Buffalo mayoral candidate says hardship prepared her for job

BUFFALO, N.Y. — If a majority of voters, along with the four-term incumbent, mostly ignored political newcomer India Walton’s campaign for mayor during the Democratic primary, they’re paying attention now.

After upsetting Byron Brown in the June race, a victory in November would put a self-described democratic socialist and, for the first time, a woman, at the helm of New York’s second-largest city.

Walton’s vault to the doorstep of City Hall may have seemed unlikely while growing up on Buffalo’s impoverished East side and becoming a mother at age 14.

There has been turmoil for the registered nurse and community activist, including financial challenges that she says are all too familiar to many would-be constituents in the Rust Belt city. All, she says, have helped prepare her for this moment.

“I believe that the people closest to the problem are also those closest to the solution,” she said.

Once home to a thriving manufacturing base that over time evaporated, along with nearly half the population, Buffalo’s story in more recent years has been about revival. The waterfront was transformed and old industrial buildings given new life as offices, restaurants and living spaces that appeal to young, educated newcomers.

But there remain residents and neighborhoods that feel passed by, and Walton says that while she is eager to work with long-time community and elected leaders, her success shows there is room to challenge the establishment.

“I think it’s important to note that the people of Buffalo are ready for progressive change,” she said. “We must work together to do what is best for our city. And also we are saying no more to the status quo.”

Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of socialist magazine Jacobin, said enthusiasm for Walton could suggest openings in similar cities nationwide.

“There’s some irony that you’re seeing a resurgence of socialism now when these cities are facing a lot of challenges,” Sunkara said, “and ordinary working-class residents are looking for answers and they’re looking for something different.”

Since shocking Brown in a low-key primary that about 80% of registered Democrats skipped, Walton has confronted questions about her past, revealing she was in an abusive marriage and is a survivor of domestic abuse. Her premature twins inspired her to get her GED and become a registered nurse in the same hospital where they were born.

While in her early 20s, she was accused by the Department of Social Services of food stamp fraud and made to repay a $295 overpayment. She and her ex-husband also were the subject of a $749 state tax lien, which included $562 in back taxes plus penalties, WKBW reported.

“We call it the ‘poor tax,’ right?” Walton told the station. “Late fees and fines that occur because of things that you are really unable to do because of your financial situation.”

She was arrested at the hospital where she worked in 2014 after missing a court appearance related to a coworker’s order of protection, The Buffalo News reported. Walton said the notice to appear had been mailed to her ex-husband’s home and that the violation eventually was dismissed.

Her most recent work has been to help establish and run a land trust to protect affordable housing in a neighborhood threatened with gentrification by the city’s expanding medical campus.

Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the Working Families Party, said Walton ran a campaign “rooted in her lived experience” that appealed to poor and working-class voters who felt slighted by the incumbent’s strategy of refusing to debate or seriously acknowledge his challengers.

Walton had 500 volunteers for a primary effort that was capped by nearly 19,000 phone calls the night before the June 22 vote.

Although she had considered running for state Assembly, Walton said she saw an opening to challenge Brown during Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Specifically, when cameras captured a young Black man throwing a burning basket through a Buffalo City Hall window, Brown, who like Walton is Black, publicly called him an “idiot.”

“Our mayor should have said, ‘This is a young person who was expressing their frustration. Let’s call them in and do some problem-solving together,'” Walton said, “and not disparage, dismiss and write off a young person who had some very valid concerns.”

Backed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation and Democratic Socialists of America, she favors removing police officers from most mental health and routine traffic calls and reallocating funding, but shies away from using the term defunding police.

After her primary showing, Walton fielded praise from other progressive lawmakers, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of New York City.

Brown is pursuing a rematch in November. In announcing his write-in campaign, he said city residents oppose having a “radical socialist” lead the city he has governed for 15 years.

But “we have enjoyed many things that could be considered socialism during the pandemic that helped us get through,” countered Walton, “the economic stimulus, free health care, SNAP benefits for families with children.”

“These are things that we all enjoy and appreciate and we’ve proven that it can happen,” she said. “We just need to scale up.”

Associated Press writer Marina Villeneuve contributed from Albany.