As results were tallied on Tuesday, it became clear that incumbent Buffalo, New York, Mayor Byron Brown’s campaign to restore himself to the mayoralty of Buffalo via a last-ditch write-in campaign had succeededIndia Walton, a democratic socialist and Democratic Party nominee, was defeated by Brown. Brown will now serve his fifth consecutive terms. Walton’s defeat comes as a major blow to many on the left who were heartened by the socialist woman of color’s ascendancy in an unlikely blue-collar city, as well as her espousal of policiesLike criminal legal reform, redistribution of wealth, and other core left ambitions.
Brown’s write-in campaign initially appeared quixotic: a grasp at retaining power by a jilted mayor who was felled by his own hubris. He didn’t debate Walton or run a significant campaign against her in the primary and dismissed her as a possible threat. Despite a slow start to write-in, Brown was able to build strong allies and gain momentum despite the slow start. to overcomeThe socialist Democratic nominee literally rubber-stampingHis return to office and his continued enforcement of neoliberal austerity, in a city marred with yawning racial/class inequalities.
All the stops
The forces against Walton were formidable. Businesses and local power brokers had an intrinsic motivation to keep Brown, who was already a strong supporter of their interests. a friend of real estate developmentHe is a key player in a well-established New York Democratic Party machine, previously headed by the now-deposed governor. Andrew Cuomo. Brown and his allies tapped into his deep donor networks. a friendly media establishment,A local elite who were “running around with their hair on fire,”The idea of a socialist executive made Brown panic. Brown was able chart a unorthodox path to victory with these powers behind him.
After Walton took an early lead in fundraising, Brown’s ability to mobilize his longstanding alliances with developers and the business elite meant that the leftist candidate’s head start was soon negatedBrown was granted a late advantage. Brown’s fundraising operation included the generous use of loopholes to obscure the fact that he was receiving contributions from real estate LLCsDespite campaign finance law. Corporate developmentInterests opened their coffers for him, Republicans also rushed to his aidIncludes arch-reactionary Carl Paladino,Real estate magnate and bigot known in the area. Brown saw no need to disavowAny of the foregoing may be deemed invalid. these compromised sources.
An early, coordinated wave of opposition drops in local media seemed calculated to stir up controversy around Walton’s “scandals,” which consisted of, at worst, minor peccadilloes. Later, Brown Attempted to use the courtsdespite months-long application, he allowed himself to run on a third party line. (The case was ruled by a judge who was the brother of a Brown donor, and real estate developer. Some members of Buffalo Common Council began to think about the possibility that Walton would win. doing away with the mayor’s office entirely, in favor of a “city manager” system.
These passionate measures show how threatened power and capital were by the prospect that a democratic socialist would be elected to an executive seat. While it was inevitable that Walton would be subject to an establishment reaction to her insurgent candidacy; however, it is surprising that entrenched interests managed bolster a write-in candidate over a Democratic nominee. Still, first-time candidate Walton’s campaign was not without strategic errors; she made missteps in messaging, occasionally faltered in her reaction to attacks and failed to establish some crucial vectors of support, particularly with labor.
There are lessons and portents for the left, as with any loss. Now that Walton’s upset has itself been upset, the tactic of a do-over write-in campaign to thwart a leftist challenge has been proven viable. Socialists will be concerned by the precedent set in this race. They have just been given another weapon in their permanent war against candidates who would pursue anything other that an uninterrupted flow of profit.
Party Abandonment, High-Profile Endorsements
It may be tempting to ascribe Walton’s loss to the general reluctance of the New York Democratic Party to back their own nominee. Gov. Kathy Hochul refused to endorse Gov. Jay Jacobs, the Chairman of the State Democratic Party, meanwhile, refused to endorse Kathy Hochul. made some revealing comments while justifying the party’s refusal to issue any support, comparing Walton’s surprise primary victory to a hypothetical campaign by former KKK leader David Duke. The tacit implication was that Walton’s platform was extreme, and comparably repugnant to Duke’s — a telling glimpse into just how averse people in power are to even the vaguest socialism.
But Walton — unlike Brown — was not bereft of party supporters in the mainstream, even if some offered their support reluctantly. Despite some initial hesitation, the local Erie County Democrats offered their support. did ultimately endorse Walton, and criticized Brown’s flirtation with the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, Walton was also supported by the Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer. Chairman Jacobs’s incendiary comments about Duke late in the race also backfiredHe was subject to harsh criticism for the gaffe. After initially doubling down, he apologized.
Despite his party status, Brown received little to no support from high-ranking officials. While some wanted to see the mayor reinstated, they weren’t likely to publicly condone Brown’s recalcitrant write in. Walton had figures like Rep. Alexandria OcasioCortez running for her, along with the endorsement from Senator Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth WarrenCynthia Nixon, actor, and others. Her loss cannot be entirely attributed to hesitance on the part of Democrats, though their withholding of the state party’s endorsement certainly distracted from campaigning.
Future left candidates could draw some conclusions. While media coverage is important, a candidate may be undercut if their on-the ground campaign architectures are not as vibrant. Walton was supported by many dedicated volunteers, such as the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America or community housing activists. In spite of the lack of progressive infrastructure, and the backing from institutional power brokers like organized labour, she was ultimately left in the race for executive office.
Bad-Faith Attacks & Messaging Stumbles
Early in the race, it was clear that Walton would be under siege from the media. There was a steady stream of anti-Walton news articles, and numerous opposition drops and unfriendly reporting relied on her past. to concoct “scandals” out of the troubles she had faced as a Black woman and parent on the lower end of the income scale — things like parking tickets, taxes underpaid by a few hundred dollars, and other attempts to make hay out of minor personal foibles. The narrative that emerged. in Buffalo News op-edsShe was unqualified to handle executive offices and could not be trusted, as was evident elsewhere. A lot of this was dependent on conjecture, stereotyping and innuendo.
Walton made unforced errors, however. Her assurances of friendliness to business interests and developers — likely intended to ease establishment concerns — distracted from the message that had initially buoyed her to a primary victory. Such declarations, along with some social media messaging, seemed calculated to soften her image as a “radical,” presumably to stave off media attacks and win over more liberals by tacking to the center.
These gestures at moderation may have done more harm that good; the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF), which backed Walton in the primary, declined to endorse the candidate in the general election. comments she made to business leaders indicating that she supported “school choice,” i.e., charter schools. Although Federation President Phil Rumore declined to elaborate on the local’s decision, it was Walton’s earlier assurances that she was opposed to charters that had helped secure BTF’s primary support. Another gaffe: a Walton campaign mailerBTF endorsement was prematurely promoted to constituents, when in reality the union had remained neutral. Other small mistakes accumulated; Walton demonstrated a lack of familiarity with the tax abatement programs she campaigned on opposing, and mistakenly construed Buffalo’s charter schools as for-profit.
Another possible contributing factor was a late-summer personnel shakeup: Walton brought in a new campaign managerNewly graduated from two New York City elections, but no prior experience in local Buffalo politics. The organization’s larger restructuring may have made it harder to establish solid foundations in post-primary messaging. Walton spent much of her time on the defensive? reassuring landlords and business ownersWhile separating herself from her initial positions like defunding the police.
The campaign may have been hampered by a sense of inevitability, characterizing Brown’s write-in as the doing of a “sore loser,” rather than a serious challenge — perhaps overconfident that victory was assured by virtue of the fact that Walton was the Democratic nominee. However, polling showed that Brown was still popular. a significant leadWalton, even though her campaign seemed to downplay the write-in effort.
Unions send a clear message
The support of unions might have been a factor in the post-election analysis. a critical hinge. Curiously though, Walton, despite her working class credentials and former union membership, received very little labor support. Worse, Walton mailers were not sent out with a union bug. They were printed by nonunion print shops. Union officials noticed?They were very disappointed. Major unions like the Service Employees International Union 1199 and Communications Workers of America District 1, both of which have shown willingness to work with progressives, declined to endorse Walton — even though she was once an 1199 member.
Although Walton wasn’t entirely without union backers, few, with the possible exception of the New York State Nurses’ Association, were significant political players in Western New York. Again, losing the support of the Buffalo Teachers’ Federation robbed Walton of her largest and most politically influential labor ally. Major unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and an affiliate of AFSCME, Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), fought for Brown and mobilized their members to support him in his write-in effort.
A complex collection of interests and factorsBrown had an advantage in union support, which may have tipped it in the favor of the dethroned Mayor. Some unions, especially those in the building trades, lean conservative, and have an interest in maintaining the high rates of development spurred by Brown’s tax abatements and real estate-friendly policy. Many significant unions seemed to hesitate over the summer, then either intervened on Brown’s behalf or sat out the race entirely.
As November approached Brown was armed with major union advocacies. looked to those backersTo distribute rubber stamps to facilitate voter write-ins, please contact us. To distribute the stamps to voters, CSEA and Transport Workers Union of America supporters were enlisted. The stamps, legal under New York election law, were a mundane but likely essential factor in overcoming Brown’s disadvantage as a write-in candidate. A member-tomember program was also supported by labor mobilization. as detailed in HuffPostThey urged their union members to support Brown.
Walton also missed potential benefits that could have been conferred by linking major issues, like tax abatements to the challenges faced key unions such as AFSCME. Buffalo’s financial woes have been exacerbated by expansive development and tax giveaways for developers, starving the city of resources needed to support an increasingly strained infrastructure and workforce. These issues directly affect municipal workers, but Walton, despite regularly speaking on tax abatements in her speeches, never seemed to make that connection.
Although some mistakes are to be expected from a first-time candidate (and it was always unlikely in any case that a majority of organized labor would support Walton), the resounding lack of labor support raises questions about Walton’s strategy. Her campaign failed to reach out to unions early enough, and this could have cost her other crucial opportunities. These mistakes could have been crucial factors in Brown’s unlikely ascent to power in a small city with a poor progressive infrastructure.
Lessons from the Left
Walton’s loss underscores a troubling pattern for democratic socialist insurgents: To this point, victory has most often proven viable in low-turnout primaries in solidly blue areas, against entrenched incumbents who decline to seriously campaign. These were the conditions in which Ocasio Cortez defeated Rep. Joe Crowley and Jamaal Bowman opposed Rep. Eliot Engels. These cases were a win for Ocasio-Cortez against Joe Crowley and Jamaal Bowman against Elit Engels. Brown has shown that Brown is the best candidate for defeat in a primary, gallant concession of November’s race is not an absolute necessity, and that an ascent to power can be continued unbroken — if they’re willing to run against their own party line.
Democratic socialists cannot compete on the same ground; any missteps will be seized upon and magnified. Leftist candidates already facing structural disadvantages are now facing another obstacle. With a newly viable pathway to November victory, incumbents — especially those with independent relationships and power networks that aren’t reliant on party power brokers — may now salivate at the chance of a second shot. The consequences could be severe for the left.
Socialists can learn from this painful loss one thing: national media attention and popular surrogates speaking on a candidate’s behalf are no substitute for robust campaign infrastructure and supportive local coalitions.Walton was honored with high-profile endorsements. She also received a late campaign visit from Representative Ocasio Cortez. But she was lacking the support of local institutions that had the trust of voters. In the end, local organization and power was more important than starpower. The national attention was too much and obscured the weaknesses in Buffalo.
More than any other recent loss by progressives, Walton’s brings with it a troubling set of implications, on top of the sting of dashed hopes. Similar to recent Recall processes are not being used in a truthful manner.To remove leftist officeholders, such as Kshama Seeant, Seattle City Council member, and Chesa Bodin San Francisco District Attorney. It appears that the write-in mechanism of ostensible democracy has been weaponized.The assumption that write ins are futile, futile, and a long shot has been discredited. Socialist candidates could find themselves in a bind with yet another tactic to be added to their formidable arsenal of capital and political power.
Walton’s loss means that the neoliberal project will continue in a city with deeply entrenched inequality, and that Brown’s machine will persist, at least for the time being, having survived its most critical challenge in decades. The dynamic of Buffalo’s supposed “redevelopment” — really, a hollow shell of expensive projects and tax giveaways that assured corporate profit and did less than nothing for the poor — now seems destined to continue, to the detriment of Buffalo’s people, particularly its people of color.
Though the Walton campaign’s own missteps may have damaged her chances, Brown’s glorious return is still a grim lesson about the lengths to which power will go to protect profit and capital. The world is now worse off because of the lack of democratic socialist governance in Buffalo.