You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

Can the Socialist Mayor Rise Again?

India Walton is running to be the next leader of her beloved Buffalo. But what she really wants is to revive a tradition of social democracy in America’s great cities.

India Walton greets me alone at her campaign office, which is actually just a one-desk room in a co-working space, sparsely decorated but for a few books, stacks of campaign lit, and a whiteboard where people have left each other messages both practical (“I’ll call you at 5”) and motivational (“We will win because we can!”). A few minutes later, she’s guiding me through the streets of downtown Buffalo, New York, like it’s her home—which it is, the place where she was born and raised and had her babies and raised them—cutting through parking lots as she tells me about the city she believes deserves so much more than “waiting for economic development to trickle down,” which it never does.

In the tableau of New York State politics, Buffalo evokes the Buffalo Billion, a markedly top-down economic development deal that has become shorthand for political corruption (Governor Andrew Cuomo’s closest friend and aide, Joe Percoco, is currently in federal prison because of his involvement with it). Walton is running for mayor as a socialist, and has faith that will translate for people. “We have socialism for Tesla,” she says, one of the beneficiaries of the Buffalo Billion deal, “and rugged individualism for everyone else. I want to flip the paradigm.”

Walton speaks about the needs of a city she knows well. She had her first child when she was 14; her mom wasn’t happy about that, so Walton moved out and lived in a home for young mothers just outside Buffalo in Lackawanna, raising a baby born with a painful chronic illness while still a child herself. She tried hard to finish high school, only leaving to work when she had her twins at 19. They were born premature and “teeny-tiny,” she tells me, barely a pound and a half each, one with a central line in his chest and the other on oxygen. Walton didn’t have a car, so she rode the bus through Buffalo, with her babies, to all those follow-up appointments.

Looking back, she balances gratitude to a health system that saved their lives with a clear-eyed remembrance of how that same system was stacked against someone like her: “I didn’t like the way my family was treated when we were in the NICU,” she tells me. “I felt dismissed a lot.”

“That’s just an example of the resources it takes to live a decent life, right?” she told me, of those early days toting the twins and all their medical equipment to repeatedly come up against a medical establishment that categorically sneered at a poor, young, Black mother. “And the expectation we have with people, to be able to function in a society where they are led to believe their resources are so scarce that they’ll never be able to achieve anything.”

That NICU experience was the first stirring of the Walton you’ll meet today: She set out to become a nurse herself, so that anyone like her who came into that system might have a chance at a different experience than the one she had. (“When I went back to work there,” she tells me of the hospital where her twins were born, “it was even worse. I mean, people just openly—not only racist, but classist as well, saying disparaging things about some of the families and their means and resources.”) She soon became active in her union, 1199 SEIU, and learned what it meant to be an organizer—to build power with other people.

Buffalo is a blue city—all nine council members are Democrats, and there hasn’t been a Republican mayor since The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered—deeply entrenched in the New York Democratic machine, which its current mayor, Byron Brown, chaired until 2019. If Walton wins the primary on June 22—a big “if”—she would not merely unseat a four-term incumbent, she would be the first socialist mayor of a major American city in more than half a century.

The last was Frank Zeidler, who served three terms as the mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the birthplace of “sewer socialism,” a specifically municipal and hyperpragmatic form of socialism focused on how “you can run or plan a city for the working class,” according to Gabe Winant, a historian at the University of Chicago. Zeidler came of age in the Great Depression, reading Eugene Debs and seeing a markedly flawed system not so dissimilar from the one giving rise to a new heyday for socialism today, at least among young people whose adult lives have been marked by vast resource inequality. That is to say: people much like India Walton.

Walton might be a long-shot candidate, but there’s palpable excitement around the country for new local leadership, especially as the federal government proves itself to be a place where broadly popular ideas go to die. The pandemic cracked something open, too; that’s part of what pushed Walton to spill a little prematurely to a Buffalo News reporter that, yes, she was going to run for mayor.

Walton believes Buffalo deserves better than it’s gotten. Not through billions poured into empty revitalization or a tech hub, but by investing in housing, health care, and community. These are simple planks, but they anchor the campaign. People seem to get it. She was in the middle of talking to me about home being “a place for families,” while also “dispelling the myth that a family is mom, dad, and kids,” when a woman in a minivan stopped traffic to shout her support (“I’m votin’ for you, India! I got my family, too! I see you!”); Walton smiled and waved and shouted, “Thank you,” before picking back up: “A family is me and all of my friends, and my neighbors are my family, and Buffalo is my family,” she tells me. “We deserve community and to have leadership that is going to be rooted in the values of care and love. I think it’s something that’s becoming more and more attractive to people because we have been isolated for so long, right?” At least, that’s what she’s betting on come Tuesday.

The three hours I spent with Walton on a Monday afternoon in early June were pretty standard for a campaign profile: I drove in from out of town to meet her, walk around and see Buffalo through her eyes, and capture a day in her campaign. But it was quieter than usual: no handlers, no campaign staff running interference, cutting off or reframing her answers.

Her campaign is small, lean by both necessity and desire. Its institutional structure and knowledge has been provided by the Working Families Party, a political apparatus with deep roots in New York with an ideological bent that’s left of the state’s Democratic Party (though it often works with state centrists). The party was so enthusiastic about Walton, they not only abandoned Byron Brown for the first time in his lengthy political career, they’ve effectively run her insurgent campaign.

Brown resembles a lot of Democratic politicians across the state: a slim record of major achievements but a slow drip of failure when it comes to the values the party is supposed to represent. Even before the pandemic, Buffalo’s poverty rate was more than twice the national average, with residents on its largely Black East Side suffering higher rates of fatal illness and infant mortality. Brown was a target of continued protest over the Buffalo Police Department’s Strike Force, which came under investigation by the New York attorney general for brutalizing Black and brown Buffalo residents. His grand plan to revitalize Buffalo’s crown jewel of a waterfront was to install a massive Bass Pro Sports; the company pulled out after nine years of deliberations, much to the relief of local community activists who came together to make the waterfront the flourishing city attraction it is today.

It was what Walton called Brown’s inaction during the pandemic that ultimately spurred her to run for his office: When neighbors called the community land trust she was running, desperate for help getting food and supplies to people unable to leave their homes, she and her network of activist allies mobilized a massive effort to put together bike deliveries of fresh groceries.

Walton’s platform carries the same vision—a community-directed transformation of various areas of public life. She wants to end police involvement in mental health emergencies, create an unarmed public security detail for quality of life issues, and codify public participation in police union contract negotiations, among other changes to policing. She wants to institute a tenants’ bill of rights protecting renters and offer financial relief to small landlords in exchange for rent forgiveness and a citywide land trust federation with democratic decision-making. On climate, she proposes an office of sustainability and task forces for green workforce and zoning policies. Each plan has a set timeline, ranging from her first 100 days in office to six months and ultimately four years. Walton notably plans to be a one-term mayor. The idea is to build infrastructure for socialist policies, not a personal legacy.

“There’s already a defense being mounted against the principles that we’re bringing in,” she says. “I’m doing this to bring change and improve quality of life for people. And I also don’t want to get caught up in the patronage, in that cycle to make deals and more deals. I want to do the work.”

Socialism today is often derided as less than its more blue-collar predecessor, because its most vocal proponents are “radicalized downwardly mobile professionals,” Winant of the University of Chicago said, and “you can’t have a socialist movement led by grad students.” But in reality, the other major bloc in the movement is “Black and Latinx city dwellers who have to deal with low wage markets, police violence, and environmental racism,” from which an increasingly vocal, visible, and powerful “layer of working-class people led by teachers and nurses, particularly people of color and often women” is emerging. This was Walton’s path to organizing and then, eventually, to politics. It mirrors the stories of other left politicians, like Cori Bush in Missouri, a registered nurse turned activist, and Jamaal Bowman in New York, a former public school teacher.

In Buffalo, Walton is one of a few newcomers to local politics who came out of last year’s uprisings after the death of George Floyd. Dominique Calhoun led a police accountability protest we attended and is running for County Council. Myles Carter was tackled by Buffalo P.D. while giving a live television interview at a protest; he’s now running for sheriff (a tremendously long-shot campaign, as Buffalo is a blue dot in a very red county that is unlikely to respond well to the “defund” message). There are candidates like them around the country, and the challenges they face are not unusual—popular policy proposals but low name recognition, coupled with attacks not just from Republicans but from the right within their party that sees any anti-capitalist insurgence as an existential threat.

These are underdog campaigns, but they are also efforts to revitalize a robust history. Social democracy forms the foundation of American cities: public transportation, libraries, city colleges. When Frank Zeidler ended his tenure as the mayor of Milwaukee, he’d overseen the purchase of the city’s first garbage trucks, built new fire stations and roads and low-income and veteran housing, and grown the city to be the twelfth largest in the nation. New York City, while it never had a socialist mayor, was shaped by “a robust and ambitious public sector, also a strong ethos and faith in that public sector: free CUNY tuition, expansion of public higher education, investment in public health and public hospitals,” according to Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City.

Walton talks a lot about community centers, and the socialist historians I consulted lit up at the idea: Erik Loomis at the University of Rhode Island pointed to the “communitarian aspect” of the right’s power “because they’re still going to church.” The left needs its own community base, is the idea. Walton, and other young socialists across the country, are trying to build it.

“There’s no easy answer to rebuilding communitarian structures, but I do think the left has to take that really seriously,” Loomis said. “It’s a huge reason why conservatives are winning on all of these issues.”

It’s also a huge reason why Walton has campaigned so hard, in person, on podcasts, showing up to union rallies anytime she’s asked, even by unions who endorsed her opponent. She knows that if she can meet people, she can meet them where they are. She doesn’t bicker with other activists, doesn’t think twice about whether someone “doesn’t use the right language.” She worked for years as one of four Black nurses in a bargaining unit of 170 and credits this with teaching her how to fight for and work alongside people who may not even like her, let alone agree with her.

And to Walton, if she can meet people where they are, she can get them to understand, and she can show them they deserve more.

Still, there’s a mountain to climb. In a recent survey from WFP, Brown led Walton 43 to 21 percent overall. But among voters who knew enough about Walton to have an opinion about her—40 percent of respondents—she led Brown 49 to 33 percent. In the intervening weeks, Walton has racked up major endorsements from the Buffalo Teachers Federation and The Challenger, a local newspaper geared at the Black community, and released her first TV ad and direct mailers. She also earned a rare endorsement from the national Democratic Socialists of America and has had the energetic support of the Buffalo DSA. She hopes the pool of people who think they know enough about her grows from there.

But it’s a strange line to walk for Walton. She needs to be out there to win, but she also wants to build a kind of politics that decenters hero candidates and turns its focus, instead, to infrastructure and, ultimately, lasting change that is diffuse and leaderless. It’s one of the reasons she admires the Black Lives Matter movement—it’s the collectivity, the sense of being alive and bigger than any one person.

So that’s what she’s trying to do. In addition to her own campaign, she says she has a slate of nine progressives lined up to run for local office next year; all of her policy proposals aim to create deeply rooted new infrastructure on which to balance a more just society.

When I asked her to tell me about her Buffalo, she talked about the waterfront, and a four-seasons city, and the potential Buffalo has for being a filming location, and its proximity to the Canadian border, and the festival-filled summers. And she also talked about Buffalo as a “big living room” and as her “beloved community,” the place and people “who kept me, who held me down, who made sure my children and I had groceries.” Even now, while attending to the work of running for mayor, people take her son to baseball and bring over meals and stop in just to do dishes. That’s the city she thinks is possible. That’s the campaign. “That, to me, is beloved,” she tells me. “My Buffalo is a place that deserves the best we can possibly give it. And we’ve not had that yet. I want to be able to raise the floor.”