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India Walton Beat the Buffalo Mayor in a Primary. He Won’t Give Up. – The New York Times

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India Walton, the democratic socialist who won the Democratic primary for Buffalo mayor, still faces a challenge from Mayor Byron Brown, who is running a write-in campaign against her.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In late June, India Walton shocked the political world by defeating the four-term incumbent mayor of Buffalo, Byron Brown, in the Democratic primary, seemingly guaranteeing her eventual election in November in a solidly Democratic city.
Her win would be historic: She would be the first socialist to be elected mayor of a major American city in more than half a century, and the first woman — and first Black woman — to lead New York’s second-largest city.
In recent months, however, Mr. Brown has also been trying to make some history, mounting a furious comeback campaign to hold on to his job as a write-in candidate after trying — in vain — to add his name to the ballot as an independent.
While most write-in campaigns are quixotic, political observers in Buffalo believe that Mr. Brown’s widespread name recognition and ample campaign resources could actually make him a slight favorite, particularly if the city’s small cohort of Republicans votes for him.
The unexpected battle for Buffalo reflects the defining tension within the national Democratic Party, pitting its new generation of left-wing politicians against its more moderate establishment, as represented by Mr. Brown.
That battle played out in the Democratic presidential primary last year and again in the New York City mayoral primary this year — with more centrist candidates, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Eric Adams, winning both times. And it may well resume in next year’s primary for governor, when Gov. Kathy Hochul, a centrist Democrat, is likely to face a challenge from the party’s left flank.
Against that backdrop, the mayoral race in Democratic-dominated Buffalo has gained national attention, particularly on the left. With a little more than five weeks to go before the election, a roster of prominent liberal figures, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are pledging support for Ms. Walton.
Liberal groups and downstate Democrats, including the New York City public advocate, Jumaane Williams, and the former candidate for governor, Cynthia Nixon, have also been rallying to Ms. Walton’s side, hoping to demonstrate that their insurgent energy flows all the way to the edge of Lake Erie, where Buffalo sits.
“This has become a statewide, national and international priority,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the director of the New York Working Families Party, which has endorsed Ms. Walton and is offering strategic and fund-raising support. “People are calling from everywhere to make sure that India can come out ahead.”
On paper that would seem like a fait accompli: Ms. Walton is the only person on the ballot.
But Mr. Brown, a lifelong Democrat who is the city’s first Black mayor, seems to be banking on a coalition of business leaders and conservatives, some labor groups and loyal voters who approve of his 16 years in office to vault him to victory.
Long known as a mild-mannered moderate, Mr. Brown has hardened his rhetoric in response to the threat of political oblivion, portraying Ms. Walton, a registered nurse making her first run for public office, as an inexperienced interloper.
“I am convinced that she is unqualified for this position,” said Mr. Brown, 63, in a recent interview. “And if she became mayor of the city of Buffalo, it would be a disaster for this community.”
Nor does he see any problem with accepting the support of Republicans.
“The way I look at it, an election isn’t over until the general election has been held,” Mr. Brown said. “So I see no concerns with optics at all.”
Such statements are galling to Ms. Walton, 39, who says the mayor’s intransigence is doing a disservice to the residents of the very city he says he loves.
“I believe that if the mayor wants what’s best for Buffalo, he would have conceded, he would have helped with a productive transition, and gracefully bowed out,” said Ms. Walton, sitting in her single-room downtown campaign office. “But instead he’s throwing a tantrum.”
Mr. Brown’s ongoing campaign has made some Democrats queasy, as well as put elected officials in an awkward political position. Among them are Ms. Hochul, a Buffalo native, who is faced with either abandoning Mr. Brown — a former head of the New York Democratic state party — or risking alienating the ascendant left wing.
The governor’s office has said Ms. Hochul had no comment on the race, and her campaign office says she will not be making an endorsement, but instead will be “supporting county parties across New York to bolster their get-out-the-vote efforts.”
Jeremy Zellner, the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, said that Mr. Brown’s quest to upend a fellow Democrat was unsettling, noting that several prominent local conservatives, as well as outspoken fans of former President Donald J. Trump, have expressed support for Mr. Brown, and have been attacking Ms. Walton.
“He’s openly taking the support of Republicans, and working with them,” said Mr. Zellner, who also serves on the Erie County Board of Elections and is backing Ms. Walton.
Ms. Walton’s primary victory came largely from the work of a volunteer staff and strong support from the city’s west side, a mix of middle-class neighborhoods, new immigrant communities and elegant homes.
She has a compelling personal biography: She is a mother of four children, having had her first child at 14 and later living in a group home and earning a GED while pregnant with twins. Her path to politics was circuitous, including once working as a tattoo artist and later serving as a representative for the powerful health care union, SEIU 1199.
Her message, during the primary and now, was one of sharing the wealth in Buffalo, which has seen a surprising uptick in population and pockets of economic vitality over the last decade. Her campaign promises, including reforming policing, addressing poverty and reducing economic and racial inequities, seemingly struck a chord with primary voters, after a year of Covid-19 and a national reckoning over race relations.
Her general election campaign seems to be staying on that message, while also trying to play down any suggestion that — as a socialist — she is anti-growth.
“I want to reduce poverty in my community,” Ms. Walton said, adding, “If people are less poor, they have more money to spend in businesses.”
There are signs, however, that Ms. Walton is bulking up — and changing up — her staff, a possible indication of the seriousness of Mr. Brown’s challenge. Last week, she announced a new campaign manager, Drisana Hughes, who worked on Alvin Bragg’s successful primary run for Manhattan district attorney.
She has also been welcoming downstate supporters, doing a swing of events over the weekend in New York City, including a fund-raiser with Mr. Williams, a potential candidate for governor next year, who has criticized Governor Hochul for not vocally backing Ms. Walton.
“This should be a race where the governor is stumping for the first female mayor of Buffalo,” he said.
Many local and state politicians have, in fact, scrupulously avoided making endorsements of either candidate. And last week, Jay Jacobs, the current chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee and a moderate himself, confirmed that the party was not planning on making an endorsement in the race.
“One way or another, a Democrat is going to be elected mayor of Buffalo,” Mr. Jacobs said.
Mr. Brown was a trailblazer when he was elected the first Black mayor of Buffalo in 2005, after stints as a state senator and city councilman. He takes credit for a series of accomplishments, including tax cuts and increased property values, as well as gleaming new buildings along the city’s waterfront. At the same time, however, Buffalo remains home to one of the highest poverty rates in the country — more than 30 percent — a problem that is even worse for the city’s children.
In mid-September, the mayor’s hopes suffered a setback, when judges in both federal and state court ruled that Mr. Brown’s name — and a newly created party he had called the Buffalo Party — should be removed from the official ballot, reversing lower court decisions.
Mr. Brown’s write-in campaign’s slogan — “Write Down Byron Brown” — is found on red-white-and-blue campaign signs peppered throughout the city and has been echoed by the Twitter hashtag #writedownbyronbrown.
Last week, that hashtag was used by a curious ally: Carl Paladino, the Buffalo developer, former Republican candidate for governor and staunch supporter of Mr. Trump. Mr. Paladino tweeted his support for Mr. Brown, and circulated an emailed invitation for a fund-raiser for him.
Jacob Neiheisel, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, said Mr. Brown erred in refusing to debate Ms. Walton before the primary or regularly acknowledge her candidacy.
“Frankly I think he just didn’t take it seriously enough,” said Mr. Neiheisel.
Since deciding to pursue a write-in campaign, Mr. Brown has been aggressively attacking Ms. Walton; in an early September debate, he accused her of wanting to “defund the police” and cut police jobs, echoing a recent ad.
Ms. Walton denied this, saying that she wants the police to concentrate on stopping and investigating crime, not handling social services like homeless outreach and mental health calls.
“There’s one person up here that’s been defunding our community,” she said in a reference to her opponent, mentioning his administration’s cuts to community centers and swimming pools. “And that’s caused crime to run rampant.”
Later, sitting in a gleaming new workplace training center on the city’s hardscrabble east side, Mr. Brown pressed his case that he was running to safeguard “the future of my city.”
“I think I’m the best equipped person to do the work that needs to do done,” he said.
He was blunt in response to accusations that he is meanspirited in not accepting the outcome of the primary.
“I never cry and whine about what people do who are running for office,” he said, adding, “So I think that notion of ‘sore loser’ that some of her supporters are trying to push is just a false notion.”
For her part, Ms. Walton seems confident, saying she and her team are working the phones, knocking on doors and raising money every day.
Still, there is a small sense of frustration that Mr. Brown’s general election campaign has prevented her from concentrating on a potential move to City Hall. She noted that “for the last 50 years, the Democratic primary has decided who the presumptive mayor is.”
Her responsibility, Ms. Walton said, is to the city’s voters. “I have to deliver for them,” she said. “I shouldn’t be spending all this time justifying a solid win.”
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