Buffalo Is About to Elect a Black Socialist Mayor

India Walton is former nurse and union representative.
June 23, 2021, 4:45pm
​India Walton
India Walton (India Walton Campaign)

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Buffalo is poised to become the largest American city with a socialist mayor in a generation, as a 38-year-old former nurse and SEIU union representative appeared to defeat the city’s longtime incumbent in a massive Democratic primary upset Tuesday night.

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India Walton led four-term Mayor Byron Brown Tuesday by seven points, or a little more than 1,500 votes, according to the unofficial results. Though Brown told supporters Tuesday that the race was “too tight to call now” and vowed to continue until all absentee ballots are counted, the Associated Press called the race on Wednesday morning.

Walton’s victory represents the biggest win for the socialist left at the municipal level in decades. The last socialist mayor of a major American city was former Milwaukee Mayor Frank P. Ziedler, according to the New Republic, and he left office in 1960. 

And on a night where conservative Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams claimed an early lead in the race to succeed Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City, Walton’s victory served as a counterweight to the argument that a recent progressive wave sweeping municipal offices is dying down.

 Walton had been backed by the Working Families Party and Democratic Socialists of America, and ran on a platform of implementing rent control and “fully fund[ing] our community,” including mental health services, as opposed to defunding the police. She came into the race as a heavy underdog against Brown, who is not only the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history but also a top ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a former state Senator, and former chairman of the New York State Democratic Party. He was also once considered for an appointment to the U.S. Senate.

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But Brown had faced criticism over his handling of the George Floyd protests last year, including when Buffalo police shoved an elderly man to the ground and put him in the hospital. Brown hadn’t campaigned much for most of the year, but last week, in a sign he was in trouble, a group of more than three dozen donors flooded his campaign with nearly $120,000 in donations, according to the Investigative Post

Still, Walton’s own family seemed shocked at her victory. 

“Mommy, I won!” she told her mother in a phone call caught on video by the Buffalo News. “Really?” her mother said incredulously. “Mommy, I’m the mayor of Buffalo,” she responded. “Well, not until January, but yeah. Like, yes.”

A broader progressive backlash to city establishments has ballooned over the past few years. Just this year St. Louis elected progressive Tishaura Jones mayor, and in May, two-term Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto lost a primary challenge from Pennsylvania state Rep. Ed Gainey.

But since Zeidler, who died in 2006, explicitly socialist mayors have been difficult to come by. Some of the more notable ones include Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, and his late father, the former mayor. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the two-time former presidential candidate, began his career in elected office as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. 

But a broader left-wing backlash to city establishments has ballooned this year. St. Louis elected progressive Tishaura Jones mayor this year. And in May, two-term Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto lost a primary challenge from Pennsylvania state Rep. Ed Gainey.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another socialist upstart who defeated an entrenched incumbent in New York, U.S., celebrated Walton’s apparent victory in a Tuesday night tweet.

Walton echoed Ocasio-Cortez in her victory speech. "This victory is ours. It is the first of many. If you are in an elected office right now, you are being put on notice,” Walton told supporters Tuesday night, describing her run as about “about building the infrastructure to challenge every damn seat.” 

“We are the workers. We do the work,” she said. “And we deserve a government that works with and for us.”