The two biggest cities on the shores of Lake Erie are now centers of political upheaval. For decades, Buffalo and Cleveland have suffered from widespread poverty and despair in the midst of urban decay. Today, the second-largest cities in New York and Ohio are battlegrounds between activists fighting for progressive change and establishment forces determined to prevent it.
For Buffalo's entrenched leaders, a shocking crisis arrived out of the blue on June 22 when socialist India Walton won the Democratic primary for mayor, handily defeating a 15-year incumbent Byron Brown, who has a deplorable track record. "I am a coalition builder," Walton said in her victory speech that night. But for the city's power brokers, she was a sudden disaster.
"This is organizing," Walton said as rejoicing supporters cheered. "When we organize, we win. Today is only the beginning. From the very start, I said this is not about making India Walton mayor of Buffalo — this is about building the infrastructure to challenge every damn seat. I'm talking about committee seats, school board, county council. 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."
To the people running City Hall, the 38-year-old victor seemed to come out of nowhere. Actually, she came out of grassroots activism and a campaign that focused on key issues like food access, pandemic recovery, education, climate, housing and public safety. And for corporate elites accustomed to having their hands on Buffalo's levers of power, there would not be a GOP fallback. Brown had looked like such a shoo-in for a fifth term that no Republican even bothered to run, so Walton's name will be the only one on the November ballot.
Alarm sirens went off immediately after election night. The loudest and most prominent came from real estate developer Carl Paladino — whose estimated net worth is around $150 million —a strident Trump supporter and former Republican nominee for governor, who became notorious in 2016 for racist public comments about Michelle and Barack Obama. Walton's victory incensed Paladino, who has made it clear that he vastly preferred the Black incumbent to the Black challenger. "I will do everything I can to destroy [Walton's] candidacy," Paladino said, and he urged fellow business leaders in Buffalo to unite behind Brown as a write-in candidate.
In tacit alliance with Paladino — while keeping the affluent Republican businessman at arm's-length — Brown announced on Monday evening that he plans to mount a write-in campaign to stay in the mayor's office. Brown cited among his mayoral achievements "the fact that the tax rate in Buffalo is the lowest it's been in over 25 years." Then he began scare-mongering.
"I have also heard from voters that there is tremendous fear that has spread across this community," Brown said. "People are fearful about the future of our city. They are fearful about the future of their families. They are fearful about the future of their children. And they have said to me that they do not want a radical socialist occupying the mayor's office in Buffalo City Hall. You know, 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 it happen. It will not stand."
Such attacks, with their echoes of Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump, are likely to be at the core of Brown's strategy for winning the general election. But he'll have to do it in conflict with the formal apparatus of his party in Buffalo. After the write-in campaign announcement, the Erie County Democratic Party issued an unequivocal statement about India Walton, "to strongly affirm once again that we are with her, now and through the general election in the fall." It added: "Last Tuesday, India proved she has the message and the means to move and inspire the people of Buffalo. It was a historic moment in Western New York politics. The voters heard her message and embraced her vision for the city's future, and we look forward to working with her and her team to cross that final finish line on Nov. 2."
Two hundred miles away, in northeast Ohio, the clash between progressives and corporatists has been escalating for several months, ever since Rep. Marcia Fudge left a congressional seat vacant when she became President Biden's HUD secretary. Early voting begins next week, and the district is so heavily Democratic that the winner of the Aug. 3 primary is virtually certain to fill the vacancy this fall.
On Tuesday, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, went out of his way to make clear that he doesn't want the frontrunner in the race, progressive stalwart Nina Turner, to become a colleague in Congress. Though nominally endorsing Turner's main opponent, Shontel Brown, the clear underlying message was: Stop Turner.
Clyburn went beyond just making an endorsement. He provided some barbed innuendos in an interview with the New York Times, which reported comments that say something about Clyburn's self-conception but nothing much about Turner. "What I try to do is demonstrate by precept and example how we are to proceed as a party," he said. "When I spoke out against sloganeering, like 'Burn, baby, burn' in the 1960s and 'defund the police,' which I think is cutting the throats of the party, I know exactly where my constituents are. They are against that, and I'm against that."
In fact, Democrats are overwhelmingly in favor of programs being championed by Turner, none more notably than Medicare for All, a proposal that Clyburn and many of his big funders have worked hard to block. "Clyburn has vacuumed in more than $1 million from donors in the pharmaceutical industry — and he previously made headlines vilifying Medicare for All during the 2020 presidential primary," the Daily Poster pointed out on Wednesday.
The corporate money behind Clyburn is of a piece with the forces arrayed against Turner. What she calls "the commodification of health care" is a major reason.
In mid-June, Turner "launched her television spot entitled 'Worry,' in which she talks about how her family's struggle to pay health care bills led her to support Medicare for All," the Daily Poster reported. "The very next day, corporate lobbyists held a Washington fundraiser for Turner's primary opponent, Shontel Brown. Among those headlining the fundraiser was Jerome Murray — a registered lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers Association, which has been backing a nationwide campaign to reduce support for Medicare for All."
Whether Clyburn's endorsement will have a significant impact on Cleveland voters is hard to say, but it signaled that high-ranking Democrats are more determined than ever to keep Turner out of Congress if they possibly can. His move came two weeks after Hillary Clinton endorsed Brown, who has also received endorsements from the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Joyce Beatty, and House Democrats' chief deputy whip, Rep. Pete Aguilar. On the other hand, a dozen progressive members of the House have endorsed Turner, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna, Rashida Tlaib and Jamaal Bowman, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Carmen Yulín Cruz, the former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico — who, like Turner, was a national co-chair of Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign — is a strong supporter of Turner for Congress. This week, summing up the fierce opposition from power brokers who want to prevent a Turner victory, Cruz used words that equally apply to the powerful interests trying to prevent India Walton from becoming the next mayor of Buffalo: "They're afraid of a politician that can't be bought."