Politics

The U.S. Could Get Its First Major Socialist Mayor in Decades

The significance of tonight’s election in Buffalo, New York.

India Walton
Mayoral candidate India Walton holds a campaign event on Monday in Buffalo, New York. Reuters/Lindsay DeDario

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Back in the spring, Ross Barkan, a contributing writer for the Nation who reports on New York politics, was busy with the mayoral primary in New York City, when sources started coming to him and saying that there was this other race he should be paying attention to: the mayoral primary in Buffalo. Candidate India Walton, a democratic socialist and nurse, challenged Buffalo’s four-term incumbent mayor—and won the primary. Suddenly, the self-professed socialist was the candidate on the Democratic Party line. And she doesn’t sound like an old-school candidate by any means. Today is Election Day, but it remains to be seen whether India Walton can win over her party, or the general election. To zone in on what this race could mean for the future of municipal politics, I spoke with Barkan on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Before we really get into the mayoral race, I really want to talk about Buffalo as a place. What’s its economy like right now?

Ross Barkan: The economy has changed a lot. On one hand, it has diversified from its steel days: You’ve had a lot of real estate investment, development happening in the downtown area, on the waterfront area, office buildings, medical campuses, things like that. And you have a younger population that is infusing energy and money in tax dollars into the city. But the city is still brutally poor. It has a very high poverty rate, and the poorest residents of the city have remained quite poor. The “renaissance” in Buffalo has not really touched them.

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Buffalo is a city that is psychically and geographically divided. To the east is the poorer part of the city, the more Black and working-class part of the city, and the west is the more affluent part. You can move pretty easily among the sections, and you can quickly move from a place that looks like it has a lot of investment to one that looks quite weathered and poor.

Buffalo’s current mayor, Byron Brown, came up in politics in a traditional way: starting as a staffer for local legislators, becoming a state senator himself, eventually winning office as Buffalo’s first Black executive. He’s been mayor for more than 15 years and has argued he should stay in office because he’s overseen the city’s resurgence.

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Brown would point to the fact that Buffalo has added population and become a more dynamic city under his watch, and there’s no doubt Buffalo has reversed its historic narrative of decline. And that does matter. But he is someone who is very close to the real estate industry, who has refused repeatedly to raise property taxes. That means the city has remained unequal. When you talk about the revitalization, it’s for certain parts of the city—it has not touched everyone and it has not meant something to everyone.

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Brown’s time in office has also been marked by several investigations focused on City Hall and the mayor’s inner circle. Brown himself has never been charged with any crime, but this led some voters to question Brown’s leadership.

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The issue simply was that he never had a viable challenger. Politicians can survive for a long time through scandal and even through a general wearying of the electorate if no one else emerges to carry the torch and offer an alternative vision.

You’re painting this picture where there’s a guy who’s been in office for a long time who seems vulnerable and then this candidate, India Walton, shows up. Where did she come from?

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Walton has been a very prominent activist in the city. She led a land trust organization in Buffalo, acquiring property to preserve affordable housing—to ensure that rents aren’t hiked or that people who do live in these places can keep living there and also try to build housing. That’s been very central to her pitch, establishing more land trusts. And she often talks about how she represents the working class and poor Buffalo, because she was one of them. She has this inspiring backstory: She became a mother for the first time at 14 and struggled in high school. Her story has been very inspiring to people: someone who was able to come up from the bottom and become a prominent activist and leader in the community. In some ways, she’s been primed to be in a campaign like this one.

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This story came out in the Buffalo News that she was still occasionally gagging for DoorDash while she campaigned.

One problem in politics is that not enough working-class people run for office. Races are expensive, you have to know donors, or you have to already have organizational ties. Walton’s someone who is not wealthy at all. Do voters want to choose someone who’s an activist, who’s working-class or poor like themselves? Or do they want Byron Brown, who is very much the picture of a traditional executive?

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Is it worth talking about the primary election and who turned out for it, and how that tipped the scales for India Walton?

Brown barely campaigned. He took the election for granted. He didn’t fundraise. He didn’t even debate Walton. The primary turnout was low. If there’s a knock on Walton’s victory, it’s that not a lot of people voted. And you had a very low turnout in the working-class Black part of Buffalo—that side went for Brown. But a lot of voters didn’t come.

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That’s interesting because, a lot of the issues Walton’s talking about would, you’d think matter to the people in those communities.

Yes, and Walton comes from them. But this has been a long-standing issue for insurgent candidates, for leftist candidates in general: reaching poorer voters, reaching working-class Black voters in particular. A lot of these voters tend to be cautious. They tend either to be more moderate or simply more of the wait-and-see type. If you remember, Barack Obama himself had an issue with working-class Black voters until he proved he was a viable candidate.

By winning in Iowa.

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Yes. And then Obama was able to do better with the voters after winning. So for Walton, she very much has to prove herself, and her base in the primary did come from the more affluent parts of the city. Not the richest parts, not the old-line money, but a lot of the newer residents who have come in recent years, who have college degrees. Also, she did fairly well with the multiracial immigrant vote, a community that doesn’t yet vote in big numbers. So she was able to build a coalition around those kinds of voters.

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Can you describe how Brown responded when it became clear he hadn’t won the Democratic primary?

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Great rage, great indignation. And Brown did something deeply unusual, which was to say, Well, I lost the Democratic primary, but I’m going to keep running.

Walton had only won the primary by 1,500 votes. But the incumbent mayor could no longer run on the Democratic line. So he tried running as an independent, which was barred by a state court. Then, Brown decided to run a write-in campaign. And he is using all of his muscle as a machine politician to make it work.

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It’s a challenge that Walton has the Democratic line and Brown has nothing, but he is very well-known. He’s spending a lot of money. Republicans are helping him. Unions are helping him. The power elite of the city is helping him. He does have a working-class Black base, which he’s going to try to turn out. So there’s a lot working in his favor right now, even without the Democratic Party line.

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After ignoring India Walton in the primary, how did Brown pivot when it came to the general?

He pivoted in a very aggressive way. From a pure strategy standpoint. Brown did the right thing by going incredibly negative quickly: attacks that she’s unfit, that she’s had brushes with the law that she’s never held elected office, that she’s nothing like a politician and would screw up the city. They’ve attacked her very aggressively on being a socialist, and they’ve come very hard on “defund the police.”

I wonder if you look at how we got here in Buffalo with a major party candidate being a declared socialist: Was it a kind of a stars-were-aligned moment where you had a mayor who’d been in power for a really long time, was lazy in his primary election, and was maybe not paying attention to economic inequality in Buffalo? Or is there something larger here that might be a bit of a presaging of what might happen somewhere else?

It’s always hard to extrapolate from local situations to national situations. What I would say is that it’s always worth running campaigns like these. The Buffalo DSA organizers decided to take on Byron Brown—

Like, as a test?

As a test, as a way to try to win and build power. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t make the attempt. Bernie Sanders was not elected president, but he single-handedly revived the democratic socialist movement in America. DSA was a collection of baby boomers in little rooms, and now it’s an organization with almost a hundred thousand people. It will be a setback if Walton loses, in the sense that I think it’s going to be very dispiriting for activists and young people in Buffalo. At the same time, you can learn from your defeat and you can run candidates for other offices and you can regroup in another four years and try again.

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