Jun 23


Walton’s campaign outworked Brown

Upstart candidate upset incumbent by organizing an energetic grassroots campaign with support from the Working Families Party. Brown and his Democratic backers had no answer.
News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

The night before the Buffalo mayoral primary, India Walton’s campaign made nearly 19,000 calls to Democratic voters in the city, reminding them to vote and making the case for Walton over four-term incumbent Byron Brown.

The campaign sent almost 100,000 text messages, too, while more than 150 Walton supporters stationed themselves at polling sites across the city on election day.

The campaign fielded enough people, a campaign spokesperson said, to make a last-minute pitch to half the people who showed up to vote Tuesday as they walked in, and to take their temperature on the race as they left their polling place.

The cost of that outreach to the campaign: nothing. 

It was free, performed entirely by volunteers, with direction from campaign professionals employed by the Working Families Party, which endorsed Walton in March.

Walton’s campaign raised and spent about $150,000, mostly from small contributors giving an average donation of less than $50. That’s a little over a third of what Brown’s 2017 challenger, former city Comptroller Mark Schroeder, spent. It’s substantially less than his opponents spent in 2013 and 2009.

“This is organizing,” Walton told a crowd of a hundred or so campaign volunteers and supporters at a Riverside bar, when the results of the election were clear. 

“When we organize, we win.” 

The room erupted, chanting her name.

It felt historic – and it is.

She’d beaten Brown by 1,507 votes, according to the unofficial tally by the Erie County Board of Elections. That’s more than the absentee ballots left to be counted. She won almost 52 percent of the vote to Brown’s 45 percent. Le’Candice Durham, a City Hall employee whose campaign seemed designed to siphon votes from Walton to benefit Brown, got 650 votes, or just over 3 percent.

With no other party lines available to him, Byron Brown will not be on the November general election ballot for mayor for the first time since 2005. It will be the first time he hasn’t been on the ballot for an elected office in 26 years. 

The deadlines have passed for Brown to create an independent line or seek the nod of another established party. His only option, if he wishes to pursue it, is a write-in campaign. 

Come January, barring something unforeseeable, Walton will become the city’s first woman mayor. At 39, she will be the youngest mayor in Buffalo’s history. She will be the first avowed Democratic socialist to occupy the office. 

That’s not the half of it.

On her first run for elected office, Walton beat an entrenched incumbent few believed at risk of losing, even as an air of desperation began to surround his campaign

Brown had all the advantages of incumbency: name recognition, as much campaign money as he needed, an army of patronage employees to do his campaign work, and the apathy of the electorate.

Walton had none of that. A poll performed by the Working Families Party at the end of May — just a month before the election — showed 70 percent of those polled weren’t sure who she was.

She joined the race six months ago without the backing of the local Democratic Party or any other regional power enclave. The chairman of the county Democratic Party wrote her off, telling The Buffalo News he didn’t imagine her candidacy would have any effect on Brown’s reelection.

Lacking a political machine, she and her volunteers built their own, drawing together a coalition comprising activist groups galvanized by last summer’s protests against police brutality, income inequality, inadequate low-income housing, and a host of other issues they believed the Brown administration gave short shrift. The Working Families Party brought to this coalition expertise in electoral politics and state-of-the-art techniques for reaching voters.

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The infrastructure might have been the legacy of Walton’s campaign. At a press conference Monday, she excoriated Brown for taking nearly $120,000 in big donations from billionaires in the final days of the campaign. She sounded like a candidate who intended to win but would be pleased, win or lose, with having created a blueprint for progressive candidates in future races.

The race wasn’t just about becoming mayor, she told the two reporters who showed up. It was about elevating progressive politics in Western New York.

In the end, she did both: She won the race and laid a path for other aspiring outsiders with their eyes on the Buffalo Common Council and the Erie County Legislature, for example, as well as other state and regional offices.

“If you hold an elected office in this region, you are on notice,” she told her supporters and a phalanx of cameras on Tuesday night. “We’re coming for you.”

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By now Walton’s background — familiar to the circle of progressive activists she’s worked with over the past decade — is national news, as the story of Tuesday’s upset  has been covered by CNN and The New York Times, among other outlets.

 The single mother of four had her first son at 14, earned her GED, then went back to school to become a nurse, inspired by the neonatal intensive care nurses who cared for her youngest son. She became active in her union, 1199 SEIU, then left nursing to become a community organizer, working for Open Buffalo and with social justice organizations across the city. 

She flirted with a run for Common Council in 2019, but instead became the first executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, which aims to provide affordable housing and mitigate the effects of gentrification on residents of the city’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, adjacent to the rapidly developing medical corridor.

Then she resigned that job in December to challenge Brown.

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Just 21,407 Democrats in the city cast votes for mayor on Tuesday. That’s a terrible turnout — just three-quarters the pathetic turnout in 2017 — in part attributable to the incumbent’s “rose garden” strategy of acting as if there were no race and no challengers. Brown refused to debate his opponents. He appeared not to take Walton’s challenge seriously until the last week of the race, when his campaign began flooding the airwaves with ads, underwritten in no small part by that influx of campaign cash from real estate developers, construction firms, lobbyists and businesspeople who have backed Brown throughout his long tenancy on the second floor of City Hall.

But those folks, for all their money, get just one vote apiece. And Tuesday’s voting seems to indicate Brown’s former base had abandoned him.

By mid-afternoon, Walton’s volunteers were noting the abysmal turnout throughout the city, most notably in the East Side voting districts that have swamped Brown’s challengers in his previous re-election races. Normally busy polling places in the Masten and Ellicott districts were quiet. Voters stayed home. 

Maybe they didn’t know there was an election because the man they’d helped to make Buffalo’s first African-American mayor in 2005 waited too long to call on them. Or maybe they figured 16 years was enough.

Whatever the cause, Brown’s rose garden strategy turned out to be a historic miscalculation. On Tuesday night he became the first incumbent mayor to lose reelection since 1961.

Investigative Post

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