India Walton
Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton looks on during a walking tour of local businesses in Buffalo, N.Y., on Monday, October 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

Last August, Byron Brown filed a bizarre lawsuit. As the mayor of Buffalo, New York, for the past 16 years, he had just suffered a humiliating primary defeat to India Walton, then a relatively unknown community organizer and self-declared socialist. Unwilling to accept his loss, Brown tried to get on the November ballot by creating a third party—the “Buffalo Party”—but the Erie County Board of Elections denied his request; he had filed his petition two months after the deadline.

In response, Brown sued the board of elections in federal and state courts, claiming that it was unconstitutional to impose a deadline on third-party nominating petitions 23 weeks before a general election, thereby depriving him of “fair access” to the ballot. It was a strange basis for Brown’s suit, since he ran in the Democratic primary as a Democratic incumbent and had also previously served as chair of the state Democratic Party. In other words, it was an attempt to manipulate election law that seemed more befitting of a certain former Republican president than a Democratic mayor of a blue city.

Still, on September 3, a federal judge ordered the Erie County Board of Elections to put Brown on the ballot—a huge boost to Brown’s quest to hold on to power. There was one thing, however, that U.S. District Judge John L. Sinatra Jr., a Trump appointee, left out in his ruling: His brother, Nick Sinatra, a Trump donor and real estate developer in Buffalo, is a major funder of Brown’s campaign.

Even without the apparent conflict of interest­—Brown’s administration has approved dozens of Nick Sinatra’s development projects and given him tax breaks on some (Sinatra is also currently seeking a tax break on a 12-unit apartment building he’s constructing)—federal and New York state appellate courts overturned the district court’s ruling a week later.

But while the gambit fell short, Brown’s campaign is far from finished. He’s running as a write-in candidate (his slogan: “Write Down Byron Brown”) and recent polling shows him leading Walton. And while write-in campaigns are rarely successful, there are a few in recent memory that have worked: Lisa Murkowski retained her U.S. Senate seat in 2010 through such a bid. Mike Duggan also pulled it off when he became the mayor of Detroit in 2013. In both cases, the victorious campaigns had at least one thing in common: strong fund-raising.

Indeed, the strange turn of events surrounding Brown’s effort to get on the ballot reflects an odd dynamic as Buffalonians head to the polls on November 2: how a collection of Trump supporters and GOP donors are pouring millions of dollars into a mayoral race between two Democrats in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Many of Brown’s patrons share something else in common—they are real estate developers with whom he has close ties.

Beyond Sinatra—who last month held a fund-raiser in western New York for Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis—other GOP supporters are Paul Ciminelli, a Buffalo developer, and Carl Paladino, a real estate mogul and MAGA fanatic who once referred to Michelle Obama as a “gorilla.” A super PAC funded by New York’s real estate brokerage industry, which in 2018 spent millions trying to help Republicans take control of the State Senate, has also poured more than $300,00 into the race to re-elect Brown. And Douglas Jemal, a Washington, D.C.–based developer with a growing portfolio of commercial properties in Buffalo, is another Brown donor. He was pardoned of wire fraud by Trump in his last day in office.

Brown’s predicament is, in part, the direct result of hubris. The 63-year-old Queens native barely campaigned in the primary, having never faced a serious challenger in either a primary or a general election since he first took the helm at City Hall in 2006. (Were he to win this year, he’d become the longest-serving mayor in Buffalo history.)

But Brown’s primary loss was also a rebellion against a model of governance that has exacerbated inequality in a city where the divide between the haves and the have-nots has been growing steadily since the deindustrialization of the 1970s and ’80s, when some of Buffalo’s largest employers, such as Bethlehem Steel, shut down and the city descended into economic devastation.

As Geoff Kelly pointed out in The Nation, the city has essentially been a client of state and federal governments ever since, with state funding accounting for one-third of the city’s revenue to fight poverty and help rebuild the decayed urban landscape. Under that arrangement, mayors, along with a like-minded city council, have wielded power by determining the distribution of those funds. In turn, they often became close with the biggest developers, granting them tax breaks and approvals in exchange for political and financial support.

Under Brown’s tenure, there has been a modern renaissance in Buffalo—from the building of Canalside, a redeveloped district that has given new life to the town’s Lake Erie waterfront, and the expansion of commercial strips on Elmwood and Hertel Avenues, to a new medical campus downtown. But the working-class neighborhoods on the city’s east and west sides have been woefully neglected, rendering Buffalo one of the poorest large cities in America, with more than one-third of its 255,000 residents living below the poverty line. (This is a stunning fall from grace. Buffalo was once a thriving metropolis, sitting at the western end of the Erie Canal, and the eighth-largest American city at the turn of the 20th century. Today, it’s ranked 90th in population, behind Glendale, Arizona.)

In comes India Walton. A former nurse turned community activist, the 39-year-old emerged from one of the neighborhoods the Brown administration has ignored. Starting last winter, Walton mounted a volunteer-driven campaign made up of the city’s left-wing base that had long protested Brown’s corporatism. In a historically low-turnout election, her mobilization gave her a narrow victory of fewer than 2,000 votes.

Walton’s rise made national headlines not only because of the shock of her victory—if she wins the general, she’ll become the first socialist mayor of a major U.S. city in almost 60 years—but also because it came with resonance: She’s a survivor of the poverty that plagues the city. Walton grew up on welfare and food stamps, with a single mother; she had her first child at the age of 14, dropped out of high school, and birthed a set of twins at 19; she’s been a victim of sexual and domestic abuse, and has suffered a host of indignities that come from being poor. Even today, she makes DoorDash deliveries when she’s not campaigning.

I recently interviewed Walton at her WeWork-like campaign headquarters in downtown Buffalo. She’s small in stature, barely five feet tall—and disarming in a way that might be expected of a novice politician. When I told her I left Buffalo in 2014 but kept my Bills season tickets, and come up for a few games and sell the rest, she offered to take my seats when I was out of town. (In the interest of journalistic ethics, I declined her offer.)

As we had tea, Walton, who was donning a blue t-shirt, jeans, and yellow crocs, told me about the roots of her political awakening. When she was 11, she watched her mother lobby to get her husband (not Walton’s biological father) out of jail; he had been serving a 25-year-to-life sentence for drug trafficking. “My mother joined in an organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums,” she said. “And I watched her write letters, make phone calls, go to Albany. I went to Albany with her multiple times. And she kept saying, ‘We’re gonna bring Daddy home. We’re gonna bring Daddy home.’ And one day, he came home. It took me a long time to realize that that was activism.” It wasn’t until she participated in a program for emerging leaders at a local college that she recognized the systemic forces grinding her down. “There were things that happened to me, but it wasn’t because I had done anything wrong, right? It’s because we live in a system, in a society that says these things are acceptable—and they’re not.”

Most of her adult life has been dedicated to righting the wrongs she’s experienced. After she delivered the twins prematurely and was bothered by the care—or lack thereof—at the hospital, she became a registered nurse, hoping to provide others with better treatment than she received. Eventually, she left nursing and became an activist on criminal justice and police reform (she was a prominent voice in Buffalo following the George Floyd murder) and fair housing rights.

In the city’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, where she’s from—a predominantly Black and working-class vicinity that gets its name from all the streets named after fruits: Grape Street, Orange Street, Peach Street, and so on—she created a land trust that purchased abandoned houses and turned them into affordable housing units before developers could swoop them up.

In December 2020, she launched her mayoral campaign on a platform of reforming Buffalo’s police—a department that had gained notoriety after an officer knocked down a 75-year-old social justice protestor the previous summer, sending him to the hospital with a skull fracture—and enacting a broad antipoverty agenda that includes bigger investments in education, public infrastructure, and more affordable housing. Many of her ideas came from influential nonprofits in town, such as the Partnership for the Public Good and PUSH Buffalo (formerly People United for Sustainable Housing).

Walton also signed on to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and proposed other ideas to increase home ownership in struggling neighborhoods. “I want to establish a municipally funded revolving mortgage fund so that we can extend micro mortgages to folks who don’t traditionally qualify in the current financial system,” she told me. “We know that there are homes in Buffalo that are valued at less than $50,000. Well, how do you get a mortgage for less than $50,000? You don’t, right, but the city can step in and provide financing for folks . . . Why not give them an opportunity? Rental units don’t stabilize neighborhoods, ownership does. In that way, we’ll see poverty go down.”

It’s a key part of her message to voters: In Brown’s Buffalo, wealthy developers have been the beneficiaries of socialism through tax breaks and government subsidies. In her Buffalo, working people will finally be able to reap those benefits, too.

After Walton defeated Brown in the June primary—he had refused to debate her or even mention her name—Republicans lined up to tarnish her reputation and help Brown win the general. “I will do everything I can to destroy her candidacy,” Carl Paladino said.

Sure enough, in ads and interviews, Brown started painting Walton as a “radical socialist” out to defund the police as homicides were on the rise. “I think people themselves are afraid of her,” he told WGRZ, Buffalo’s NBC affiliate.

Meanwhile, the local press was openly hostile to Walton. The Buffalo News ran a breathless front-page story on Walton’s 2018 eviction from a house she was living in, based on an anonymous complaint about drug dealing—even though police investigated the claim and no charges were ever filed.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, greets Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton during a rally in support of Walton in Buffalo, N.Y. on October 23, 2021 (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

The Brown campaign and the media released more stories that weaponized Walton’s poverty against her: tales of unpaid taxes, food stamp fraud, and an arrest for driving on a suspended license. Earlier this month, Walton’s car was towed because of more than $600 in unpaid parking tickets, which she said in a Facebook post was possibly an act of retribution from Brown (although she didn’t dispute having been ticketed). Simply put, the Buffalo press corps has been an abiding partner in Brown’s campaign strategy to turn Walton’s inspiring story on its head. They used her saga of going from a single mother on welfare to the Democratic mayoral nominee as a knock against her rather than a traditional American success story.

There are signs that Brown’s smear tactics might be working. A September poll commissioned by the Kansas City–based polling firm co/efficient found Brown with a significant lead over likely voters. While polling, of course, is fallible, Walton’s campaign has brought in big guns from outside the city for help. This past weekend, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toured Buffalo stumping for Walton, which included her tending bar at a popular watering hole in Buffalo’s vibrant Elmwood Village.

Ocasio-Cortez noted a distinction between Walton and herself and peers like Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Talib: Walton, AOC said, would be in an executive position, able to enact—and give credibility to—the policies that leftist lawmakers push for in Congress. “We want to show that postindustrial cities like the city of Buffalo can thrive with progressive policies,” she said.

Going into the election Tuesday, Walton has an advantage as the official Democratic nominee and the only candidate on the ballot, but Brown has the advantage of spending nearly two decades as mayor; he’s a known quantity, not a leap into the unknown.

In many ways, Walton’s chances will be determined based on how well she can expand her base beyond the progressive enclaves of Elmwood Village and neighborhoods on the east and west sides, and whether she can pull in the city’s conservative and moderate Democrats, who are not exactly Jacobin readers.

To that end, Walton has been going into neighborhoods with those voters, like in South Buffalo, and delivering a simple message: “I have the benefit of not being a politician. I’m an organizer. Being a socialist means you expect government to perform for the people. Over the last 16 years, government has been performing for a handful of wealthy people, corporations, and developers. But so many people have not seen material improvements in their lives. The roads are not even getting paved.” That, she told me, is a message that resonates.

At the end of our interview, I posed to Walton a question I learned from an old journalism mentor: What’s one question no one from the press has asked you that they should have?

She paused, looked down, and then perked her head up. “What will I do if I lose?”

“What will you do if you lose?”

“I don’t know,” she told me. “I don’t have a Plan B.”

Eric Cortellessa

Follow Eric on Twitter @EricCortellessa. Eric Cortellessa is the Investigative Editor of the Washington Monthly.