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Before giving her victory speech on Tuesday night, India Walton raised a fist in the air. “I hate to say I told you so,” she said.
Walton is a nurse, an organizer, and a nonprofit executive who received more than 50 percent of Tuesday’s vote in the Democratic primary for mayor of Buffalo, New York. She’s also a socialist, an abolitionist, and a member of the Buffalo chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Her opponent, Byron Brown, was an incumbent seeking a record fifth term backed by the local Democratic machine, the Buffalo News Editorial Board, the New York State Nurses Association, and the Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. He has not yet conceded. There is no Republican candidate in the race.
As the Democratic nominee in a heavily Democratic city without a Republican contender, Walton will all but definitely win Buffalo’s general mayoral election in November. A former member and representative for 1199 SEIU (the union that endorsed her opponent), and backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, and the Buffalo Teachers Federation, Walton will be the first mayor in the U.S. identifying as a socialist in more than half a century. She was born in Buffalo and moved to nearby Lackawanna at age 14, when she had her first child and moved out of her mother’s house to live in a group home for young mothers. At 19, she gave birth to premature twins, and she has said her poor treatment by medical professionals inspired her to become a nurse. Walton went on to work as an organizer and to co-found and lead a community land trust to create permanent affordable housing.
Walton’s is a major win for the progressive left, which struggled to coalesce behind one candidate in the New York City mayoral race. Walton ran on a community-centered approach to public safety that prioritized independent oversight of police, harm reduction, and restorative justice. She also focused on strengthening tenants’ rights; declaring Buffalo a sanctuary city and refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and prioritizing small, minority, and women-owned businesses for local contracts.
In an April interview with The Intercept, Walton said her campaign was “not hyperlocal,” as some may have assumed.
“A lot of these mid-sized cities sort of live in a bubble. We are a microcosm of what’s happening across the nation, but the story is often not told from our perspective,” she explained. “Because I came into this from the standpoint of an organizer and an activist, I knew that in order to take on the establishment, we were going to have to build some type of alternative infrastructure.”
According to Walton, however, that kind of organizing power hasn’t held sway in Buffalo and western New York for long. She said the area was “owned pretty much by the incumbent [mayor] and local major parties.”
Brown, the incumbent, seemed to think he could defeat Walton by ignoring her campaign. He refused to debate her a single time and outraised her by more than 2-to-1, with a campaign war chest of upward of half a million dollars to Walton’s $150,000. The incumbent’s haul was padded by last-minute contributions from wealthy donors.
But voters in Buffalo appeared to have wanted something different. The challenger’s funding included more than 2,800 individual contributions, averaging less than $50 each, and her campaign ran on the support of more than 400 volunteers through the local chapter of the Working Families Party. The WFP had endorsed Brown in previous elections, and when the group switched to Walton this time around, it was the first instance they had not backed an incumbent in Buffalo.
Buffalo was the site of major protests against police brutality last year after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and Walton made the issue of police accountability central to her campaign. During one protest, Buffalo police knocked a 75-year-old man to the ground and were caught on camera in a video that quickly went viral. Two of the officers involved were suspended; 57 of their colleagues resigned in protest of the suspension; and a grand jury voted to dismiss felony assault charges against the two offending officers in February. Buffalo has had a number of police shootings in recent years, although the number is lower than in other cities — but incidents of police brutality are not rare. While Walton acknowledges that crime in Buffalo is a concern for many, she emphasizes that many locals don’t necessarily believe that creating safer communities comes from giving more power to police. As right-wing outlets and law enforcement have pushed the narrative that progressives will pay for their efforts at criminal justice reform amid “soaring crime,” Democrats in Buffalo voted for the opposite.
Five years ago, Walton was working as a nurse and helped to administer a 2016 community policing survey in Buffalo that showed there was little trust between communities and police. Groups administering the survey proposed 32 policy recommendations to improve relationships with local police, including a body camera program and the collection of demographic data on stops and arrests. The findings, Walton has said, helped inform her community policing platform — and even Brown adopted some of them as part of his own agenda for police reform. Last August, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated that each locality adopt such an agenda by April 1 in order to receive state funding.
Policies like body camera use and demographic data collection represent relatively modest reforms — whose efficacy has been shown not to address the root causes of police brutality — but Walton herself identifies as an abolitionist. She left that stance out of her campaign platform, however, wary that the ideology was not yet ready to implement.
“I am an abolitionist. But I am also realistic enough to know that it can’t happen in one fell swoop. Because we have not built the infrastructure to maintain safety in our communities,” Walton told The Intercept. She acknowledged that her approach has earned criticism from the activist community, adding, “I do tend to be a bit more pragmatic in the way I view things. Governance means that sometimes you don’t always get to do what you believe.”
But in the long haul, Walton said, an abolitionist future “is ultimately the world that I envision for my children — where folks just care for and about one another, and we don’t need police.”