BUFFALO, N.Y. – When India Walton beat Buffalo’s four-term mayor in a Democratic primary last June, New York’s second largest city looked like it was about to get a leader like no other in its history.
She’d be its first female mayor and the first to identify as a democratic socialist. After becoming a mother at age 14, she grew up to be a nurse and strived through a lifetime of financial hardship that continued through the campaign, when her car was impounded for unpaid parking tickets.
But rather than pack up his City Hall office of 16 years, Mayor Byron Brown has stayed in the race in pursuit of his own superlatives: He’s trying to become the first person to win a major race as a write-in candidate in New York state, and — if he gets a fifth term — Buffalo’s longest-serving mayor.
“Either way it’s going to be historic,” Nazareth College political analyst Timothy Kneeland said of the race, which is yet another marquee battle between the center and left of the Democratic Party.
Brown has gained traction by reversing his strategy from largely ignoring Walton to labeling her “an unqualified radical socialist" who will defund the police and raise taxes.
Imploring voters to “write down Byron Brown,” the mayor says he has earned another term after turning around a Rust Belt city of 280,000 that was in financial distress to one where the population and property values are rising.
Recent polls show potential voters favoring Brown, but his name isn’t on the ballot and it is unclear whether that support will translate into write-in votes.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Buffalo native, has steered clear of choosing sides while the state's two Democratic U.S. senators, Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are backing Walton.
“Any Democrat right now that is trying to establish a precedent of not uniting behind the party’s nominee is playing a dangerous game,” U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said during a recent trip to Buffalo to rally for Walton.
Walton, who led a small housing trust before launching her campaign, promises a new, more progressive way of doing business, saying Buffalo's comeback has left many people behind.
“This is our city. We are the workers. We do the work. We are are sick and tired of those that have the most always getting everything,” she said at the rally with Ocasio-Cortez. The packed event also featured actress Cynthia Nixon, who unsuccessfully challenged former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a 2018 primary with the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America, who also have endorsed Walton.
Walton, Kneeland said, is following an increasingly familiar strategy: “A progressive in a time period of great upheaval, understanding that people want change and then drawing on that energy to knock off a more moderate Democratic candidate.”
Brown has had to carefully navigate support from Republicans eager to thwart the democratic socialist candidate. He publicly declined backing from Buffalo developer and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino after he pushed the mayor to stay in the race.
The Republican State Committee has promoted Brown in mailings that praise his “effective, commonsense leadership” and warn that “India Walton's radical agenda will destroy Buffalo.”
With about 68% of registered voters who are Democrats, and 9% Republicans, general elections in the city typically hold little suspense. Brown says this one has energized him and united voters across party lines.
“This election is a choice, a clear choice between proven experience and proven results and ideas for the future versus an unqualified, radical socialist whose story has been proven to be fictitious," Brown said in an interview. He says Walton has exaggerated her accomplishments as founder of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust.
Folding cheese into a pan of macaroni at Freddy J’s barbecue restaurant, owner Frederic Daniel wrestled with what “change” should look like going forward in Buffalo, whether under Brown or Walton.
“You don’t want anybody to divide a country or the state or the city,” he said, declining to reveal his choice. “Everybody has to feel like they are not left behind. When people feel like they're left behind they become very bitter.”
Walton, 39, says that is just what has happened as Buffalo’s economic successes have failed to reach many poor families and neighborhoods. She has endeared herself to supporters on the strength of her personal experiences as a poor, Black single mother and nurse who started the land trust to increase affordable housing.
“My life has not been much different than a typical person who grew up on the east side of Buffalo. I’ve survived poverty, abuse and trauma. And that’s why I’m running for mayor,” she said during a debate.
Walton has framed legal problems in her past as evidence of the plight of the poor and working class. In 2003, she was made to repay a $295 food stamp overpayment after failing to report income on time. The following year, she and her ex-husband were cited in a $749 tax lien for unpaid income taxes, WKBW reported.
In 2014, she was arrested after a colleague at a hospital accused her of harassment — a charge later dismissed. Walton said it was a verbal disagreement and she's since matured.
When her car was impounded, Walton on Twitter pointed to the challenge of being a “low-income single mother enrolled in Medicaid” and criticized such fines and fees as predatory in a city where 30% of residents live in poverty.
That message has resonated with many.
“It's really heartbreaking that the Black homeownership rate in Buffalo is so low,” said former state Sen. Antoine Thompson, a real estate agent who has worked on Brown's campaigns but is supporting Walton because of her focus on affordable housing.
Her lack of experience, though, has been an issue for some voters. She's never held public office. That was the deciding factor for Darnell Cummings, a 34-year-old career counselor who voted for Brown.
“Let’s say you’re in the hospital,” he said. “Do you want someone that’s had 15, 16 years of experience performing surgery on you or do you want someone who ... hasn’t been to medical school?”
In a political career that has stretched 25 years, Brown already has logged notable firsts. He is Buffalo's first Black mayor. He was the first Black candidate to win a New York state senate seat outside of New York City and the first to win in a white majority district.
Brown has found his support from construction unions and law enforcement after hitting hard at Walton’s plans to cut $7.5 million from the police budget as part of what she says is a more holistic approach to address the root causes of crime. Brown at a debate called that “clearly defunding police.”
His television spots featured people identifying themselves as some of the 100 police officers that he said were bound to lose their jobs with a Walton win.
Walton denies she would lay off any police officers, saying she would reduce the police budget through retirements, attrition and reductions in overtime.
“We stop police from being dog catchers, homelessness outreach, mental health counselors and we put professionals into those roles,” she said.