India Walton loses bitter Buffalo race but progress in Rochester and Syracuse
India Walton, despite winning the Democratic primary election, failed to become mayor of Buffalo on Election Day because of a well-funded corporate campaign against her, aimed at her pro-socialist politics. Joshua Bessex|AP

Buffalo’s election for mayor provided the biggest setback for state progressives. The desperate and flush loser of the June primary, four-term incumbent Democrat Mayor Byron Brown, defeated India Walton, the Democratic Socialist primary winner. Walton won nearly 24,000 votes, or 41 percent, but “write in” won over 34,000 votes (about 59%). Nearly all write-in votes were for Brown. The primary witnessed the lowest turnout of Brown’s tenure, but the general election turnout was the largest since 2005.

Walton, once a nurse active in her union, had the primary endorsement of the Buffalo Federation of Teachers. The BFT pulled away in the general, as Walton, attempting to fix the local media smear campaign, made statements backing school choice, opening a side door to the charter school movement. Other labor support included only the New York State Nurses Association and Workers United, which represents food service workers. Campaign mailers without the union bug made matters worse.

Walton also had the support of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, and local grassroots activists. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, some other progressive voices, and the Erie County Democratic Party backed her.

The Working Families Party helped to staff Walton’s team, and it made over 300,000 phone calls and texts to voters. It also ran TV ads and sponsored a special day of action, bringing over 200 volunteers to canvass.

Given the current balance of forces, this remained a David versus Goliath battle. Explaining the difference between June and November, Walton said, “There was a lot of big money coming in,” and she correctly identified Brown’s collusion with “the Republicans and dark money to defeat a champion for the little guy.”

Brown lost the primary by repeating an earlier pattern. A powerful incumbent, often with labor and liberal organizational backing, but also supported by real estate and capitalist billionaires and millionaires, ignores a social democratic challenger. Don’t mention the opponent’s name, and refuse to debate him or her. Then, lose the primary by being outhustled in get-out-the-vote efforts in typically low-turnout contests.

However, Brown refused to accept the primary defeat as a general election loss. He raised nearly a million dollars in four months. It came from real estate, corporate, and development deep pockets. Republicans, independents, and the establishment Democrats allied against the socialist opponent. Brown nearly won a third party ballot designation, ruled favorably by U.S. District Court Judge John Sinatra, whose brother, Nick, is a real estate developer and big-time Brown donor.

That outrageous ruling was overturned, so Brown turned to his “Write Down Byron Brown” candidacy, distributing stamps to ensure voters would not misspell or write illegibly. (Valid write-in votes must be unambiguous and 100 percent accurate.)

Calling his victory “one of the greatest comeback stories in our history,” Brown had more labor assistance than Walton. Building trades unions favored the incumbent, whose cozy development ties have led to jobs for those organization’s memberships, though that development has been one-sided and has ignored the well being of the city’s poor. Brown was also endorsed by the Western New York AFL-CIO, Western New York Communications Workers of America Council, 1199 SEIU (Walton’s union), the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), and many law enforcement “unions.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul refused to support Walton. State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs also declined and made a clumsy analogy. He said the outsider Walton winning his party’s primary was akin to former KKK leader David Duke’s victory in the Louisiana GOP primary years ago. Nearly all progressives and some left analysts failed to correctly interpret his words and mistakenly claimed Jacobs was comparing Duke to Walton. That to the side: the analogy, from the view of establishment Democrats, is sound: social democrats and democratic socialists have a fundamentally different view from the mainstream Democratic Party, are often outsiders, and do seek to upend business as usual.

Local media played a critical role. Instead of Brown’s spotty record and Walton’s vision, most stories centered on Walton’s personal history, typical of lower paid members of the working class, often an oppressive routine of Black (but also poor white) workers. “Scandals” such as teen motherhood, minor food stamp fraud, insignificant back taxes owed of years past, unpaid parking tickets. These are problems that the better paid members of the working class, and more so professionals and truly middle-class folks, usually do not deal with. And the stories worked, as Walton’s unfavorable ratings increased as the campaign and the negative press rolled forward.

Fear won. The alarm of most voters who are ignorant of the socialist label and worry more about misinformation associated with it instead of the practical advantages it will bring to the working class and other working people. Panic, and missteps by the Walton campaign, inevitable from a first-time candidate who lacked a well developed base that seems necessary if the capitalists and real estate developers refuse to accept Democratic Party primary victories by the left wing of that Party.

Rochester

Malik Evans, the Democratic and WFP candidate for Mayor, was unopposed and will replace Lovely Warren, the city’s first African American woman mayor. Warren was hounded by finance and campaign law violations as well as covering up details about the death of Daniel Prude. Evans, who won the primary 66 to 34 percent against Warren, was backed by labor and progressive organizations with little dissent.

The City Council has four district and five at-large seats, but only the at-large seats were up this year. Three incumbents were re-elected. One, Miguel Melendez, Jr., was backed by the WFP and other progressive organizations. The two other seats were won by People’s Slate candidates Stanley Martin and Kim Smith, both of whom were also WFP-backed. The People’s Slate is an electoral outgrowth of local Black Lives Matters activists.

Martin said she feels “grounded and grateful” in the quest to transform “the current system and really reimagining what public safety looks like” as well as the goals of housing justice for all. The three progressives won the most votes, with six other candidates on the ballot.

Syracuse

Democrat Common Council member Khalid Bey fell far short in his bid to become the city’s first Black mayor. Incumbent Ben Walsh, an Independent, was reelected with 61 percent of the vote to Bey’s 27 percent and 12 percent won by Janet Burman, who ran on the Republican and Conservative party lines. Bey failed to win union and progressive endorsements. Indeed, President of the Common Council Helen Hudson, who was endorsed by the WFP and CSEA, backed Walsh in the contest.

Hudson’s seat was also up, and she won with conviction in this solidly Democratic blue city. Two At-Large seats were also contested. Winning the most votes were Rasheada Caldwell followed by Amir Gethers. Both were on the Democratic line and supported by the WFP. Democrats swept all five District seats. Two were contested and won by CSEA-endorsed candidates: Jen Schultz (District 1) and Patrick Hogan (District 2)

Caldwell, a political newcomer, lost her son to gun violence. No surprise that safety, safe housing, and the rights of youth were big issues for her. She said, youth “have to be at the table. If they’re not, how do we know what’s going on?”

Of the three Board of Education seats, Democrats also backed by the WFP won two: Cherylene (Twiggy) Billue and Karen Cordano. The third was won by Democrat Nyatwa Bullock.

Statewide Ballot Proposals

There were five statewide ballot proposals. Three of them dealt with voting and districting reform, all of which were favored by most democratic and progressive organizations. Number 1 would have frozen the number of state senators, included undocumented immigrants in the population count of legislative districts, and ended prison gerrymandering. (Prisoners are counted in the populations of where their prisons are located, thus boosting typically rural and mostly white areas.) It failed, 56 percent to 44 percent.

Proposal number 3 would have allowed the state legislature to pass a same-day voter registration law. That failed, 58 percent to 42 percent. Number 4 would have allowed the legislators to pass a no-excuse absentee voting law, and that also failed, 56 percent to 44 percent.

In New York City, labor unions and social change organizations formed an impressive coalition to push for those three proposals. But the Democratic Party did little, unlike the Conservative and Republican parties. The Conservatives spent $3 million on television and radio ads, arguing the proposals were comparable to Democratic Party corruption. Republicans sponsored a “Just Say No” tour and reached 40 counties in 10 days.

Proposal 2, which passed 69 to 31 percent, will amend the state constitution to establish the right to clean air and water. The fifth proposal passed 62 to 38 percent. It expands the number of cases that the NYC Civil Court can hear, from claims of the present level ($25,000) to a higher level ($50,000). Advocates hope this will take pressure off the state Supreme Court.


CONTRIBUTOR

Michael Arney
Michael Arney

Born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, Michael Arney moved to New York when he was a young adult. For twenty years he volunteered at his children’s schools. Besides being a regular platelet donor, he is active in the Working Families Party. Before that, he helped lead the Bronx Progressives, a local affiliate to the New York Political Action Network (Our Revolution).

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