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In Buffalo and After: Democratic Socialists Vs. Republican Democrats

India Walton won the support of Black Buffalo, and built a network that didn't exist before. The city's left is stronger as a result.

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Two weeks ago, with the final ballots counted in Buffalo's mayoral race, India Walton acknowledged her loss. She also looked ahead: "This election was not an end, but a beginning," she told reporters. "The new ideas we articulated, the new energy we inspired, the new volunteers we trained, and the new relationships we built will only grow in the coming years. This campaign planted many seeds. The blossoms are inevitable."

Walton's defeat was a bitter pill for supporters of her insurgent campaign. But if you'd told me 10 years ago that a socialist would run for mayor of Buffalo and get 41% of the vote—and that I'd be disappointed—well, both predictions would have been hard to believe.

Socialists are a new political force in New York elections, and one that's still growing. Winning a citywide race for mayor was beyond India Walton's reach this year, but let's look at some of what the Walton campaign did accomplish. 

Though it's gotten little media attention, India Walton decisively won the support of Black Buffalo. Emerson College's Oct. 26 poll found that she led among Black voters by 54% to 36%, and election results lined up with that (see map). In districts Walton won, the population is 51% Black, 25% white, geographer Russell Weaver reports.

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[map at right via Russell Weaver; map at left via Taylor Lundeen]

Walton even beat Byron Brown in Masten, the 80% Black neighborhood that's been his traditional home base. Walton's grassroots campaign generally ran strong in poor and working-class communities of color, as well as with young voters and in racially mixed neighborhoods. 

India Walton set out to provide a voice for Buffalonians who'd lost the most in the city's corporate-centered development, and they responded. Socialists and their allies will have to deepen that base, and expand on it, to win citywide contests in Buffalo's future. But the Walton campaign built a network that didn't exist before, and the city's left is stronger as a result.

In contrast, Byron Brown's victory began with the support of wealthy developers, which was key to mounting a viable write-in campaign. Buffalo's Investigative Post reported donations to Brown from a dozen real estate families that totaled more than $130,000 this year. Brown's total donations from developers are even larger, but hard to calculate: his campaign hid their source by attributing many to separate shell corporations, rather than aggregating them as state law requires. 

real-estate industry super PAC spent another $290,000 on Brown's behalf, and even the pro-Brown Buffalo News had to concede that "money from real estate developers in the Buffalo area has been a key element in Brown's campaign."

Brown's campaign was extremely dependent on big-money contributions overall: donations of $1,000 or more made up over two-thirds of his campaign cash. Meanwhile India Walton's campaign was mostly funded by donations of $100 or less.

Brown also relied on robust Republican support. $100,000 came from wealthy Trump donors like developer Douglas Jemal, found guilty of wire fraud but pardoned by Trump, or billionaire Jeremy Jacobs and five of his family members. Fully a third of Brown's local contributions came from registered Republicans and Conservative Party members, according to an analysis by the Walton campaign. 

While Brown was losing support in Black neighborhoods, he compensated by cultivating Buffalo's right wing. The head of Erie County's Conservative Party, Ralph Lorigo, told the press that Brown had asked for his party's backing in the summer, in a late attempt to get on the ballot with a "Buffalo Party" line. Lorigo, whose party is vehemently anti-choice, anti-union and pro-Trump, says he agreed, and promised Brown he would "notify Conservatives in the City of Buffalo that he is the right choice." In all, a third of Brown's "Buffalo Party" petitions were carried by registered Conservatives and Republicans, including top GOP officials like Jesse Prieto, director of the Erie County Republican Party.

Those petitions were circulated weeks after the legal deadline, but an initial court ruling ordered that Brown be added to the ballot anyway. It came from a Trump-appointed judge whose brother, a real-estate developer, had donated more than $11,000 to Brown's campaigns. That decision was overruled, but it was an apt symbol of the alliance between Brown, real estate money, and the political right.

Brown and Republican boss Prieto played coy about whether the mayor had "formally" requested Republican help with his petitions, but in August Brown told the press that he saw no problem with seeking GOP backing after losing the Democratic primary. "I don't see a conflict," he told WGRZ-TV. "We're in the general election." When Republican Party mailers supporting Brown and slamming Walton arrived at voters' homes in October, no one was surprised. 

Byron Brown's alliance with the right wing paid off. "City's Conservative Neighborhoods Powered Brown's Write-In Win," was the Buffalo News headline the day after the polls closed. With the Democratic vote divided, it was neighborhoods heavy with Republican and Conservative voters where Brown ran up the score.

That wasn't an accident: Brown's campaign messaging often sounded like straight Republican talking points. India Walton was a local leader in nonviolent demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd. But Brown described these protests against police brutality as a threat to public safety: "The activities of my opponent, Miss Walton, made it more difficult for the police to do their job because they had to respond to protests," he said in the final debate. (That police "response" included shoving 75-year-old demonstrator Martin Gugino, a Catholic peace activist, to the ground and cracking his skull, causing a brain injury that put Gugino in the hospital for four weeks. But according to Brown, it was protesters who were the problem.)

"People are fearful about the future of our city," Brown declared when he launched his write-in bid. "They are fearful about the future of their families. They are fearful about the future of their children….They do not want a radical Socialist occupying the mayor's office in Buffalo." That red-baiting, fear-mongering message was tailor-made to boost turnout among Republicans. And that may have cost Democrats their "best chance in decades" to elect Erie County's sheriff.

The Erie County jails have overseen dozens of inmate deaths under retiring Sheriff Timothy Howard, most due to medical neglect or suicide. As Raina Lipsitz reports in The New Republic, Howard is "a Trump-loving extremist" and an outspoken fan of racist ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona. Democratic nominee Kim Beaty, who would have been the county's first Black or female sheriff, campaigned on the need for a sharp break with Howard's record. 

Beaty is a cautious politician, not a radical reformer like Black Lives Matter organizer Myles Carter, one of two rivals she defeated to win the nomination. Still, she presented a strong enough contrast to draw support from Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and other local activists.

But Beaty did not have the support of Byron Brown, who refused to make an endorsement in the race. Nor did Brown say a word when Republicans demonized Beaty in the same terms they used to attack India Walton. Perhaps that's because the Republican sheriff candidate, John Garcia, was a vocal Brown supporter. 

Brown's campaign "caused Erie County to miss electing the very best sheriff's candidate we will ever have," Betty Jean Grant, former chair of the Erie County Legislature, wrote in the Buffalo Challenger. "Byron Brown's failure to endorse Kim publicly sent a dog whistle to his supporters…especially when literature was passed out that showed Brown and Garcia together." 

"Byron Brown's intent might have been to demonize India," said Grant, a Walton supporter. "But white supremacists used those Brown political ads to destroy Kimberly's chance to win the election." While the Brown campaign's "win-at-any-cost" campaign was successful, she wrote, the price included "the empowerment of white supremacists and racists in Buffalo and Erie County for years to come."

Other local observers agreed that Brown's mobilization of Republican voters had damaged Beaty's chances. Weaver's analysis of the results found that "higher turnout [and] higher margins for write-in mayoral candidates were linked to more votes against Kim Beaty."

Byron Brown's alliance with Republicans to preserve his personal power should feel familiar to New Yorkers: it's the politics of the IDC, the "Independent Democratic Conference" of turncoat Democrats, who caucused with Republicans in the State Senate until voters threw them out. It's the politics of Andrew Cuomo, who routinely depended on Republicans to block taxing the rich and other policies that displeased his wealthy donors.

Brown defended his write-in challenge by insisting that socialists have no legitimate place in the Democratic Party: "She's not a Democrat, she's a socialist," Brown told the Buffalo News. "She shouldn't even call herself a Democrat."

Other Cuomo-crats agree. In a mass email this spring, New York party chair Jay Jacobs attacked "the Socialists" as a destructive force, and said their views were incompatible with Democratic values. (Jacobs drew criticism in October when he insisted that as state party chair, he had as little obligation to back India Walton as to support David Duke of the KKK.) 

Rep. Tom Suozzi, a prospective gubernatorial candidate, traveled to Buffalo to campaign against the Democratic mayoral nominee, urging support for Brown's Republican-funded effort in order to "defeat the Socialists." Suozzi has demanded that socialists leave the Democratic Party and "form a new party" instead.

Walton rejects that idea: "I am a Democratic Socialist. Democrat is the first word in that term," she said during the campaign. "It means that we put workers first, we take care of poor people, we take care of children, we provide healthcare for all. It's as simple as that." 

It's not only socialists who insist they have a rightful role as Democrats. "India Walton won the Democratic primary fair and square and is the nominee," declared Sen. Chuck Schumer when he endorsed her. "I have always believed that the Democratic Party is a big tent and is strongest…when it is inclusive." Schumer's backing came late, but it still represented a different stance than the Cuomo-crats.

Would the Democratic Party really be stronger if it pushed out members of Congress like Cori Bush or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Or popular New York legislators like Jabari Brisport, Julia Salazar, Zohran Mamdani and more? 

What would happen if these socialists took Suozzi's unfriendly advice and organized a separate political party? For years Democratic Party leaders have condemned Ralph Nader's third-party campaign as playing a spoiler role in the 2000 presidential election. If they don't want to see that repeated, insisting that socialists leave the Democratic Party is probably not the best approach. 

A tacit alliance with Republicans against socialists might help conservative Democrats protect their own political careers. But at a time when then GOP is so actively undermining democracy, and more reliant than ever on racist appeals, that's not only selfish—it's dangerous. 

"Let's talk about the stakes," Rep. Ocasio-Cortez told a Walton rally in Buffalo. "We are facing a very real fascist threat in this country. This is not a game." We need to unite against that threat, she told the crowd. And if winning a Democratic primary is not respected when the winner comes from outside the establishment, "how can you turn around and ask people to support you when you're the party's nominee?"

Socialists have started winning elections in New York because they've taken bold stands in the interests of the Democratic Party's base. "They're helping redefine what's politically possible in Albany," Jessica Wisneski of Citizen Action told the Buffalo News in October. Socialists "were at the center of the push [to tax] the super-rich," Wisneski noted. "They're pushing the whole Legislature to consider policy solutions that truly match the scale of the problems people are experiencing, from lack of safe, affordable housing to inadequate health care, underfunded public schools and the climate crisis."

Of course, not everyone is happy with those stands. In NYC's City Council elections, socialist candidates (and only socialists) were targeted by attack ads paid for by billionaires Stephen Ross and Ronald Lauder. Ross and Lauder are longtime supporters of Andrew Cuomo—and of Donald Trump.

Despite such attacks, socialist candidates' ideas have resonated with many Democratic voters. And their successes have not just been a downstate affair. Candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) won election this November to city councils in Rochester, Ithaca, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and to the Ulster County Legislature. Two weeks later, DSA member Sarah Salem, chair of Poughkeepsie's city council, was a leader in passing "Good Cause" eviction legislation, winning new protections for Poughkeepsie tenants against homelessness.

To win more and larger races, New York's socialists will need to carefully analyze both their defeats and their victories. Where is their best chance to win next? Politics is always full of surprises, but count on this: they're not going away. They may just be getting started.

Peter Hogness is chair of Water For Grassroots, which has worked since 2017 to support community organizing groups in the swing states. He is a rank-and-file member of DSA, and worked for 15 years as newspaper editor for a New York labor union. 

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