A Rust-Belt City Might Elect a Socialist

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S1: Back in the spring, Ross Barkan, who writes about New York politics, was busy covering the mayoral primary in New York City when sources started coming to him and saying, Listen, there is this other race. You really should be paying attention to the mayoral primary in Buffalo.

S2: What I was being told was, look, you know, this is an election where not a great number of people will vote, and also it’s one where a lot of people are tired of the incumbent and Buffalo is changing and Walton is representative of that change.

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S1: India Walton, is your Ross is referring to here a mayoral candidate who is a democratic socialist, a nurse, a teenage mother. She stands all of four foot 11. She was challenging Buffalo’s four term incumbent mayor in the Democratic primary. Did you anticipate that Buffalo would be looking at potentially electing a self-described socialist as mayor?

S2: No, I did not. And part of that is because of the nature of politics in Buffalo, where there isn’t really a lot of change. It’s a city that is heavily democratic, where the machines have traditionally been strong, where you have very little turnover in terms of who’s in power and who leads. And Buffalo has only had three mayors or so since the 1970s.

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S1: But then Walton won her primary.

S3: Just It Is Electric came here inside the India Walton campus.

S1: Suddenly, the socialist was actually the candidate on the Democratic Party line.

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S3: She is expected to take the podium any moment as a result.

S1: If you listen to what Walton had to say that night, there’s a giddiness you hear and a confidence as the results come in and the people all around her start shouting. She stands back and she just beams.

S3: I hate to say I told you so.

S1: She just doesn’t sound like an old school candidate.

S3: This is the work of a well-meaning group of rebels and revolutionary.

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S1: But when Ross Barkan finally got to Buffalo to meet India Walton, he found her election night brashness was a pretty small part of her story.

S2: She was as polished and as disciplined as as intelligent as any politician that I’ve interviewed.

S1: It sounds like she was really different from that person from election night who’s a little giddy, you know?

S2: Yes, she was not giddy. Not giddy at all. They don’t say that in a bad way. It’s not a knock on her, I think she she struck me as someone who’s very disciplined as someone who thinks through her answers. She she was very controlled. You know, she’s very grimly determined to win. And you need that.

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S1: Today on the show, it’s Election Day, so we’re going to zoom in on one race and one grimly determined candidate, she may have won the primary, but it remains to be seen whether India Walton can win over her party or the general election. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Before we really get into the mayoral race, I really want to talk about Buffalo as a place. And you’ve said it was sort of primed potentially for some kind of change and I want to talk about why. Like, what had Buffalo been 20 years ago and how is that different from what Buffalo is now? Hmm.

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S2: Well, you have to go back more than 20 years, Buffalo, at one time in the first half of the 20th century, was a premier American city

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S4: at this industrial lake. Many important land and water routes cross.

S2: You’re talking about a city that was once the eighth largest America

S1: centre of commerce. Like just steel production.

S2: Yes.

S4: You know, the Buffalo provide part of this deal, which is a basic material for our country’s industry.

S2: Bethlehem Steel was in Buffalo Car Manufacturing. You had a major shipping industry in Buffalo off of Lake Erie.

S4: Buffalo’s grain elevators and flour mills are the biggest in the world.

S2: You’re talking about a place that was really at the center of American commerce, and like a lot of industrial northern cities, it suffered horribly from the closure of industries and the trend toward globalization. By the 70s and 80s, you saw a lot of heavy industries downsizing, leaving northern states, leaving the country altogether, and Buffalo’s nadir its lowest point was really around 1982. And that’s when Bethlehem Steel goes out. And that was, you know, traumatic for a city to lose and an employer. And you can imagine 20000 thousand people working for Bethlehem Steel. And all of them were a lot of them were unionized and were making good money and were supporting families that way.

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S1: What’s the economy of Buffalo like now?

S2: The economy has changed a lot. On one hand, it has diversified. You’ve had a lot of real estate investment. You’ve got a lot of development happening in the downtown area and the waterfront area. A lot of 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 and this is a big 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, and the renaissance in Buffalo is not really touch them. 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. It’s the West is the more affluent part, and you can move pretty easily among the sections. And that’s not a very large city, but you do see the difference 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.

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S1: Buffalo’s current mayor, Byron Brown. He came up in politics in a pretty 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 he’s argued he should stay in office because he’s overseen the city’s resurgence.

S2: 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 the narrative of decline, and that does matter.

S5: Our goal is to make downtown Buffalo one of the most attractive places to live, work, play and visit in all of the state of New York. Yes, we’re dreaming big. Yes, we’re being bold. And that’s the new buffalo.

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S2: It’s now a place where people actually want to move to, and Brown would say, You know, I, I have presided over this. I have presided over economic development. He is someone who is very close to the real estate industry. He is someone who has refused repeatedly to raise property taxes. And on one hand, you keep taxes low and keeps homeowners happy and keeps wealthier people happy. And perhaps that could feed some type of investment. On the other hand, it means the city has remained unequal. So when you talk about development in Buffalo, you talk about the revitalization. It’s for certain parts of the city and it has not touched everyone, and it has not meant something to everyone.

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S1: Brown’s time in office has been marked by several investigations focused on City Hall and the mayor’s inner circle. But Ross points out that in New York state, it’s pretty rare for a long term politician to avoid investigations altogether. Byron Brown himself has never been charged with any crime. In any case, for some voters, all this led them to question Brown’s leadership.

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S2: The issue simply was that he never had that 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 to offer an alternative vision.

S1: You’re kind of 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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S3: I know what we’re up against. This isn’t the first time I’ve been told what I can’t do. But when does that ever stop me? They said a teenage mother and a high school dropout. I wouldn’t amount to much. But here I am. I’m running for mayor of Buffalo because my story should not be exceptional.

S2: All of us deserve to thrive. One has been a very prominent activist in the city. She’s a former nurse. She led a land trust organization in Buffalo, the fruit belt, land trust and Fruit Belt, The Neighborhood There, and Land Trust, the organizations that acquire property to preserve affordable housing to to ensure that you know, rents are hiked or ensure that people who do live there can keep living there and also try to build housing. And she often talks about how she represents the working class and poor buffalo because she was one of them, and she has this inspiring backstory. She became a mother for the first time at 14 and that she was a teen mother who struggled in high school. Her story has been very inspiring people as someone who’s able to really come up from the bottom and become a prominent activist and leader in the community. And she’s been in some ways primed for a while to be in a campaign like this one.

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S1: I was struck by how quickly it became clear that she was not a normal Democratic candidate. Like, this story came out in the Buffalo News that she was still occasionally gigging for DoorDash while she campaigned?

S2: Yeah, she’s atypical in a lot of ways, and one problem in politics, as we know, is not enough working class people run for office that races are expensive. So that you have to know donors or you have to already have organizational ties and, you know, she’s someone who is not wealthy at all. And this cuts both ways, and on one hand, this makes her more relatable and shows she’s struggling through many of the same problems that the average person in Buffalo is struggling through. On the other hand, it’s a liability for her in that there are voters who in some ways want to look up to a politician who want to believe somehow they’re better than them. And that’s an interesting balancing act. We’re going to see how it plays out in the election. Where do voters want to choose someone who’s an activist who’s who’s working class or poor like themselves? Or do they want Byron Brown who is never seen without a suit and tie? You know, very much the picture of a traditional executive.

S1: How did this all play out in the primary? Did Byron Brown make much of having an opponent?

S2: No. Brown barely campaigned, and all sides admit Brown barely campaign. He took the election for granted. He was lazy. He didn’t fundraise. He didn’t even debate her. He he really took the Rose Garden strategy of not engaging with the opponent, pretending there was no race. And it backfired. He lost.

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S3: This is Buffalo and is not lost on me that we have a very entrenched Democratic Party. That have no interest in our type of politics.

S1: Is it worth talking about the primary election and who turned out for it and how that tipped the scales for India?

S2: Walton, the primary turnout was low. And you know, 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. And that that part of Buffalo went for Brown, but a lot of voters didn’t come,

S1: which is interesting because a lot of the issues that India Walton’s talking about, you would think would matter to the people in those communities.

S2: Yes, and Walton comes from them. But this has been a long standing issue for insurgent candidates, for leftist candidates in general, which is reaching poorer voters, reaching working class black voters in particular. And a lot of these voters tend to be cautious. They tend either to be more modern orientation or simply more of the wait and see type. If you even remember, Barack Obama himself had an issue with working class black voters until he proved he was a viable candidate

S1: by winning in Iowa.

S2: Yes, and then Obama was able to then do better with the voters after winning. So for Walton, she very much has to prove herself, and her base, certainly 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. And also she did fairly well with the multi multiracial immigrant vote. That’s also become a part of the city, but doesn’t yet vote in big numbers. So she was able to build a coalition around those kinds of voters, lose working class black voters and lose working class white voters and overcome brown.

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S1: Can you describe how Byron Brown responded when it became clear that he hadn’t won the Democratic primary that he just assumed? Of course, he would win

S2: great rage, great indignation, and Byron Brown did something remarkable and in deeply unusual, which was say, Well, no, I lost the Democratic primary, but I’m going to keep running.

S5: I have stayed out of the public spotlight for a few days because I wanted to hear from the people of Buffalo and the people of Buffalo are speaking loudly and clearly. I have literally heard

S1: them when we come back how Brown has stayed in the race. So back in June, after losing the Democratic primary to India, Walton Mary Byron Brown had a choice to make. How hard do I fight this thing? Walton had only won the primary by 1400 votes, but the mayor he could no longer run on the Democratic line. So first, he tried running as an independent. Ultimately, that got 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.

S2: It’s a challenge that Walton has the Democratic line. 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. 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

S1: and his signs are right down.

S2: Byron Brown Ross signs everywhere, right down Byron Brown.

S1: After ignoring India Walton in the primary. How did Brown pivot when it came to the general?

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S2: He pivoted in a very aggressive way, in a way you would counsel him to. From a pure strategy standpoint, Brown did the right thing, which is he went incredibly negative quickly, you know, attacks on her character and on, and that she’s unfit and that she’s had brushes with the law that you know, she’s never held elected office, that she’s nothing like a politician and she would screw up the city. They’ve attacked her very aggressively on being a socialist. And then Brown has just openly talked about how socialism is bad and not a fit for Buffalo. He’s going to defeat socialism, and they’ve come very hard and defund the police.

S5: If India Walton becomes mayor, 100 police officers would be fired, including me and me.

S3: All of us will lose our jobs.

S6: India war and plans to cut $7.5 million from the police department. That means firing one.

S1: Well, it’s interesting she’s been approached by like the Buffalo News asking about defund the police because she was very strongly in favor of defunding the police. You know, before she got into the general election at this point, and she’s talked about how, you know, I think we get caught up in negative terms and it’s not an effective way to communicate with people. And then she’s also made this comparison I thought was so wise where she talked about being a nurse. And she said, You know, when you’re a nurse, you have the language you use with other medical professionals and then you have the language you used with your patient. And progressives need to get better at using lay language with laypeople. And I just thought it was interesting because I’m not sure she’s wrong, but I haven’t seen a progressive, articulate it like that before.

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S2: I found that to be the most illuminating part of the interview I did with her, and I personally think she’s right that you as a as an activist, as a leftist, as someone who’s trying to win voters, you have to meet them where they are. And that doesn’t mean conceding necessarily on your issues, but it does mean knowing how to frame and talk about them because that is very important. It’s not something the Left likes to account for sometimes. There’s this energy in an activist movement, which can be helpful and hurtful, which is a level of not being apologetic and being unabashed about what you say. And that can work, but it also can alienate. And I think for Walton, she’s aware of that. And when she talks about using the lane language, you know, yes, you can’t use overly academic jargon heavy language in a lot of political settings, or you shouldn’t.

S1: It’s essentially conceding that when you’re running a campaign, you’re doing a marketing job, which is different than what you do once you’re in office. And I think that’s true.

S2: Yeah, you have to win. I mean, that’s the thing you have to win. You have to get there. And how do you win is right. The question is a lot of ways to win.

S1: Something that surprised me was how the Democratic establishment in New York responded to India Walton because while some of them have come out at this point to support her AOC, of course, but then also Chuck Schumer, others have been more hesitant. And in fact, the head of the Democratic Party made this really awful comparison when someone asked if they would endorse her. And he said, Well, if David Duke was running for mayor in Rochester as a Democrat, I wouldn’t have to endorse him.

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S6: Let’s let’s take a scenario very different where David Duke, you remember him, the grand wizard of the KKK. He moves to New York. He becomes a Democrat. He runs for mayor in the city of Rochester, which has a low primary turnout. And he wins the Democrat. Decline. I have to endorse David Duke. I don’t think so. Now, of course, indie rock isn’t in the same category. But it just it just leads you to that question is it a must? It’s not a must.

S1: Did that catch you off guard to the way the Democratic establishment struggled to come to terms with India Walton?

S2: It did in one hand because it’s rare. Usually, the primary winner is embraced to a great degree. Again, I think of AOC winning or and other members of the squad who won. And while a lot of people are upset, you know, the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, met with AOC after she won is very obvious and accepted, whereas this was very different, Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, who is from the Buffalo area. She is not endorsed in New York. The leader of the Democratic Party, as you said, Jay Jacobs made this heinous comparison, but basically, you know, saying, look, just because someone wins the primary doesn’t mean the party supports them. And then he used the example of David Duke, you know, which was nuts, but it showed kind of where they are, which is they don’t view what is legitimate.

S1: I wonder if you look at how we got here in Buffalo with the major party candidate, a declared socialist. And you think it was kind of a special 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. Plus, there were real issues of economic inequality in Buffalo that were asking to be addressed that he was maybe not paying as much attention to. Or whether you think there’s something larger here, that would be a lesson for other places where stars might not be aligned like that. But this might be a bit of a presaging of what might happen somewhere else.

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S2: So it’s hard to extrapolate from local situations to national situations. I’m always careful not to. What I would say is that it’s always worth running campaigns like these. I think it’s very good. The last DSA in Buffalo organizers decided to take on Byron Brown Lake as a test, as a test, as a way to try to win and build power. You don’t. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t make the attempt. If you don’t run against Byron Brown, if you don’t run against Joe Crowley, they persist and you don’t build political power and don’t inspire people. I mean, Bernie Sanders was not elected president, but he single handedly revived the democratic socialist movement in America. You know, DSA was a collection of baby boomers in little rooms, and now it’s an organization with almost a hundred thousand people. So you’ve got to make the attempt, and it will be a setback if Wall loses in the sense that I think it’s going to be very dispiriting for. Activists and young people in Buffalo, if Brown survives at the same time, they can learn for next time, you can learn from your defeat and you can keep running and you can run candidates for other offices and you can regroup in another four years and try again.

S1: Ross Barkan, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you for having me.

S1: Ross Barkan is a contributing writer to the nation. He also writes a column on national politics over at The Guardian, and he’s written this book, The Prince Andrew Cuomo Coronavirus and The Fall of New York, and that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad, Davis Land, Elaina Schwartz and Daniel Hewitt. We’re led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Go track me down on Twitter. Tell me how you voted, or just check out my favorite Halloween costumes. I retweeted some of those. All right, I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.