Buffalo Democrats are trying to stop socialist nominee India Walton by any means necessary

Democrats now consider dumping mayor's position, while incumbent stages write-in campaign against Black socialist

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published August 23, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)

India Walton (Alana Adetola Arts Photography)
India Walton (Alana Adetola Arts Photography)

The Buffalo Common Council, the all-Democratic legislative body for that city in western New York State, has voted to "explore" the possibility of eliminating the city's office of mayor. This comes less than two months after socialist candidate India Walton won a stunning primary upset over the incumbent Democratic mayor. Although members of the council have not specifically described the move as a way to prevent Walton from becoming mayor, the timing is noteworthy.

On June 23, Walton, a union organizer and activist, defeated four-term Mayor Byron Brown, the former chair of the New York Democratic Party and a longtime ally of outgoing Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In fact, Walton will be the only candidate on the ballot in November — Republicans have not won a mayoral race in Buffalo since the 1960s, and didn't even field a candidate this year. Walton appeared set to become the first self-identified socialist mayor of a major city in 60 years, at least until Brown launched a write-in campaign that may receive millions of dollars in support from developers. Now the city's lawmakers are considering abolishing the mayor's position entirely.

Buffalo lawmakers voted last month to study replacing the city's mayor with a city manager who would be selected by the nine-member council. Councilmember Rasheed Wyatt, who proposed the change, said the city manager would "carry out the will of the Council members." The vote set a 90-day deadline — which would fall two weeks before the mayoral election — to lay out the benefits and drawbacks of changing the city's governance structure. Wyatt argued at a council meeting in July that the city manager would not be "concerned about elections" and instead would focus on "outcomes for the people he reports to."

While about a dozen cities in New York have a city manager, only two function without a mayor: Batavia and Long Beach City. Both are much smaller than Buffalo, the second-largest city in the state after New York City.

The council vote was not without its detractors. Councilmember Christopher Scanlon opposed the measure, arguing that it would allow a bare majority of the nine elected legislators to decide who runs a city of more than 270,000.

"I'd rather have someone be appointed by thousands and tens of thousands of people than … five people," Scanlon said. "I think that, quite frankly, could lead to some nefarious behavior, where you only need five votes instead of tens of thousands."

Wyatt, who has frequently clashed with Brown, told the Buffalo News the move was in response to Mayor Brown and his predecessors, noting that over the last four decades the city's population had shrunk while poverty continued to rise. He also said the move was prompted by "backlash" he received from Brown's administration over Wyatt's opposition to the implementation of speed cameras in minority neighborhoods, which the council ultimately voted to remove over Brown's objections.

"We cannot continue to govern in that type of way where if you don't do what the mayor wants, he can attack you or not give you information," he told the outlet. "That is just not a good model and it's shown over the years, the decades, that model does not help the residents in the City of Buffalo, especially those who are poor."

Brown pushed back on Wyatt's characterization.

"Under the Brown Administration we have record economic development of well over $7 billion, the lowest tax rate in over 25 years, property values rising citywide, more than 2,100 units of affordable housing created, the largest spending on youth employment ever and the most diverse workforce in the history of Buffalo," he said in a statement to Salon. "The Mayor of Buffalo is the manager of the City."

But Wyatt's move could also serve to kneecap Walton, a self-described democratic socialist endorsed by the Working Families Party who spoke about her experience as a working-class teenage mother during a campaign focused on addressing poverty and racial inequities. Walton has called for expanding food access and affordable housing, investing in vulnerable communities, cracking down on polluters, investing in street improvements and overhauling the city's police department.

"The Common Council's recent inquiries confirm what we already knew: those committed to preserving the status quo would fight hard against the interests of working class Buffalonians," Walton said on Twitter. "But we will overcome & build a Buffalo with dignity for all. Together."

Walton's campaign did not respond to questions from Salon.

Some lawmakers expressed concerns that Wyatt's proposal would do little to help the city's residents. Councilmember Ulysees Wingo voted against the resolution over concerns that giving the council the power to select the city's executive would eliminate the balance of power.

"I'm not necessarily seeing how this would be any more equitable than what is already in place," he said.

It's not the first time that Buffalo lawmakers have considered such a power grab. Councilmember Joe Golombek said at a July meeting that the council had examined the idea more than a decade earlier and found that the city manager system has historically been a way for entrenched white politicians to retain power in the face of changing racial demographics.

Golombek said the idea had emerged in the early 20th century, "when there was a fear of people that were living in cities, people like us that are sitting here, Black people, ethnic people, etc. And the old white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ruling elite saw themselves losing power, and so there was an attempt to sort of corral government so that it wouldn't be power to the people any longer."

Wyatt did not respond to questions from Salon.

While the council is free to study the issue, actually changing the city charter to replace the mayor's position would require a citywide referendum, Shawn Donahue, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo, told Salon.

"If this were done, the office of mayor would be eliminated and a majority of the Common Council would be able to hire a city manager to oversee the day to day operations of the city," he said in an email. "One issue with this is that with no person elected citywide (all Common Council members come from individual districts), the manager could see his/her role as catering to the needs of the council members that hired them (and their districts), rather than the city as a whole. This could lead to a more unequal distribution of resources if a majority of the Common Council wanted to shift funds to their districts at the expense of the other Common Council members."

The more immediate threat to Walton's mayoral hopes is Brown, who has been mayor since 2006 and is now mounting a write-in campaign after railing against Walton as a "radical socialist" after losing the primary, claiming that "thousands" of his supporters want him to run again.

"People are fearful for the future of the city, people are fearful for the future of their families, people are fearful for the future of their children," Brown said in June, casting the choice between him and Walton as one of "socialism or democracy."

Walton called for Brown to step aside after his announcement. "We urge Brown to accept the will of the voters, end this futile campaign, and help us work towards a seamless transition," she said. "It would be a shame for Brown to ruin his legacy by partnering with right-wing real estate developers in this pointless effort. The people of Buffalo deserve so much better than this."

Brown's write-in campaign has attracted a number of Republican supporters, including Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, a former Tea Party-backed gubernatorial candidate who has come under fire for allegedly racist statements in the past. Paladino has tried to rally the city's business leaders behind Brown's candidacy and has railed against Walton's agenda.

"If I can help in an effort to take [Walton] down, I will," Paladino told reporters earlier this summer. "I will do everything I can to destroy her candidacy."

Brown said he was "grateful for and humbled by the widespread support" for his candidacy but insisted that "I did not seek – nor will I accept – support in any form, should I decide to pursue a write-in campaign, from Carl Paladino."

But Paladino, who was removed as a member of the Buffalo School Board in 2017, remains steadfast. "Walton has to be defeated," he said. "She's a nightmare for our city, the growth of our city."

Walton accused Paladino of "shamelessly smearing my name."

"The attacks have already come and people like Carl Paladino who have been long time supporters of the mayor we know are behind this," she told reporters after her primary win. "And I just hope that my supporters and my community will rally around me."

Walton also pushed back on the claims made by ropponents have made about her politics.

"I am a Democrat socialist. The first word in that is Democrat," she explained. "My policies are socialist policies. Many things that we enjoyed during the pandemic like our economic stimulus, like SNAP benefits for families with children, like free health care."

The attacks on Walton, however, may be working. A recent poll showed Brown leading Walton, 50% to 40%, and analysts have predicted that as much as $10 million could flow into the heated race. Brown has focused on outreach to the "business and development community who are wary of Walton's socialist philosophies" and may create a super PAC to help with his efforts, according to the Buffalo News.

"Money is flowing, and it will be a full court press," a business supporter who backs Brown told the outlet.

"I think that the conditions are such that [Brown] has a better chance than most of winning in a write-in campaign," Jacob Neiheisel, an election expert at the University of Buffalo, told Salon. "Whether he and his campaign are able to capitalize on those conditions, however, is an open question."

Walton has also had to fend off negative news reports after Brown "sounded a dog whistle for political operatives to pry into her past," according to Jim Heaney, editor of the nonprofit Buffalo news outlet the Investigative Post.

The Buffalo News reported last month that police in 2018 investigated a complaint that a man was selling drugs out of Walton's home. Police did not find any evidence that was the case. Walton told the outlet that she left the home after her landlord made the complaint but said she was unaware he had called the police.

"Absolutely not. I would never risk my children's lives, my freedom or my license as a registered nurse," Walton told the outlet, adding that "I'm an honest person and I want to do what's right."

Another report found that in 2003 Walton was ordered to pay back $295 worth of food stamps that she improperly received due to a delay in reporting her income and that a $749 state tax lien was filed against her and her ex-husband in 2008 due to unpaid income taxes.

Walton said the incidents were an example of a "poor tax" or fees and fines that "occur because of things that you are really unable to do because of your financial situation."

But those reports caused the Erie County Democratic Party to pull back its support for Walton's candidacy. Party chairman Jeremy Zellner had said after Walton's primary victory that she was "our candidate," but after the news reports emerged insisted that the committee had not "officially" endorsed her.

"We are not opposed, but if our party leadership has significant concerns, I will listen to them," Zellner told the Buffalo News. "Could this change? The answer is yes. Anything could change. We've asked her to be upfront with us ... but I don't know what else is out there."

The party disputed that it has waffled on its support.

"Our committee, under Chairman Zellner, fully supports Ms. Walton, and in fact will convene this Thursday to formally endorse her," Derek Murphy, a spokesperson for the Erie County Democrats, said in a statement to Salon.

Zellner, a longtime Brown ally, has drawn the scorn of leftist candidates before.

Former congressional candidate Nate McMurray called for Zellner to resign this summer, arguing that he has "used party resources and his role as chairman" to "attack progressive candidates who won unprecedented victories despite his opposition."

Zellner, who also serves as the county's Democratic elections commissioner, is now set to review a petition filed by Brown to have his name added to the ballot as an independent, which the Buffalo News editorial board described as a conflict of interest that is "impossible to ignore."

Walton has accused Zellner of using his dual role to undermine progressive candidates who run against the party's preferred picks and said he "obstructed" her candidacy throughout the primary by blocking her attempt to be placed on the ballot as a candidate of the Working Families Party. Zellner has denied that.

"He really doesn't want a fair, democratic election in Buffalo," Walton told New York Focus, adding, "I just wanted a fair shake."

Many progressive observers have linked Zellner and the Buffalo political machine to a nationwide effort by establishment Democrats to torpedo left-leaning candidates who have seen increased success in primary elections. Establishment Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Rep. Jim Clyburn recently teamed up with local Republicans to defeat Nina Turner, the former national co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, in an Ohio congressional primary. The Buffalo Republican Party is publicly considering backing Brown's effort to defeat Walton, which has also drawn the support of multiple Common Council members. Nearly a third of the signatures that Brown collected for his petition to make the ballot as a "Buffalo Party" candidate came from members of right-leaning parties, most of whom were out-of-town Republicans, according to WGRZ.

"His 'Buffalo Party' is just another attempt by an establishment politician to move right to fight the left," Walton said on Twitter, where she has repeatedly criticized Brown's attempt to overcome his primary loss, comparing him to Donald Trump.

"Brown has spent more time fighting to essentially overturn the results of an election he lost than he ever spent fighting big developers and real estate interests gentrifying our communities and displacing working class Buffalonians," she tweeted. "Our city deserves better than that."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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