India: Black Women Inspired Me” by Nate Peraccini

On June 22nd, India Walton—a self-described democratic socialist, former nurse, and founding executive director of Fruit Belt Community Land Trust—shocked the Buffalo establishment by defeating four-term incumbent mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic Party primary by a seven percentage-point margin (51.9 percent to 44.8 percent).

If Walton prevails in November, she will become the first socialist mayor of any US city of over 100,000 people since 1960; she would also be Buffalo’s first woman mayor. In November, Walton faces no Republican opposition. However, Brown has pledged to run a write-in campaign against Walton, even though the local Democratic Party chair has declared, “We are supporting India Walton 100 percent.”

Walton ran with backing from a number of groups, including the city’s teachers’ union, the Working Families Party, and the Democratic Socialists of America. She received donations from more than 2,800 city residents, with the donations averaging less than $50 each.

When asked on election night whether she was a socialist, Walton responded “Absolutely.” She elaborated that “the entire intent of this campaign is to draw down power and resources to the ground level, to the hands of the people. When we think about socialism, we’re perfectly fine with socialism for the rich. We will bail out Wall Street and banks and give a billion dollars in tax incentives to one of the richest people in the world to build an empty Tesla factory in South Buffalo. And when it comes to providing the resources that working families need to thrive, socialism becomes scary at that point.”

Beyond shifting resources from giving economic development incentives to Tesla to supporting working families, Walton’s platform, which is detailed on her campaign website, contains many action items she pledges to implement in 100 days, including:

  • Remove police from responding to most mental health calls and establish a new response to crisis mental health calls that utilizes mental health professionals
  • Sign a tenants’ bill of rights, as advocated by the local community group People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo)
  • Provide financial relief to small landlords in exchange for rent forgiveness for tenants
  • Declare Buffalo a sanctuary city
  • Convene city leaders to create a climate action plan
  • Identify land throughout the city that can be designated as community garden sites

Longer term (one- to four-year) objectives in her platform include:

  • Establish a public bank to finance investment in city priorities
  • Develop a comprehensive participatory budgeting process
  • Support the creation and capacity building of a citywide land trust federation with democratic decision-making at the neighborhood level
  • Implement a Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) to give tenants the right to purchase their residences when landlords seek to sell their properties
  • Convert the city’s vehicle fleet to electric cars
  • Deploy community health workers in targeted zip codes

Well before she was a candidate as mayor, Walton was already a force in Buffalo and a leader in the community land trust movement nationally. In a Remaking the Economy webinar hosted by NPQ a year ago amid the initial COVID-19 economic shutdown, Walton talked about her work developing the community land trust in Buffalo’s eastside Fruit Belt neighborhood, noting, “I think the number one priority for communities similar to mine is to create power among the community and really harness that into political will. Previously we were not a factor…now, we’re in a position where people have to come to us to do other things.”

Walton also described how nursing has proven for her to be an entry point into politics. Her last nursing job, she notes, was as a school nurse. “No child came to me because they were sick,” she said. “They came because they were tired; they came because they were hungry; they came because there was violence in their home and they had no refuge.” They came to find “a place where they felt safe, where they could cry and have someone understand what they are going through.” The question that came to her, Walton said, is, “How do I take this and scale it to a level where there is an impact beyond what is my little nursing office and my 500 students? And I thought that organizing was a great way to do that.”

In her victory speech, Walton credited her success to her ability to forge coalitions. “I know that I can’t do anything alone. When I said on the campaign trail that I am most qualified because I am a coalition builder, we set out to not only change Buffalo but to change the way progressive politics are viewed in upstate New York.”

Last month, in an interview with Jacobin, Walton outlined her vision for the city:

The Buffalo that I envision is one free from militarized and hostile policing, one where there’s ample and truly affordable housing, where there are opportunities for collective ownership and cooperative employment, where folks are working for organizations that they have an ownership stake in. I want to live in a deeply democratic city where all voices are heard, including those who are not able to vote, whether it’s because of their age or their immigration status. The leadership of this city should govern everyone who lives here.

So my dream for Buffalo is just that: a state of deep democracy and co-governance where everyone is valued and can thrive.