For decades, the city of Buffalo has been mocked as a lovable loser. Defined by dismal winter weather, a deteriorating Rust Belt economy, a declining population, and the Buffalo Bills improbably losing in the Super Bowl for four consecutive years in the nineties, New York’s second-largest city is used to hard times. In 1990, during a halftime segment of Monday Night Football, Jerry Van Dyke, who starred in the hit television series “Coach,” riled up all of western New York when he said that the final score of a game between the Bills and the New York Jets didn’t matter because “even if you win, you lose. . . . You still have to go home to Buffalo.”
In the past year, Buffalo has been back in the national spotlight for two disparate but connected reasons. The first came in the summer of 2020, during a Black Lives Matter protest, when reporters captured footage of a seventy-five-year-old man named Martin Gugino speaking heatedly to police. Apparently provoked by Gugino’s remarks, an officer shoved him to the ground, cracking his skull and causing a brain injury that would leave him hospitalized for a month. Two officers were suspended with pay and charged with assault. As an act of protest against the punishment, fifty-seven of the city’s officers quit their assignments to a crowd-control unit.
Almost a year later, a local housing activist, India Walton, stunned Buffalo’s Democratic establishment by winning the mayoral primary, defeating the four-term incumbent, Byron Brown. The first African American mayor of the city, Brown has been a favorite of businesses and developers, presiding over a transformation of Buffalo’s downtown. Walton would be an unlikely successor. A Black woman who identifies as a democratic socialist, she became a mother at fourteen, as well as a high-school dropout and a welfare recipient. She survived sexual assault and domestic violence. Walton went on to become a nurse, but she left her profession to work as a community organizer. Even in the midst of a general election, she is outspoken about democratic socialism. She told me, “Socialism has been weaponized against the people it benefits the most—and we have bought into it. It is my job to change that narrative, to change the culture, and say that it is O.K.”
Under normal circumstances, in a liberal city, the winner of the Democratic primary wins the race. Republicans have such a marginal presence in Buffalo politics that they did not even bother to field a candidate this year. But these are hardly normal times. Instead of supporting his party’s nominee, Brown launched a write-in campaign for the general election. Drawing on hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from local business interests, he has tried many of the G.O.P.’s recent campaign tactics on Walton, raising fears about the Black Lives Matter movement’s platform and socialism. “I think people themselves are afraid of her,” he said of Walton, this summer. “They have heard her positions. She’s talked about cutting the police department, defunding the police department, at a time when crime is going up in communities all across the country, including here.” More recently, Brown warned voters, “With an unqualified, radical socialist, our community will only go backward . . . and we can’t allow that to happen.” Shortly before the election, the New York State Republican Party sent out mailers to thousands of voters on Brown’s behalf, urging them toward Brown as a last-ditch effort to “stop socialism in the City of Buffalo.” These tactics appear to be working—a recent poll showed Brown leading Walton by more than seventeen percentage points. Brown told me, “I think a Brown victory on Election Night will send a strong message to the far left that these are not positions that resonate with the majority of people in the Democratic Party or in the country.”
Lately, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing conflict within the Democratic Party in Washington, between those who embrace an aggressive brand of progressive politics and the centrist establishment. But the phenomenon is hardly limited to Congress. Across the old Rust Belt, from St. Louis to Pittsburgh and Buffalo to Detroit, you will find showy development and claims of downtown renaissances—alongside stifling poverty, a degraded public sector, and rampant police misconduct. Democrats have largely overseen these disasters, but for those who wish to challenge them the Democratic Party tends to be the only viable vehicle from which to do it.
In a place like Buffalo, this raises the question: What is the Democratic Party? Does it facilitate home demolitions or does it promise affordable housing and tenants’ rights? Does it mute criticisms of local police or does it stand with Black Lives Matter? On November 2nd, Walton, who has the support of prominent progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will be the only mayoral candidate on the city’s ballot. But Brown, who has the backing of powerful unions, including the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters, may well win the race by forming a coalition against the left flank of his own party. When I asked Brown what he would say to voters who supported Walton in the primary, saying that they wanted change in Buffalo, he replied, “I don’t think a lot of voters are saying that anymore.”
I was born in Buffalo in 1972, at the old Children’s Hospital on Bryant Street, near Elmwood Avenue. It now stands empty, waiting on a developer to turn it into condominiums. I spent most of my childhood in Dallas, but I returned to Buffalo in 1988, to finish high school. It was the first city I lived in where white poverty was visible, even when Black poverty was ubiquitous. When I graduated high school, in 1990, the average household income was twenty-four thousand dollars a year, about half the national average.
I went to Bennett High School, on Main Street, which functioned as a color line, separating the city’s almost all-Black East Side from its mostly white West Side. Integration was tough going. The students were mostly Black working-class kids, forging their political consciousnesses in the hostility of the late eighties, but I also shared classrooms with skinhead Nazis and punks with colorful mohawks and leather jackets. My white English teacher in my senior year changed my life for the better, but other teachers espoused shocking levels of racism. I remember when campus police escorted my classmate Yusef Jackson out of an American-history class, for daring to insist that he was tired of hearing about white people and wanted to learn about Black people. I was sent to detention for wearing a jacket inside the building, violating the dress code; there, I listened to a white man lecture the Black detainees that, if we didn’t change our behavior, we would end up on welfare and make nothing of our lives.
The mayor at the time was a conservative Democrat named Jimmy Griffin, a belligerent personality who was maybe most famous for telling city residents to grab a six-pack of beer to ride out a blizzard in 1985. Prior to Brown, he was the longest-reigning mayor in Buffalo history, winning four successive terms. Griffin is known for kick-starting the development of downtown Buffalo, but at the cost of largely ignoring the East Side. The host of a local Black radio station described Griffin as “a sharp politician. . . . He is also a callous and insensitive human being. He is a racist. He is anti-intellectual. He resents anybody who can conjugate a verb. He has a knack for bringing out the worst in people.”
Brown’s election, thirteen years after Griffin left office, was seen as a turning point in Buffalo politics. He was not the first African American to win the Democratic primary—two others had preceded him—but he was the first to win the general election, crashing through the racial ceiling, in 2005, with sixty-four per cent of the vote. He had come up through the ranks of local politics, serving on the Common Council, the city’s legislative branch, as a representative of the East Side neighborhood of Masten. It was not hard to sell Black Buffalonians on the idea that a Black mayor might care enough to attend to the needs of the East Side. But Brown’s business-oriented outlook eventually put him at odds with the interests of his political base. During his sixteen years in office, he has funnelled millions of public dollars into private development, which brought an influx of new residents to Buffalo and pushed the working poor to the margins of the city. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of college graduates in Buffalo between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four increased by thirty-four per cent, one of the highest rates in the country. They came mostly in search of cheaper rents, the possibility of homeownership, and a lower cost of living.
Today the Buffalo-Niagara region is among the most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States. An astonishing eighty-five per cent of Black Buffalo residents live east of Main Street. The city is the third-poorest in the U.S., with more than a third of the population living in poverty, including thirty-seven per cent of African Americans. For poor and working-class people, rising rents in gentrifying neighborhoods are creating a significant strain: more than half of residents are considered rent-burdened, doling out more than thirty per cent of their incomes to cover housing costs. Almost half of the children in the city are poor, the fourth-highest rate of any large city in the country. In 2014, fifty-four per cent of Black children in Buffalo lived beneath the poverty line.
The attack on Martin Gugino captured how the city’s spending priorities could contribute to political unrest. Gugino was attacked by a police force that has seen its budget increase by fifty-four per cent during Brown’s tenure. In 2012, Brown created a special police unit called Strike Force, which was unleashed in Black communities as a politicized crime-fighting venture. Like cops who display guns, drugs, and money on tables for the media, Brown brandished arrest statistics as a measure of his prowess. Two months after its creation, the mayor described the impact of Strike Force as “phenomenal”—a thousand arrests made, more than three hundred and fifty cars seized, and more than twenty-four hundred summonses issued. The unit was eventually disbanded, amid allegations that it engaged in racial discrimination, but it was indicative of Brown’s dual strategy of development: new buildings and amenities for mostly white neighborhoods, and fees and policing for the Black East Side. (A spokesman for the Brown campaign declined to comment on complaints about the Strike Force, citing pending litigation. In 2018, civil-rights groups sued the Buffalo Police Department, claiming that it had targeted people of color; at the time, Brown and the department denied the allegation.)
Days after her historic win in the Democratic Party primary, I went to Buffalo to meet Walton and members of her campaign, visiting her field office on Jefferson Avenue, a financially depressed business corridor that cuts through the heart of Black Buffalo. Walton’s office is wedged in between a car-detailing service, a hair salon, and a Caribbean restaurant with oversized smokers in the parking lot for jerk chicken. The neighborhood is a microcosm of the East Side: it’s more than eighty per cent Black, the median income is less than thirty thousand dollars a year, and more than eighty per cent of residents are employed. These are the working poor.
Walton’s journey into politics ran through these neighborhoods. Born on the East Side in 1982, she grew up in her mother’s house, along with five siblings. Walton’s mother was a pharmacy technician at the V.A. hospital in Buffalo; it was a stable job, but money was tight. Walton told me, “I always remember being on food stamps, being a little bit food insecure, having our gas shut off at times and having to warm water on a hot plate to take a bath.” At fourteen, she became pregnant. She entered a home for young mothers, dropped out of high school, and worked at Family Dollar and McDonald’s to support her son, who was born with sickle-cell anemia. “At least once a month, we were admitted to the hospital,” Walton said. “So it matured me really fast.”
By the time Walton was nineteen, she was in a steady relationship and pregnant with twins. It was a turning point in her life. She had a high-risk pregnancy; the twins were born four months early and spent six months in intensive care. She recalled that, at the hospital, she was told, “ ‘Your babies are not going to make it. And, even if they do, they’re not going to walk, they’re not going to talk. They’re going to be so severely disabled that you’re going to be their caretaker for the rest of their lives.’ And I said I didn’t care. That was up to God, and I wanted to see it through.” One day, she told a nurse whom she was close to that she didn’t like the way the others talked to her. She recalled that the nurse replied, “ ‘If you don’t like it, then go be a nurse.’ So I went to nursing school with the intention of coming back to work in the N.I.C.U.”
Walton married the twins’ father and, while her husband stayed home with their children, she completed her degree and landed her dream job of working in the Children’s Hospital. But she said that each of her accomplishments—from starting her nursing career to getting a driver’s license—inspired escalating violence from her husband. “He was very, very insecure,” she told me. “And, coupled with that, I lost a hundred pounds.” Walton was active in her union, and she began speaking on its behalf, including at a major rally in Washington, D.C., in support of birth-control rights. Walton’s husband saw her on MSNBC, she said, “and, I don’t know why it evoked so much anger in him, but he was in a rage. And he’s, like, ‘Who do you think you are? You need to get home—you aren’t at home taking care of your husband and your kids.’ ”
Walton had willed herself into a better life, but the ground she was standing on was fragile. In 2014, she said, her husband’s anger grew into physical violence. She moved out and was homeless for eight months, living out of her car and couch surfing while her husband remained with the kids. Walton said, “I thought he would be fine, but he wasn’t.” He refused to let her see her children until she agreed to return. “I made him promise that things would get better, that he wouldn’t hit me. He continued to do so,” she said. “Then, one day, he beat me up so badly that I decided I wasn’t ever going back.” She went to her mother’s house with her eldest son, staying there for several days. (Walton’s ex-husband—they have since divorced—did not respond to a request for comment. Walton’s mother, whom she confided in throughout her marriage, confirmed her account of the abuse.)
During this time, Walton was having difficulties with her co-workers. Two nurses posted messages on social media criticizing Walton and her work; one then filed a police report of harassment, claiming that Walton had responded to the criticisms by threatening to “take you out.” A court summons went to Walton’s husband’s house; she never received it, and the police put out a warrant for her arrest. She recalled arriving at the hospital one day and being met by police: “They take me from work to central booking, cut the strings out of my scrubs, take my shoelaces, make me squat and cough, and put me in a jail cell for about six hours, until I could go before the judge. And this white woman stood up and said that she was afraid of me, four-feet-eleven-inch-tall India.” (The Buffalo Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. The charges were ultimately dismissed.)
In 2015, Walton attempted to reconcile with her husband for the last time, moving with him and their children to a small frame house on Lemon Street, in an East Side neighborhood called the Fruit Belt. It was a fateful decision, putting her at the site of some of the city’s most intense conflicts over gentrification. The Fruit Belt, a majority-Black neighborhood since the nineteen-sixties, is shadowed by the massive Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a nine-million-square-foot complex built along Main Street by Byron Brown’s administration. Sixteen thousand people are either employed or studying at the campus; it includes the University of Buffalo’s medical school, the Children’s Hospital, and more than a hundred and fifty private companies.
Long before the campus was built, the Fruit Belt had been devastated by urban-renewal practices that relied on home destruction in the name of revitalization. But, more recently, pressure to expand the footprint of the B.N.M.C., which was seen as crucial to the region’s economic growth, has created new turmoil. Within its first five years, the Brown administration authorized an astonishing five thousand demolitions across the East Side, including hundreds in the Fruit Belt. Between 2010 and 2016, the area’s Black population fell, and its white population increased. Residents who had not attended or completed college moved away, while the number of residents with a college degree grew by a hundred and eight per cent.
Walton has described herself as a gentrifier: she was paying twelve hundred dollars a month in rent, four hundred dollars more than the median rent in the city. But she says that her circumstances allowed her to understand how the neighborhood was changing. She began attending meetings of the Community First Alliance, a coalition of grassroots groups that hoped to secure a deal with the city to protect Fruit Belt residents from gentrification. John Washington, who is now a volunteer for Walton’s campaign, first met her through the C.F.A. He recalled that her intensity at times rankled some within the group. Walton had “an ability to just to pop off in a way that was just so natural,” he said. “So it was like they were mad, but they couldn’t really stay mad, because somebody needed to do it.”
Fruit Belt activists were primarily concerned with the rising cost of housing, but residents were most motivated to fight for the return of their street parking. The medical-center garage charged hourly rates, which meant that much of the campus’s staff would circle the streets to find empty spots. Elderly people in the neighborhood, who rose early to run errands, would return home to find no parking spaces. In 2016, Walton staged a one-woman protest to dramatize the situation, blocking off a street with caution tape and refusing to let cars pass. The stunt worked, putting Walton in a position to negotiate directly with the city councilman who represents the Fruit Belt. That year, the state senate passed a law that reserved half the spaces in the neighborhood for residents through the use of parking permits.
Walton recalled thinking, “Being a nurse is great, but it’s not having the impact that I want to have. I have to work on policy.” Around that same time, Open Buffalo, one of the groups in the C.F.A., was hiring a community organizer to work on criminal-justice and police reform. This “wasn’t necessarily my wheelhouse,” Walton said, “but it was a place to start.” Walton got the job and worked on police accountability, bail reform, and a state campaign to legalize the use of marijuana. She described her move into community organizing as “so liberating”: among other things, it allowed her to delve more deeply into the problems of the Fruit Belt.
For years, neighborhood activists had been seeking a community-benefits agreement with the B.N.M.C. that would allow residents to tap into the economic potential of the campus, by creating job opportunities in the medical complex for residents and investing in low-income and affordable housing. But, by 2016, addressing the problem of affordable housing was urgent. During the past decade, the median gross rent in the area was estimated to have risen by forty per cent. Houses in the Fruit Belt were selling for three times the cost at which they had been assessed in 2007. Moreover, there were many vacant lots in the neighborhood, two hundred of them owned by the city. Residents feared that the lots would be sold to the highest bidders, driving up rents in the neighborhood even more and leading to their eventual displacement.
Recalling the words of one local organizer, Walton said, “We’re not going to benefit from a community-benefits agreement if we’ve been pushed out, right?” Their plans shifted from negotiating with the B.N.M.C. to demanding that the city transfer ownership of the vacant lots to a community land trust, which would issue ninety-nine-year leases on the properties, controlling who built on them and how much money they could make.
The plan raised questions among some Fruit Belt residents, especially those who hoped to one day own homes in the neighborhood. If the city sold the vacant lots, residents could conceivably buy them; if the land trust held the lots, they could build houses on them but would not own the land. “Some folks expressed concern about being second-class homeowners with the land trust,” Steve Peraza, a policy analyst who helped develop the land trust, told me. He described an intensive campaign to convince residents of the strategy, with cookouts, door-to-door canvassing, and teach-ins. Washington recalled, “From 2015 to 2018, we put signs on every single vacant lot in the Fruit Belt, saying ‘Land Trust,’ ” he told me. “We wanted to create a feeling that we own this place. Folks have spent years mowing the grass—they’ve been taking care of it, they’ve been maintaining it for forever, and we wanted to say that we have a moral right to this land.”
Washington said that this process was an education for Walton, who was accustomed to moving fast: “she had to slow down and meet folks where they were at, and she did.” In 2017, the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust was formed, with Walton as the executive director. The following year, the Buffalo Common Council agreed to transfer control of some fifty lots to the land trust over a period of five years. “For this area, we depend on outside developers to come in and do community development, but this is development that’s coming from the community and controlled by the community,” Walton said, at the time. “So it’s kind of a radical idea, but it’s also a great thing.” As if to dramatize the entire point of the campaign, that year, Walton’s landlord forced her out of her Lemon Street rental. She moved across Main Street, to the West Side.
On a walk through the Fruit Belt, Walton was anxious to show me two new homes on formerly vacant lots, built in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity. But, every few feet, residents stopped to congratulate her, offer suggestions for Buffalo, or ask for her help on a new program. One resident was armed with a manila folder containing his plan for development: training young men in carpentry. When asked for a moment of her time, she obliged but told him, “I’m not mayor yet!”
In Buffalo, as in many cities, the onset of the pandemic made mutual aid a necessity. Walton, as the leader of the community land trust, was at the center of those efforts in the Fruit Belt. She explained, “Our organization exists to build affordable housing, but our neighbors didn’t know who they could turn to in the pandemic. So they’re calling me: ‘My water’s turned off. Can you help me?’ ‘My refrigerator’s broke. Can you help me?’ ‘I don’t have any food. I know they’re giving away food, but I don’t have a car, can’t get there. Can you help me?’ ”
Walton reached out to friends from biking-activist organizations, who helped deliver food to residents of the Fruit Belt. She recalled, “The mayor’s solution to the pandemic was to put door hangers on doors, saying ‘Check on Your Neighbors.’ ” Comparing the city’s response to her own, she began to think seriously about running for mayor. Walton said, “Why not? I know I can do it. I was not relying on the city for funding my organization. I was not tied into the establishment in any way. The mayor, really—I mean, he can’t do anything to me to stop me from working. I’m a registered nurse. I can always go back to that if that’s what I have to do.”
If the Fruit Belt’s housing crisis catapulted Walton into community organizing, then last summer’s uprising confirmed her desire to run for office. Walton became a regular presence at nightly protests for police reform. “We were out there, hundreds in the street, just begging for someone to listen and act on some very reasonable requests. And we were just straight-up ignored,” she said. Brown announced an executive order on police reform, including enhanced training on the constitutional rights of citizens stopped by police, ending enforcement of marijuana laws for fewer than two ounces, and issuing more tickets, instead of arrests, for nonviolent offenses. But the package fell far short of activists’ requests. Tanvier Peart, who works with Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo think tank, said, of Brown’s efforts, “At a time when people are looking for transformational change, reforms that keep police in schools and take incremental steps to create law-enforcement accountability barely move the needle.”
In Buffalo, the protests helped put activists and the newly initiated in touch with one another. Victoria Misuraca, a white local business owner who later became one of Walton’s first campaign volunteers, described how the uprising propelled her into action. Her six-year-old saw Martin Gugino pushed by the police on the news, she said. She began attending protests and concluded “that our city government, our elected officials, were not listening to the concerns of the citizens and were not taking really meaningful steps to address the problems and to make the changes necessary for a more just city.” Misuraca became one of the founding members of a group called the Buffalo Citizens for Council Accountability, “which was basically just keeping tabs on the council members and accounting for what they were doing and how they’re responding to the constituents’ concerns. Fifteen of us met each other in person for the first time in Bidwell Park, with masks. And that was when I met India.”
In November of 2020, Walton declared her intention to run for mayor. “My mind is made up,” she told a Buffalo News reporter. “It’s time for new leadership. It’s time for a person of the people.” The campaign launched in December, with an online event and an all-volunteer staff. “We knew from the very beginning that we weren’t going to have a lot of local support to begin with,” Walton told me. “We always knew that it was going to have to be, if not a statewide conversation, then a nationwide conversation. The strategy was always to get national attention.” To that end, Walton won the endorsements of Bernie Sanders’s political-action committee and the Democratic Socialists of America. But she also had enough connections in the local Working Families Party that, as she put it, “we could organize that crew.”
Since the Western New York Working Families Party was created, in 1998, it had endorsed Brown for every political office he ran for. But, last February, the Party broke with Brown, throwing its support behind Walton. Louisa Fletcher-Pacheco, the chair of the Western New York chapter, said that there were tensions within the group about which candidate to endorse, but the events of 2020 ultimately swung them toward Walton. “The murder of Floyd made people feel powerless, and people wanted change,” she said. “India had been in the streets. She had talked about co-governance and mutual aid.”
The endorsement changed the fortunes of Walton’s campaign, infusing it with political expertise and cash. More money allowed for Walton to air a campaign commercial, signalling to the public that she was a serious candidate they could vote for. Walton also earned the endorsement of the local Black newspaper, the Challenger, which declared, “We endorse India Walton in her noble quest, based on the strength that she dared to step to the plate to give voters a choice.” And, with just weeks to go in the primary, the Buffalo Teachers Federation, with its thirty-eight hundred members, backed Walton. The president of the union, Philip Rumore, said that the Brown administration had not increased funding for Buffalo Public Schools in about four years.
My father, Henry Louis Taylor, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has been at the university since 1987, and is a keen observer of the overlap of politics and development in the city. He voted for Walton in the primary, not believing that she would win but because he was impressed by her campaign. He told me, “I along with, I think, a lot of other people thought she was going to do what everybody else had done—you know, try to run a campaign on bubblegum and shoestrings and surround herself with a bunch of people with no good ideas. I mean, I’ve seen that movie before. Byron is seeing a movie he thought he’d seen before, too. But this was new.” He added, “You had a sense there was something in the air that says, you know, something is happening.”
On June 22nd, India Walton pulled off what had seemed impossible, beating Byron Brown to win the Democratic Party primary. Walton defeated Brown by four percentage points, winning fifty per cent of the vote. According to an election analysis by Russell Weaver, Walton dominated among renters and young people, winning fifty-six per cent of Gen Z voters, eighty-two per cent of millennials, and seventy-six per cent of Gen X voters. She also won the majority of districts on the West Side, including the neighborhoods that have benefitted most from Brown’s development efforts. One business owner told the Buffalo News, “Buffalo is much better than it was 16 years ago for me and a lot of people I know. . . . That can’t be said for everyone. . . . So here we are. I’m rooting for India Walton.” In the white, middle-class Delaware and Niagara Districts, Walton won by twenty-eight and forty-five percentage points, respectively.
Brown received fewer votes than he had in any previous primary. In Masten, the district that Brown represented on the Common Council, turnout dropped by more than a third from 2017. Still, Brown won Masten and most of the neighborhoods on the Black East Side. “For many of these folks, they are comfortable with what they know and are used to,” the Reverend George Nicholas, the pastor at Masten’s Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, told me. “Brown speaks their language, and he’s done a good job of hiring Black people in positions in city government.” Even when Brown didn’t deliver for the East Side, the community remained loyal to him, “because, prior to now, the opposition was always coming from whites in South Buffalo, and there was no way we were giving City Hall back to those white boys,” Nicholas said. “So you get used to the status quo.” Such a position can hardly be dismissed as cynicism; instead, it is hard-earned realism, developed over years of institutional neglect. This is the sticky inheritance potentially bequeathed to Walton.
For almost the entire primary campaign, Brown did not acknowledge in any serious way that Walton was running, refusing to debate her and, in caustic commentary after his defeat, declining to say her name. He went on to sue the state to have his name added to the ballot, claiming that a June deadline was invalid, but after two appeals-court rulings he was out of luck. He will now have to rely on the Buffalo public to write his name in. Successful write-in candidates are rare, but Brown has the benefit of powerful supporters. The family of Jeremy Jacobs, a billionaire businessman and Trump donor with corporate ties to the city, contributed nearly thirty thousand dollars to Brown in the week before the primary. The statewide lobby for the real-estate industry has spent more than three hundred thousand dollars in support of Brown’s campaign. In recent days, a conservative pac called Good Government for New York has spent thirty thousand dollars on anti-Walton mailers and phone calls to Buffalo voters. “This is a general election,” Brown told me. “My campaign has not coördinated with any outside groups—with any entities whatsoever—but we do want people who are eligible to vote in the November general election to vote for me as the most qualified and as the only qualified candidate running for this office.”
Walton also faces opposition within the Democratic Party, in some cases from the same people she would need to enact her political vision. Weeks after she won the primary, the Buffalo Common Council voted to “explore” replacing the elected office of mayor with a council-appointed city manager. Rasheed Wyatt, the council member who proposed the idea, claimed that it was intended to address the depth of poverty in the city. “I think it would be insane for us to continue with this same form of government that has not yielded the results that we would have thought,” Wyatt said. More recently, Jay Jacobs, the chair of the state Democratic Party—a post once held by Brown—compared Walton’s outsider candidacy to that of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. (Jacobs later apologized, but the comment forced New York’s most powerful Democratic officials to respond: within days, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand both endorsed Walton.)
Yet another obstacle for Walton’s campaign has been local reporting on her personal difficulties—in many cases, with the implication that they make her a lesser candidate. This summer, a conservative publication reported that Walton had once been “accused of welfare fraud, failed to pay her taxes, and was caught driving with a suspended license.” Public records showed that, in 2004, when Walton was twenty-one, with three young children, she was accused by Erie County of not accounting for additional income and receiving an “extra” two hundred and ninety-five dollars in food stamps. That same year, New York State issued a warrant to collect back taxes from Walton and her ex-husband, totalling seven hundred and forty-nine dollars. In 2014 and 2015, she was pulled over for driving on a suspended license because she had not paid for car insurance. She was also cited for the poor condition of the car she was driving.
More recently, the Buffalo News published a front-page story that captured why it is nearly impossible for an ordinary person, let alone a working-class Black woman, to run for public office. It featured an interview with Walton’s Lemon Street landlord, who said he had filed a police complaint and forced her to leave because he believed that a male friend of hers was dealing drugs from the house. Police reports showed no proof of his claim, and Walton strongly denied the allegation. She said that there was noise and chaos at the house because her husband had resumed his abuse, and that there were frequent visitors but they were friends of her teen-age sons. The article never questioned whether a landlord might harass a woman who, at the time, was one of the most prominent opponents of the city’s rising rents. It also devoted seven paragraphs to the criminal record of Walton’s male friend, impugning her by association.
When I was in Buffalo and some of these stories were surfacing, I asked Walton if she was fearful of their impact. She said that she was not: “I’ve been through almost every unfortunate experience you can think of. I’ve been in an abusive marriage. I’ve been raped. I’ve been hit by a car. I’ve given birth to babies. . . . And those types of experiences allow you to put things into perspective about what’s really important. So, unless someone is going to kill me, I’m going to keep fighting.” She said, “It is difficult to be running for office, let alone a woman with children or a woman who’s led a life where she wasn’t groomed to be in this position. You know, your everyday concerns don’t go away just because you’re running for office. You’re still worried about child care, you’re still worried about paying your bills, and now there’s this whole image you have to maintain.” Her campaign’s central proposition is that the hardships that have shaped much of her life give her the insight and the determination to help resolve them for others.
The allegations against Walton—“welfare fraud” and late taxes, along with the insinuation of drug dealing—are obvious dog whistles; they are also petty compared with the investigations into Brown’s administration. In 2017, a subpoena was issued to City Hall as part of an ongoing investigation into whether the administration demanded campaign contributions from companies in exchange for city contracts. (Brown has insisted that contracts “are competitively bid to get the best price and outcomes for city residents.”) In 2019, F.B.I. officials returned to Buffalo, along with investigators from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to seize files from the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, of which Brown is board chairman. Federal agents have not revealed what was behind the raid, but, in 2018, the Buffalo News uncovered that the agency spent more than four million dollars rehabilitating ten distressed housing units, only to sell the properties for roughly a million dollars. hud expressed “deep concern about whether these costs are reasonable for the returns they generate.” A more recent investigation found that, of the thirty-five million federal dollars that bura distributed during the past eight years, about twenty million went to Brown campaign contributors. (Brown said that “donating is absolutely not a condition” of receiving public funds.) After that latest raid, Brown was asked about the scandals surrounding his administration. He replied, “I’m still here, right? I’ve been here for fifteen years. So I would say there are no scandals.”
If Walton manages to defeat Brown in the general election, she will face a further challenge: reconciling her campaign promises to the political realities of Buffalo. Reforming the Buffalo Police Department has been a centerpiece of Walton’s agenda, but the department’s contract with the city will complicate her efforts. This summer, John Evans, the president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, pointed out the ways that policing has been made impervious to reform initiatives. “Once she gets in place, she may realize that a lot of things she maybe ran on or hoped to do aren’t attainable,” Evans said. He mentioned Walton’s plan for an independent police oversight board with subpoena power, and her desire to mandate unpaid leave for cops who are under investigation for brutality; Evans clarified that “state law mandates that the officers are paid after thirty days.” (The Buffalo P.B.A. has made its preference in the mayoral race clear: it endorsed Brown, and, in an apparent violation of state law and the police department’s regulations, eighteen uniformed officers appeared in a Brown campaign ad.)
When we spoke, Walton told me, “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.” Such sober statements are meant to temper the wildest dreams of her supporters. They are also a pointed reminder of the difficulties that face the left as it gains political power.
I moved away from Buffalo for good in the summer of 1993. Within five years, most of my friends had left, too. It never seemed like a place you would stay if you had somewhere else you could go. That has changed recently, and not only because of a renaissance for upwardly mobile white residents. In Buffalo, there is a new belief that you can change a miserable status quo—and not just among activists. For the past two weeks, nurses and other workers at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo have been striking for better health-care coverage, safe staffing ratios, and more workers to relieve the strain of the pandemic. “There’s been a perception that we can’t have nice things in Buffalo, because for generations we’ve gone without them,” Seamus Gallivan, a spokesperson for Walton’s campaign, said. “We’re used to politics being sort of a dark and distant thing. There have been three mayors in Buffalo in my lifetime, and none of them are known for their accessibility.” But, today, it is a city where protest politics have come alive, creating an alternative to the local Democratic machine. And that is an outcome that seems likely to persist, regardless of what happens on November 2nd.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of several books, including “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” which was a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for history.
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