Up and Down The Ballot, Progressives Score Wins in Western New York

In Buffalo, socialist India Walton scored a landmark win against a four-term incumbent mayor. In nearby Rochester, shakeups on the city council and county legislature could chart a new course for local politics.

Sam Mellins   ·   July 19, 2021
India Walton defeated incumbent Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in New York's June 22 primary | NY Working Families Party

Published in partnership with the Daily Poster.

Last month, as Democratic voters in New York City puzzled pundits by nominating the moderate Eric Adams for mayor while simultaneously voting in what will likely be a historically progressive City Council, comptroller and public advocate, upstate Democrats went to the polls, too.

In the state’s second and third largest cities, Buffalo and Rochester, voters delivered results that could reshape both cities’ politics. In Rochester, progressive wins at the city and county levels signaled a possible new direction for the Democratic party. In Buffalo, India Walton’s shocking upset victory — despite the incumbent mayor’s announcement that he will run a write-in campaign in the general election — could bend a moderate Democratic city towards her socialist vision.

The victories further a leftward trend in Western New York that was also seen in the area’s most recent state legislative elections. 

“I can go down [interstate highway] 90 and pick up progressive legislators now, when a few years back, my car would have been empty,” said Rosemary Rivera, co-executive director of the grassroots organizing group Citizen Action of New York and a Rochester resident.

“Completely Demolished”

On June 22, Rochester, New York’s third-largest and poorest city, along with the surrounding Monroe County, experienced a political earthquake. At the top of the ticket, incumbent Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren suffered a landslide loss to challenger Malik Evans. While progressives were somewhat lukewarm on Evans, some saw Warren’s ouster as a vote of no confidence in her response to police misconduct that has plagued Rochester over the past year, including an alleged cover-up surrounding the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of the Rochester police department last March.

“Policy-wise I don’t see much difference in their platforms, but in terms of wanting her to be removed as a form of accountability to the Prude family, we see that as a win,” said Stanley Martin, who secured the Democratic nomination for one of the Rochester city council’s five at-large seats in the primary last month. Martin is an organizer with grassroots groups Free the People Rochester and VOCAL-NY, and formerly worked as a mental health counselor serving incarcerated people in the county jail. 

Martin ran as part of the “People’s Slate,” a group of candidates for city council and county legislature who mounted progressive campaigns for seats held by more moderate Democrats. Three of the slate’s five candidates were successful — two for city council and one for county legislature — with one other county legislature candidate falling short by only nine votes. The two city council candidates will join one incumbent DSA member to form a three-member socialist block on the nine-member council.

Support for the slate came from electoral organizing groups like Rochester DSA and the Rochester Working Families Party. It also grew out of the candidates’ involvement with Black Lives Matter organizing over the past year, as protest organizers joined the campaign as volunteers. 

“We had young people who had just simply had enough and were willing to move from being out in the streets to being at the doors, talking about what we’d like to do differently,” Martin said. “We know that the [Black] Panthers were in the streets and they also ran for office. It’s part of a larger group of tactics to fight for liberation on all sides.”

The slate’s platform focused most heavily on policing, transferring funds from policing to social services, and reducing the presence of police officers in crisis response.

Such a platform struck some as a tough sell in a city that has recently seen a significant rise in violent crime. “When we asked ‘What do you think the number one issue is facing Rochester?,’ the number one answer we got was crime,” Felisha Buchinger, an organizer with Rochester DSA, told New York Focus. 

Rather than downplaying crime, slate candidates attempted to convince voters that progressive measures such as increasing funding for social services work better than a policing-first model of public safety. 

“What we’re doing is not working. The school-to-prison pipeline is not working. Our candidates believe you need to give resources to the community so they can build better lives. When you broke it down like that, people understood and they liked it,” Buchinger said.

While the slate’s city council candidates were heavily supported by DSA, New York’s other flagship progressive group, the Working Families Party, focused its efforts on the Monroe county legislature. The county legislature primaries were even lower turnout than the already bottom-tier-participation council races. 

“It’s hard to get people interested, because there’s nothing sexy about county legislature,” Stevie Vargas, chair of the Rochester Working Families Party and co-founder of Free the People Rochester, told New York Focus. 

But the lack of attention paid to the races belies their importance. Monroe County is the second most populous in the state outside the New York City area, and its legislature controls a budget of over $1.2 billion as of 2020, including over $170 million in discretionary funds. That year, the Rochester city budget came to less than half of that sum. 

“In a lot of ways, county legislature is more important than city council,” Vargas said. Buchinger, who works with DSA and focused mostly on city council races, echoed the sentiment. “A lot of legislation is hard to execute in the city without similar legislation being passed in the county,” she said. 

For both progressives and mainstream Democrats, last month’s county legislature elections were a watershed, due to the defeat of the majority of a bloc of conservative Democrats who called themselves the “Black and Asian Democratic Caucus.” Despite being registered Democrats, the four members of the caucus and one closely allied legislator have for the past year “aligned strategically with the Republican majority in the Legislature,” the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported in June. The group aided Republicans on recent key votes blocking ethics reform and censure of a legislator who sent unsolicited sexually explicit photos to a young woman.

Candidates backed by the Working Families Party, including a professional boxing promoter, defeated three legislators affiliated with the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus. With a fourth retiring, the bloc’s influence is effectively dead. 

The party balance of the legislature currently gives Republicans a one vote majority. Without the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus to bolster the Republican agenda, a strong Democratic showing in the general election could flip the body and chart a new course for Monroe County politics.

Vargas said that this year’s wins were a continuation of a process that began in 2020, when Rochester and Monroe County elected five new Democratic representatives to the state legislature in Albany, three of whom flipped seats formerly occupied by Republicans. Like Martin, some of the candidates who won in 2020 had backgrounds as progressive organizers. Those legislators have since pushed for progressive priorities including increased funding for public education, marijuana legalization, and a public health-first approach to drug use. Local progressives expect the newly-electeds to do the same on the county and municipal levels.

“Within these last two cycles, the last forty years of the power structure in Rochester has been completely demolished,” Vargas said.

Rust Belt Socialism

In Buffalo, rather than slates of candidates, one shocking upset win made national headlines: first-time candidate India Walton soundly defeated four-term incumbent Byron Brown. Brown has since announced that he will run in the general election as a write-in candidate, but he faces an uphill battle to hold on to his seat.

Even so, Walton’s supporters are taking his challenge seriously. “Byron Brown is going to have a lot of resources, he has pretty much 100% name ID, and it’s the general, so there are more conservative voters who aren’t open to India,” said Ryan Stempien, a member of the Buffalo DSA steering committee.

The city looks set for a bruising general election campaign, and the opposing sides have already started to assemble their forces. Brown’s press conference announcing his run was held on one of the properties of Buffalo developer Doug Jemal, and he was joined at the conference by three of the nine members of Buffalo’s Common Council, the Investigative Post reported

The coalition that pushed Walton to victory in the primary, meanwhile, has dramatically grown in strength since her upset win. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who did a robocall for Brown during the primary, has called Walton to congratulate her. Leading lights of the progressive movement are fundraising for her, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman. 

And in Buffalo, much of the Democratic Party apparatus, whether or not they backed her primary run, have gotten behind her as the party’s nominee. Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz, as well as Rep. Brian Higgins and State Sen. Sean Ryan, who represent Buffalo in Washington and Albany, respectively, have all publicly announced their support for Walton.

Even Democratic Party chair Jeremy Zellner — who Walton claimed tried to use his perch at the county elections board to obstruct her candidacy, New York Focus reported last month — has now said that he and the party organization are “supporting India Walton 100%.” 

“Buffalo is so party and machine-based that now that India has that institutional backing, nobody wants to buck the party,” Stempien said.

If Walton does beat back Brown at the ballot box, a new question will arise: will she be able to implement her democratic socialist agenda when contending with the council of a city that has been called a “moderate Democratic stronghold”? 

Progressives say it may take replacing the local power structure with one more sympathetic to their goals. The common council is next up for election in 2023, and during the campaign and on election night, Walton talked explicitly about wanting to encourage more progressive outsiders to challenge entrenched incumbents. "If you are in an elected office right now, you are being put on notice. We are coming,” she said in her victory speech

Progressive groups in the city, having tasted victory, say they’ve just whetted their appetite. “Now that we’ve got one win under our belt, we’re going to be looking for more,” Stempien said of Buffalo DSA. “We will be running at least two common council seats at the bare minimum” in 2023.

Even without replacing members of the council, the threat of progressive primary challengers supported by an incumbent mayor could incentivize current council members to work closely with Walton, Stempien said. 

Rob Galbraith, a policy researcher and Buffalo DSA member, pointed to council member Dave Rivera, who represents the Niagara neighborhood, which Walton won overwhelmingly, as someone likely to be amenable to Walton’s platform. “If in two years time he decides he wants another term, I think he could very likely see a challenger, and would need to appease that base,” he said.

Galbraith also stressed that the mayor possesses significant power that can be exercised unilaterally. In Buffalo, the common council votes on a budget proposed by the Mayor. “That’s a tremendous amount of power right there,” Galbraith said. 

The mayor also controls the Office of Strategic Planning, the agency in charge of land use decisions throughout the city. Walton is the founding executive director of Buffalo’s Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that develops and sells affordable homes to low- and middle-income Buffalonians. Her platform includes expanding a similar model citywide.

For much of Brown’s tenure as mayor, the council has been highly deferential to his agenda. Recently, however, it has pushed in a more progressive direction that also suggests a potential openness to Walton’s platform, both Stempien and Galbraith said. 

In May, the council bucked the mayor’s wishes by voting 6-3 to remove school zone speed cameras, which since 2020 had been issuing $50 fines to drivers who exceeded the speed limit, in favor of non-punitive traffic safety measures such as speed bumps and warning signs. Mayor Brown opposed eliminating the cameras, while as a candidate, Walton supported the measure, citing the disparate impact of fines on poor people of color.

“That was a perfect microcosm for the difference between India and Byron,” Stempien said. “Punish people, penalize people, set people up for failure, and then punish them when they fail—versus investing, setting people up for success, and not trying to extract wealth from us.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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