India Walton, Buffalo's Black Socialist Mayor to Be, Is About to Make History

Walton, a longtime community organizer, won a stunning primary victory over the Democratic incumbent in Buffalo, New York where she’s poised to usher in a new era of municipal socialism.

Nick Vachon

INDIA WALTON / FACEBOOK

In Tuesday’s election, nurse, community organizer and democratic socialist India Walton pulled off a stunning upset in Buffalo, New York’s Democratic mayoral primary over four-time incumbent Byron Brown. 

If she wins the general election in the deep-blue city (as expected), Walton will become the first openly socialist mayor elected to lead an American city since Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s and the first socialist to govern a large American city since 1960, when Milwaukee mayor Frank Zeidler left office. Walton will make history in two other ways as well: she’ll be the first woman and the second African American to lead the city of Buffalo.

Though the result didn’t become official until Wednesday, Walton’s supporters were already celebrating her victory on Tuesday night at the Poize Restaurant & Lounge in Buffalo, greeting her with chants of Madam Mayor, Madam Mayor!” despite Brown’s refusal to concede. 

Asked by reporters on Tuesday night if she considers herself a socialist, Walton laughed and replied Oh, absolutely. The entire intent of this campaign is to draw down power and resources to the ground level and into the hands of the people.”

During the campaign, Walton pitched herself as an outsider and ran on a progressive agenda — reducing the police budget, funding social services, fighting for tenants, securing economic relief for small business and designating Buffalo as a sanctuary city for immigrants. The approach was similar to those of other left challengers who have delivered major upsets to the establishment, such as Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D‑N.Y.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) who both took on New York City’s powerful Democratic machine. Endorsements from such groups as the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party (WFP), the latter of which had endorsed Brown in earlier elections, provided momentum and fundraising muscle — the WFP claims to have raised more than $140,000 for Walton.

Brown, who declined to debate Walton despite appearing in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s news conferences more often than any other elected official, ran what Buffalo’s Investigative Post called a non-campaign,” barely fundraising and only buying television and radio spots at the end of May, three weeks before election day.

Walton launched her grassroots campaign in December after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, where she became well-known for her bullhorn and consistent leadership. One of the most infamous instances of police brutality from that summer was captured in Buffalo when a 40 second clip of 75-year-old Martin Gugino being shoved to the ground by riot police went viral. Gugino, who was hospitalized for four weeks with a fractured skull and a concussion, appeared with Walton at several events throughout her campaign and was seen celebrating her victory at the Poize club on Tuesday night.

Before becoming mayor, Walton was a founder and the executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, a Buffalo organization that buys vacant lots and derelict buildings, develops them, and sells them at low cost to people in need of housing. Her background in local community organizing, including leading criminal justice reform efforts, marijuana legalization, and drug policy reform, as well as her hardscrabble origin story — a mom at age 14, she got her GED while pregnant with twins, became an intensive care nurse, and then an SEIU organizer — helped her capitalize on the dissatisfaction many Buffalonians felt towards their mayor. In 2019, Brown’s city hall offices were raided by the FBI in the course of an investigation into the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, a now-defunct housing development organization that Brown chaired, and in 2020 he faced heavy criticism for the intensity and violence with which the Buffalo Police Department responded to the protests over the police murder of George Floyd.

Walton’s victory is the most recent installment in a long tradition of municipal socialist government. As mayor of Burlington, Bernie Sanders increased the city’s budget through a combination of higher taxes and better fiscal management to fix rundown streets and public infrastructure, fought for affordable housing, reclaimed the city’s blighted waterfront for public use, and in 1987 was named one of America’s best mayors by U.S. News & World Report. In Milwaukee, a string of three socialist mayors — Emil Seidel, Daniel W. Hoan and Frank Zeidler — raised the minimum wage for city employees, established now-basic public services like a fire department and a waste disposal system, and created a still-vibrant collection of public parks.

In his memoir, Seidel wrote of his time as a socialist mayor, We wanted our workers to have pure air, we wanted them to have sunshine, we wanted planned homes, we wanted living wages; we wanted recreation for young and old; we wanted vocational education; we wanted a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness.”

On Tuesday night, Walton offered her own rejoinder that echoed Seidel’s words: For too long, we’ve seen our city work for politicians, for developers, for the police union, but not for ordinary working families. In our city, everyone will have a seat at the table.”

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Nick Vachon is a writer based in New York. 

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