The Resilience of India Walton

The union nurse from Buffalo is fighting to become the first socialist mayor of a major US city since 1960.

India Walton agreed to meet me at Hansa, the bustling year-old coworking space in downtown Buffalo, N.Y., where her campaign office is located. Once a warehouse used to store truck parts, the 32,000-square-foot, two-story, glass-and-brick building is now bright, airy, and filled with green plants and eager young professionals. A few minutes after I arrived, Walton returned from a previous engagement; her phone pressed to her ear. A 39-year-old Black woman with a youthful face and close-cropped hair, she wore a striking deep-green dress with silver-and-gold summer sandals.

When I opened the door for her, she mouthed “Thanks” without interrupting her conversation, which seemed to have something to do with Erie County Democratic Committee Chair Jeremy Zellner. “You think I want to go sit in Jeremy Zellner’s space?” Walton asked, frowning into her phone. “This has the ability to have impact on people,” she added sternly, “so we’ve got to put the other stuff aside and do the work.”

She kept speaking as a staffer ushered us up a flight of stairs and into a large room with a desk and several tables. Walton sat at the desk, and after a few minutes, she hung up and greeted me.

A nurse, community organizer, former executive director of a community land trust, and democratic socialist, Walton stunned the political establishment by beating four-term incumbent Byron Brown in Buffalo’s Democratic mayoral primary in June. Brown, a onetime ally of former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, was heavily favored to win. Brown became Buffalo’s first Black mayor in 2006. If Walton prevails in the general election, she will be the city’s first woman mayor and the first socialist mayor of a sizable US city since 1960.

Zellner—who backed Brown in the primary and serves as both chair of the Erie County Democratic Committee and a county board of elections commissioner, which many see as a conflict of interest—prevented Walton from running on the Working Families Party line in November on a technicality. (In New York State, candidates can run on multiple ballot lines at once. Walton had hoped to run on both the Democratic and WFP lines in November.) After she won the primary, Zellner switched his allegiance to Walton, waffled, and then officially endorsed her in late August. Until recently, it was Brown who had the slimmest path to victory: Without a ballot line, he was mounting a long-shot write-in campaign, and because the local GOP didn’t bother to field a mayoral candidate, Walton’s was expected to be the only name on the ballot.

But on Friday, September 3, US District Judge John L. Sinatra Jr., who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2018, ordered the board of elections to allow Brown to run as an independent, despite his having missed the May filing deadline. Judge Sinatra is the brother of Nick Sinatra, a Buffalo real estate developer and former aide to President George W. Bush who has contributed at least $7,230 to the “Brown for Buffalo” fund and received millions of dollars in property tax exemptions for development projects during Brown’s tenure. Thanks to the support of Judge Sinatra, who refused to recuse himself, frequent infusions of real-estate cash, and a local press corps that is notably hostile to Walton, the race has tightened considerably. An August poll showed Brown leading Walton by 10 percentage points in a head-to-head race.

The board of elections and the Walton campaign are appealing Sinatra’s ruling.

A Brown win, Walton supporters argue, would be a victory for stagnant leadership, big developers, and dirty politics. It would show that deep-pocketed donors can overrule voters, and rules are for people who don’t know the right judges. But if Walton wins, her fans say Buffalonians will have the mayor they turned out to elect in June, and the city’s most vulnerable residents will have a shot at a brighter future. Buffalo resident Harper Bishop wrote on June 13 that voting for her “wasn’t about harm reduction or the lesser of two evils, it was about transformative leadership and the future of Buffalo for generations to come.”

For the headquarters of a stressful electoral campaign, the atmosphere in her office was unusually calm and light-hearted. Kartika Carr, Walton’s T-shirt-clad campaign manager, sat in the room for part of our conversation, pecking away at her laptop and occasionally interjecting. At one point, mock-grudgingly responding to her boss, Carr deadpanned, “I’m still on vacation.” Walton laughed. As we spoke, Walton slid her sandals on and off underneath her desk, flashing toes painted a vivid midnight blue.

Walton’s campaign slogan—“Real. Resilient. Ready.”—reflects a life that many Americans can relate to but most politicians can’t. Walton grew up on Buffalo’s East Side, a predominantly Black neighborhood where over half of the residents make less than $25,000 a year. She became a mother at age 14. “I thought I was in love and if I had a baby, it would help me escape from my home,” she explained to WIVB News 4 Buffalo. “I was the primary caregiver for my younger siblings. I figured, ‘Listen, if I’m going to run a house anyway, I might as well run my own house.’”

She left home, spent a couple of years in a group home for young mothers, and got her own apartment at 17—so young that she had to get special permission to have the utilities turned on in her name.

Her first son was in and out of hospitals with sickle-cell disease. A gifted student, she dropped out and worked at McDonald’s to support him. At age 19, she gave birth prematurely to twins. Without a car, she spent months transporting her babies to medical appointments by public bus. Now the mother of four sons, she earned her GED and became a registered nurse.

At one point she referred to herself as “this bleeding-heart caregiver”—used to doing whatever it takes to care for her children and too stubborn to turn her back on people in need. That attitude has attracted ardent support throughout Buffalo, including that of my parents and one of my brothers, who have hosted fundraising events for the campaign.

Walton says she will pursue an ambitious agenda if elected: She wants to overhaul policing in Buffalo, in part by establishing an independent civilian review board; strengthen local tenant protections; complete a vacancy study so Buffalo can opt into rent stabilization; provide financial relief to small landlords in exchange for rent forgiveness; implement a land-use policy that sets aside 50 percent of city-owned vacant parcels for the public good; allow for longer grace periods to settle past-due taxes and user fees; and establish funds to assist homeowners who have fallen behind on their property taxes because of unexpected hardship. She earned the backing of the Buffalo Teachers Federation after vowing to introduce legislation to create a school funding plan similar to one in Rochester in which the city allocates a fixed percentage of its resources to city schools each year.

She also wants to cut Buffalo’s police budget, which has grown at three times the rate of other city services during Brown’s tenure. “I think that there are some positions that can be absorbed through attrition,” she told me. “We definitely want to cut overtime… We want to remove police from quality-of-life calls and things that don’t necessarily require an armed officer, like parking issues and neighborhood disputes that we can have civilians respond to.”

Officers with a history of violence, she added, do not belong on the force, and the city shouldn’t be paying out large sums of money to resolve lawsuits arising from police misconduct. Since 2015, Buffalo taxpayers have shelled out more than $11.9 million for such settlements. At the height of the protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder last summer, Buffalo police made international news for attacking demonstrators like then 75-year-old Martin Gugino, who spent a month in the hospital with a brain injury and a fractured skull. (Gugino supports Walton for mayor.)

In conversations with voters, she is careful to clarify that she does not want to abolish the police. “I live in this community also,” she said. “I know that we have not done the work to live in a society that’s free of police, but we are going to do our best to create conditions where we can live peacefully and with as little police presence as possible.”

In a city like Buffalo—Democratic but blue-collar, with rising crime, die-hard Trump fans, and, in some quarters, knee-jerk respect for law enforcement—a self-described socialist campaigning on cutting the police budget can be a tough sell. But Walton and her supporters see her brand of democratic socialism as broadly popular and barely radical. Most people needed and appreciated their stimulus checks, she pointed out, and “Social Security programs and Medicare and food stamps and all of those social safety net programs” also came out of “socialist values.” Rich people are still going to be rich, she assured me. “We’re not going to seize anyone’s property or prevent people from doing business. But we are going to make sure that our government prioritizes the majority of us.… When 30 percent of people in Buffalo are living in poverty, almost half of our children are living in poverty—like they’re going to bed hungry—we have a serious issue.”

Like many left-wing candidates, she cited Senator Bernie Sanders as an inspiration. “The first time I ever did petitioning was for Bernie,” she recalled. “It was different for me to hear a person who was an elected official say you that shouldn’t be working 40 hours a week and still getting food stamps.” Growing up in Buffalo, she had always been told, “The harder you work, the better you do.” But that wasn’t her experience. More than anything, joining a union had helped lift her out of poverty. If socialism meant better conditions for working people, she was all for it.

Yet she knows she’ll have to work with people who don’t share her views. It’s not differences of opinion that offend her, she said, but the refusal to put people first when it’s your job to help them. And that, as Walton sees it, is the primary responsibility of any public official. “That is the beauty of a democracy,” she said. “We don’t have to agree on everything. But what we do agree on is that we should work together for what’s best for the people.”

A pragmatist and a hard worker, Walton is driven by the belief that people can overcome their differences to serve the greater good. She’s seen firsthand how people can come together to meet a need, especially when the stakes are high. “I’m a union girl, and I worked in a neonatal intensive care unit where I was one of five Black nurses in a unit with 150 white nurses who were mostly middle-aged, suburban white women who didn’t often care for my political views.”

Yet, when it was time to save a life, “none of that mattered”—she and her coworkers “worked lock and step” and “saved countless babies.” She sees politics in similar terms. “Buffalo is on life support right now,” she told me. “We all want our communities to be less poor,” she said, referring to Democratic elected officials. “We all want to be housed. We all want people to be healthy… there are just slight nuances in values that we are getting hung up on. And I am hopeful that I can be a bridge that helps us get over it and make significant sustainable change.” At the end of the day, she added, “I have a responsibility to work as best as I can with people to make sure that I get the resources that my community needs to thrive.”

Walton carries herself with the hard-won confidence of someone who is used to being dismissed and determined to be heard. In a September 9 debate with Brown and two lesser-known candidates, Benjamin Carlisle and Jaz Miles, she was sharp, punchy, and well-prepared. At one point she suggested her fellow candidates should stop mischaracterizing “who I am and what I believe” and should instead “ask more questions and read more books.” Yet she’s hurt when fellow Buffalonians portray her as an “angry” radical. “I’m not at all angry,” she told me, “I’m a pretty pleasant person,” adding, “I think my frustration presents as anger. And I’m frustrated because I know that we deserve better and that we can do better.”

Suddenly realizing we only had a few more minutes together, I asked Walton, who’d mentioned a love of wings, the question foremost in any self-respecting Buffalonian’s mind: Where does she get hers? She told me she favors Sweets Lounge, a “very inclusive little dimly lit dive bar.” The people there talk to her “like I’m a regular person.… We just talk about our day and what’s on the news and the latest reality TV show.” She looked wistful for a moment, perhaps savoring a memory of life before the campaign. Then it was back to business.

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