By Charles Lenchner

Today is Election Day in Buffalo, and while polls show more support for incumbent mayor Byron Brown, the nature of the race is such that polls are especially unreliable. India Walton, the working class woman who came from poverty to become a nurse, then a community organizer, is now a serious candidate who just might win.

Her stunning primary victory in June shocked Mayor Brown and by extension the political establishment in Buffalo and New York State. The drama surrounding his refusal to concede to Walton and instead mount a well financed write-in campaign has generated serious headlines ever since. With the race over and the votes uncounted, Democrats and progressives outside of Buffalo want to know: what does this mean for a rapidly shifting American politics?

india walton and Byron Brown

The answer has a lot to do with the evolution of the Democrats’ left flank in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s presidential run and the George Floyd uprising. In both cases, a generational split has made it harder to think of a ‘Black vote’ and instead made it clear that there are multiple political constituencies within the community, and each of them is allying with a different wing of the Democratic Party. If the progressive side is on the rise, their victory will come at the cost of defeating the current Black political establishment in cities like Buffalo.

The Rise of a New Coalition

Walton has built a multiracial coalition that includes Black voters peeled away from Mayor Brown, disaffected non-voters, white progressives, younger voters, and immigrants from Buffalo’s diverse West Side. We don’t know yet if that’s enough to win, but we do know that this is one of the most powerful challenges to business-as-usual in a mid-sized American city happening now.

As she assembled her supporters in late 2020, two powerhouse progressive organizations decided to take her campaign seriously and offer support: the Working Families Party (which previously supported Brown) and the Democratic Socialists of America. The combination of Walton’s personal story and identity, WFP’s expertise in running election campaigns, and DSA’s growing base of volunteers proved itself capable of defeating a four-term incumbent mayor.

Win or lose, a large number of volunteers based in Buffalo have learned new skills, formed social and political relationships, and established a powerful new coalition hungry for battle.

Whither The Black Vote?

During the 2020 primary, it emerged that Black voters, especially older ones, strongly preferred the candidate they knew: Joe Biden. A similar dynamic exists in Buffalo, where Black voters broke in force for Brown. A reflexive loyalty exists for many who want to make sure that the mayor’s office isn’t lost to the white community. (There’s a long history of racism from white political leaders in the city – and not just the structural kind.) Walton is a threat to a status quo, and the large real estate developers are eager to stop her.

Buffalo is one of the poorest cities in America. Crime is a major concern for all communities. Many of the mostly Black residents of the East Side live in a landscape reminiscent of the urban flight that Detroit is famous for. More than a third live in poverty, according to official statistics. The good that has happened under Brown’s watch is real — there’s a lot of development going on and an increase in population. But the benefits of that development don’t reach the East Side. Worse, in many cases development means gentrification that displaces an already battered community.

The pain of those losing out in the new Buffalo lacked a focal point. As local progressive organizer Jim Anderson told Progressive Hub, “they have moved from pain, to protest, to power.” How much power remains to be seen.

Walton vs. Brown is a contest between a trickle-down development boom that hurts the poorest and the weakest and a candidate who threatens business as usual. The fact that both of them are Black creates a certain dilemma for the left.

Leadership Matters

One prominent narrative is that because of Walton’s lack of experience in government and antagonistic relationship to those currently in charge, she will be a weak, one-term mayor. After she’s gone, a white candidate for mayor will find it easier to win, thus setting back efforts to build Black political power – and losing the jobs and patronage that come with that power. A common theme of the stump speeches for Nina Turner from members of the Black Congressional Caucus was that unity = strength, meaning that Walton (and Turner) are guilty of sapping the community’s political strength by not resolving differences within the machine or waiting one’s turn.

White progressives are much more comfortable lifting up the importance of the Black vote in Federal elections, for example in past Senate races in Georgia and Alabama. Under those circumstances, there’s a strong incentive to pretend that a monolithic Black Vote exists and that it is led by Black women. Byron Brown is enacting a different story, one in which Black political and economic power is best served by fighting dirty against a Black woman in coalition with Republican Trump supporters. This puts white voters in a position to determine which of those two coalitions will win, either progressives or Republicans.

If moving the Democratic Party to the left is in effect a long drawn out battle against the Black political establishment, with bloody-knuckled fights like this election, this has the potential for political chaos. Can progressive forces and organizations really set out to replace the existing Black leadership class, which has roots in the civil rights struggles of the 60s? This carries the risk that large swathes of Black voters will see progressives as the enemy rather than an ally for racial justice.

There are other races that embody this tension too. These include the mayoral race in South Fulton, GA, where Khalid Kamau is facing incumbent mayor Bill Edwards. A bigger, if messier, example is New York City, where Eric Adams — a former cop — defeated more progressive candidates of color for mayor in part by rejecting the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter and “defunding” the police.

Adams is almost certainly going to win and become the Big Apple’s second Black mayor. The first was David Dinkins — a member at the time of Democratic Socialists of America.