the last few decades. And he was on the ballot in the Democratic primaries. So the fact that he’s lost and is now attempting to create another ballot line just goes to show, really, what the fear is among the ruling class. They are afraid of fairness and justice.
These people are so used to using their power and money and privilege to be able to skirt the rules. Now they’re just having rules made up for them at their whim and desire, because they didn’t run a solid primary campaign. I think that it’s not only unfair to me and the work that my team and volunteers put in to be victorious in the primaries, but it’s also disrespectful to the voters. A primary election was held, the voters made their choice, and now the creation of this other line is very confusing to a lot of people who’ve never experienced this type of political climate in the city of Buffalo before.
During the primary season, Brown refused to debate you. Now he suddenly wants to debate you.
“Anytime, anywhere,” he says.
Why did he run such a weak primary campaign?
It’s his arrogance and his lack of appreciation and respect for residents and voters in Buffalo. He didn’t run. He wouldn’t debate. He’s not visible. He’s run one of the most opaque and closed administrations in the history of the city. And the people are tired and have decided that we want something different — something better, a transparent type of leadership that actually honors the constituency here.
On November 2, we’re going to bring home the win again, and it’ll just be that much more satisfying to know that, against all of these odds, we’ve been able to remain victorious.
Brown has tried to use the fear of change and fear of socialism in his campaign. He’s called you an “inexperienced, radical socialist.” How do you respond to that?
I understand that, for a person like him — a hyper-capitalist individualist who doesn’t care about people — the idea that I will put families and children first is radical. My run for mayor is an act of radical love for my community and for people.
My experience is not in government, but it is in care. As a registered nurse, as a school nurse, a critical care nurse, and a nonprofit executive who built permanently affordable housing, I have lots of experience in caring for people, in working in coalition, and in actually listening to the concerns of residents of Buffalo. That is the experience people really want and need as we move forward with the new administration.
When you were on the campaign trail, what were the issues that resonated with people?
The main thing is just that sixteen years is too long. No one should be mayor that long. So people are interested in term limits. Co-governance is something that came up frequently, having a leadership that is transparent and accessible.
The other thing is equity. We’re in an unprecedented time of reckoning right now, thinking about social justice, racial justice, neighborhood change, and various other ways that we take care of people. Folks know that I’m the candidate who’s going to do that. In wealthier neighborhoods, in north and west Buffalo, people are asking about the poor neighborhoods, “What is your plan for black Buffalo?”
So everyone sees that this is our opportunity, right now, to not return to “normal” post-COVID. This is our opportunity to really embrace a new normal that we created: the sense of community, of mutual aid, of care, of saying we actually do need one another and should be able to rely on one another to make it through.
Your campaign is a grassroots, people-driven campaign. You’ve talked in the past about how your experiences as an organizer influenced how that campaign was run, and why it was so successful. Now that Brown is refusing to accept defeat, what are your thoughts — as an organizer and a socialist — about what it’s going to take to win in the general election?
I return to the mantra of Senator Bernie Sanders: the way to win against organized money is with organized people. So we continue to organize. We continue to heavily recruit volunteers. And we are also relying on our base of small donors to keep enough financial support flowing to support the campaign, especially as we look toward an expensive appeal process to try to make sure that we hold our judicial and legal system accountable as well.
We don’t get to just create new rules for our friends. Everyone should abide by the same laws that are set forth by the state and our board of elections. And we’re going to continue to organize fundraising; we’re going to continue to fight.
We’re turning out sixty to seventy-five canvassers twice a week right now, running two phone banks once or twice a week, and contacting hundreds and thousands of voters every single week. We’re not discouraged. We’re still very much in this fight.
Once you win in November, what are your priorities for Buffalo?
When we win in November, we’ll have no breathing room. These last two months, we should have been focusing on a transition. That’s tough to do while you’re still running a full-scale campaign. So between November 3 and January 1, we’re going to be working really diligently to get our transition team put in place, build our administration, and be ready to hit the ground on day one.
We’ll be putting forth some of the most progressive policies in the state of New York, including signing a tenants’ bill of rights and having strong renter protections in place. We’ll also be opening up financing to small hometown landlords to make repairs and begin to tackle our lead issues. We’ll also be addressing police accountability, making sure that we establish an independent civilian oversight board, so that we can begin to rebuild the trust between our police department and our community.
I know it’s no small sacrifice to devote your time and so much of your life to this movement, to go up against these big moneyed interests. Why is this important to you?
I have to do this. I must. I’ve lived in Buffalo my entire life, and I have seen the decline of certain neighborhoods while watching the building up of others. I cannot continue to watch people suffer. And this is a precedent-setting moment. Anyone who supports what we’re trying to do, I would encourage them to visit the website, donate, and volunteer. We take volunteers from all over the country — you can phone bank from Alaska. Get involved, and stay in touch with our campaign.