Buffalo mayor’s race is on

India Walton faces long odds against Byron Brown, but she's making headway and appears to have filed enough petitions gain a line on the primary ballot.
News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

Updated on March 26, 9:27am.

India Walton, the long-shot challenger to incumbent Byron Brown in the Democratic primary for Buffalo mayor, passed three milestones in the past month:

  • She won the endorsement of the Working Families Party, providing her a ballot line in the general election, should she fail to beat Brown in the June 22 primary.
  • She picked up the endorsement of People’s Action, a national coalition of progressive activists and politicians, which comes with access to phone banks and fundraising.
  • Most importantly, from a pragmatic standpoint, today Walton filed a nominating petition at the Erie County Board of Elections containing nearly 2,000 signatures, more than three times the number required to qualify for the ballot in her race against Brown.

To qualify for the ballot, a mayoral candidate needs 600 valid signatures. The number was reduced by the state Legislature in February from the usual 2,000 to allow for impediments the COVID pandemic imposed on the very much door-to-door, in-person process. 

Brown filed his nominating petition to run for a fifth term today, as well. The mayor’s spokesman, Mike DeGeorge, told Investigative Post on Wednesday Brown would turn in about 6,000 signatures.

The mayor’s signature count is lower than in past reelection campaigns, but proportional given the COVID restrictions. In 2017, for example, Brown turned in 15,000 signatures, more than seven times the requirement. His opponent, Comptroller Mark Schroeder, turned in 5,800. 

In 2009, Brown turned in 20,000 signatures, 10 times what he needed — just like this year. His challenger in 2009, South District Council Member Mickey Kearns, turned in 5,000.

As a rule of thumb, an insurgent candidate like Walton — running against a four-time incumbent, without the backing of the local Democratic Party or any other political machine — needs at least twice as many signatures as required if she hopes to survive legal challenges to the legitimacy of her signatures. In 2019, a slate of women candidates for Common Council failed to make the Democratic primary ballot because of flawed petitions. Challengers routinely have signatures, and even whole pages, tossed by elections commissioners and judges due to technical errors.

Walton would appear to have enough signatures to protect her from that fate.

Attorney Adam Bojak, a volunteer for Walton’s campaign, vetted the petition to check the validity of its form and its signatures, which he said were collected by nearly 100 volunteers across the city. Bojak said he was “extremely confident” Walton’s petitions would pass muster, though he would not be surprised if the Brown campaign filed a challenge anyway.

“[The Brown campaign] has the resources to do that,” he said, if only as a nuisance: Even an unsuccessful challenge would cost the Walton campaign time and money to defend.

The Brown campaign has three business days — until Tuesday, March 30 — to file challenges to Walton’s petition.

The WFP and more

New York’s Working Families party has endorsed Brown in every race he has run since the party was founded in 1998. He sought their endorsement again this year, interviewing with the party’s local committee in January. 

The party chose Walton instead. The party’s leadership cited Walton’s visible leadership role in last summer’s racial justice demonstrations and her progressive positions on issues ranging from affordable housing to police reform.

“As a single mother, a NICU nurse, and a seasoned organizer, India has always grounded her leadership in care and justice for all,” Sochie Nnaemeka, the state party’s director, told the Buffalo News.

For many years Working Families — a progressive, labor-based party — worked in alliance with state Democrats, in much the same way the Conservative Party frequently aligns with Republicans. The relationship has been strained in recent years, thanks largely to conflicts with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The falling-out contributed to the party giving its endorsement to Cynthia Nixon in 2018.

Nixon lost her Democratic primary challenge to Cuomo, after which Working Families offered its ballot line to Cuomo.

Nixon’s campaign manager consulted with Walton’s campaign in January and February. And Nixon tweeted support for Walton earlier this month, as sexual harassment accusations against Cuomo mounted:

Last week, Walton won the support of People’s Action, a Washington, D.C., based consortium of about 40 progressive organizations across 30 states that claims, in aggregate, a million members. The organization has supported more than 100 candidates for local, state and federal offices since its founding in 2016. Among its success stories are Congressional progressives U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis and U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman of the Bronx.

The People’s Action endorsement is more than a progressive stamp of approval. The organization provides material support to its candidates, including professionally run phone canvassing that a small campaign like Walton’s might not otherwise afford. It also carries fundraising opportunities.

Walton still faces steep odds. Brown sits atop a well oiled political machine staffed with campaign volunteers who owe him their jobs. He can raise vast sums of money from developers and firms that do business with the city, as well as from his own staff.

Nonetheless, it’s been a pretty good month for the single mother and nurse-turned-community-organizer whom many thought wouldn’t even make the primary ballot.

“Our petition and our fundraising have shown that people are ready for a change,” Walton told Investigative Post.

The others

As this column was published, two other declared mayoral candidates — Scott Wilson and Le’Candice Durham — had not filed nomination petitions to join Brown and Walton in the Democratic Party.

But outgoing Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, as expected, filed to run for Hamburg Town Supervisor on the Conservative and Republican party lines. 

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Also as expected, outgoing Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard filed to run for Wales Town Supervisor on the Conservative and Republican party lines.

However, despite rumors that he might join in building a far-right Maginot Line across the Southtowns, political operative and former Trump administration official Michael Caputo did not file to run for Aurora Town Supervisor.

Caputo, recovering from a bout with cancer, told Investigative Post he “is not well enough to be active politically.”

The only candidate for the Aurora supervisor seat is the incumbent, Jim Bach. 

Caputo privately swore to unseat Bach in 2018 after Bach withdrew his support for East Aurora Assemblyman David DiPietro — a Caputo confidante and a block in that Maginot Line — over a small-town political contretemps.

Caputo’s vengeance, if it is still on the menu, grows colder.

UPDATES:

Last night the Erie County Board of Elections updated its list of candidates who filed petitions seeking to appear on ballots in June’s primaries and November’s general election. The deadline for filing those petitions was 5pm yesterday.

Some updates:

  • Scott Wilson and Le’Candice Durham submitted petitions seeking to join the Democratic primary for Buffalo mayor, alongside India Walton and incumbent Byron Brown. Republican Ross Kostecky filed to appear on the GOP line.
  • Retired Buffalo police officer Kimberley Miller-Beaty has rejoined the Erie County Sheriff’s race, after resigning from it last month when it became clear she would not receive the Democratic Party endorsement. (That endorsement went to Cheektowaga police officer Brian Gould, who filed his nominating petition on Wednesday.) Former Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, believing the party gave Miller-Beaty short shrift, collected signatures for Miller-Beaty anyway. As a result Miller-Beaty last week said she was running.
  • Miller-Beaty joins Gould and activist Myles Carter in the Democratic primary for sheriff. Carter also filed his petition yesterday. Gould also collected signatures to appear on the Working Families Party line; the others did not.
  • The Republican primary for sheriff includes two retired Buffalo cops — John Garcia and Karen Healy-Case — and a right-wing gun-rights enthusiast, Steve Felano. Healy-Case will have the Conservative Party line.
  • These matchups are provisional, of course: Campaigns and their surrogates have until Tuesday to pick apart their opponents’ petitions, looking for reasons to disqualify them. The ballots for the June 22 primary will not be set until those objections have been filed and adjudicated, by elections commissioners and judges.