Last week, democratic socialist India Walton won the Democratic primary in Buffalo’s mayoral race. Socialists and progressives across the country celebrated Walton’s victory, which surprised many, as the former union nurse had never held political office when she defeated four-term incumbent Byron Brown.
The Buffalo mayor’s office has been occupied by a Democrat without exception since 1966. Usually, winning the Democratic Party primary seals the deal, with the general election passing by unnoticed. But Byron Brown, the city’s longest-serving mayor, is refusing to accept defeat.
Brown has now announced that he will run a write-in campaign against India Walton to preserve his office. The Left should take the challenge seriously, as Brown’s write-in campaign will have friends in high places, both within and beyond Buffalo city limits.
Walton’s primary victory is not contested, but the election was close. On election night, Walton had 11,132 votes compared to Brown’s 9,625. Absentee ballots counted over the next week broke heavily for Brown, leaving Walton with 11,637 votes and Brown with 10,627 — a spread of just over a thousand votes. Brown thinks he can win those votes back in a general election in November.
Pushing against the idea that voters rejected him and his centrist politics in favor of a democratic socialist agenda, Brown chalks his loss up to complacency and says he won’t make that mistake again. Instead, he will run a vigorous campaign for a fifth term, and he’ll reach out to a wide array of anti-socialist individuals and institutions for help.
Write-in campaigns are usually a lark and a fool’s errand, but victory with this strategy is not without precedent. In his announcement, Brown made reference to the successful write-in campaign of Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, who rebounded after defeat from a Tea Party challenger in 2010. He also mentioned former health care CEO Mike Duggan’s well-funded and successful 2013 write-in campaign for Detroit mayor.
In 2005, Michael Jarjura, the mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut, lost his Democratic primary and ran a write-in campaign that allowed him to stay in office. At the time, Jarjura said, “I think in a primary you are dealing with a very limited audience . . . the Democratic Party has shifted, I think wrongly, too far to the left, and that limited audience does not reflect the majority view of the people of the state of Connecticut. That was very evident in my election.” Brown is hoping the same will be true in Buffalo.
And Brown has a lot going for him. For one thing, he’ll be campaigning from the highly visible position of mayor for the next several months. For another, he is a well-connected Democrat who is supported by the statewide party establishment. He is a close ally, for example, of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who also chalked Brown’s loss up to low turnout rather than a changing political mood.
There are also plenty of Republican voters in Buffalo who would much prefer the law-and-order, pro-developer, business-friendly Brown over Walton, and who might be compelled to turn out for the general election. Republican organizations have indicated that they support Brown’s write-in campaign, with the chairman of the New York Republican Party saying, “A lot of people I know are strongly supporting him and urging him to carry on.”
Walton is a self-described democratic socialist who uses a language of working-class empowerment long missing from US politics. On election night, she declared, “All that we are doing in this moment is claiming what is rightfully ours. We are the workers. We do the work. And we deserve a government that works with and for us.” When asked if she was a democratic socialist, she said, “Oh, absolutely. The entire intent of this campaign is to draw down power and resources to the ground level, to the hands of the people.”
Her primary victory has alarmed various constituencies with an interest in tamping down the socialist electoral insurgency. These include Republicans like the prominent conservative pundit Bill Kristol, who publicly suggested that someone should mount a strong challenge to Walton in the general, and also establishment Democrats in New York, who are currently facing an onslaught of progressive and socialist electoral challenges from Congress to the state house.
Brown is already leaning on fear of socialism to drum up support for his rebound effort. In announcing his write-in campaign, he said, “We know the difference between socialism and democracy. We are going to fight for democracy in the city of Buffalo. The voters have said that they don’t want an unqualified, inexperienced, radical socialist trying to learn on the job on the backs of the residents of this community. We will not let that happen.”
Local media, meanwhile, are digging through India Walton’s past for anything that looks like dirt, including uncovering an allegation of “welfare fraud.” The case simply refers to an instance in which Walton, who was a poor, single mother in her early twenties on food stamps, failed to report a change in income and was mandated to pay a fine. Walton, not shy about her experience, called it a “poor tax.” But you can already see the shape of smears to come, meshing fears about radical socialism with stereotypes about welfare queens.
Another thing Brown has going for him is organized money. The city’s economic elite are on his side, as was evident in the last week of Brown’s campaign, when the mayor, likely spooked by internal polls that showed a strong performance from Walton, sprang into action and sent an SOS message to big donors.
In the week leading up to the election on June 22, the Investigative Post’s Geoff Kelly reports that Brown received over a hundred thousand dollars, including large sums from corporate interests and wealthy individuals — chief among them the regional chamber of commerce and several local billionaires — indicating an eagerness on the part of the ruling class to help Brown fend off Walton.
After Walton’s primary victory became apparent, local businessman Carl Paladino said that he would mount a write-in campaign if Brown did not. Presumably, Paladino, a Republican real estate mogul, is satisfied now that Brown has stepped up to the plate. And presumably, we can expect capitalists like Paladino to donate handsomely to keep Walton out of City Hall.
Brown’s write-in campaign is likely to see a large flood of donations from wealthy people and business interests in Buffalo — and, given the national media attention on Walton’s victory, probably beyond. As Walton herself said in an interview with Jacobin last month, “One of the largest challenges that we face is that we don’t have the matching funds that candidates receive in New York City. The incumbent has a million-dollar war chest. He’s going to outspend me.”
But Walton also told Jacobin that she believes working-class people and progressive and socialist political forces can unite “together in solidarity to overcome a lot of the challenges that pro-worker candidates are facing.” Solidarity paid off in June, and it can in November, too — that is, if socialists and progressives step up to defend Walton with a vigor and enthusiasm rivaling that of Brown’s ruling-class backers.
The Left should not consider Walton’s victory safe, and should instead make a concerted effort to rally to her defense. Otherwise, the forces of reaction might snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.