What Can We Learn from the Democratic Establishment’s War Against India Walton?

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On June 22, 2021, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member and community activist India Walton stunned the political establishment of Buffalo, New York by defeating four-term incumbent mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary. Less than five months later, Brown won the general election as a write-in candidate by leveraging the support and participation of the Democratic Party machine. Despite her grassroots campaign, Brown overtook Walton by more than 12,000 votes. The important question for the DSA and left is – what happened? Why wasn’t Walton able to turn the primary victory into a general election win?

A victory would have made her the first socialist mayor of a major American city in decades, as well as the first woman mayor of Buffalo. This would have inspired many more socialist candidates around the country. A working-class Buffalonian through and through, Walton was born and raised in Buffalo, had her first child at 14, eventually earned her GED, and later became a nurse and then the director of a housing non-profit. She joined the DSA and was encouraged to run for office. 

Walton’s campaign shook up the political establishment of Buffalo, NY, a mid-sized rustbelt city. In her impressive platform, she called for reforming public safety including community oversight of the police, support for tenants rights and rent stabilization, and lead remediation. But rather than doing everything she could to differentiate herself from her opponent, Walton took the dead-end route of trying to win establishment support. As the campaign went on she increasingly bent to the logic of developers and big business, when she should have relentlessly gone on the offensive against Brown and his billionaire backers. For socialist candidates looking to win elections and real gains for working people, the key ingredient for success is a class struggle approach that names the enemy and puts bold working class demands at the center of every issue.

Counter to what is often accepted as common sense by much of DSA and the left, Walton’s campaign shows that running on the Democratic Party ballot line is far from a shortcut to electoral success. Despite her primary victory, it was Buffalo’s Democratic Party machine that waged the most ferocious battle against Walton. 

The Establishment Strikes Back

Walton won the city’s June Democratic primary by just over 1,500 votes, clearly catching the establishment flat footed. Mayor Brown had thought so little of Walton’s challenge he had barely campaigned and arrogantly refused to debate her. He spent only $71,000, less than one fifth of what he spent during the 2017 primary. But following the primary, the political establishment rapidly changed course and pulled out all the stops to defeat Walton. 

Leader of an administration known for corruption and nepotism, Brown’s first move was to attempt to circumvent election rules to get his name on the ballot. It was only after multiple court cases and appeals that Brown resorted to a write-in campaign. 

Walton waged an impressive campaign raising over a million dollars from over 15,000 donors without accepting any corporate cash. Although she fell far short of unseating him in the general election, Walton notably did beat Brown in his own stronghold, the Masten district. 

Meanwhile, Brown’s campaign welcomed support and donations from high profile Trump supporters, corporate developers, and the New York State Republican Party. They also carried out a brutal campaign of personal attacks against Walton, flinging anything they could at her including accusations about her criminal record, welfare fraud, and unpaid parking tickets. This campaign of character assasination put on display the lengths to which the establishment and mainstream media are willing to go to undermine anyone who represents a real threat to the corporate status quo, regardless of formal party affiliation. 

In addition to a smear campaign, the establishment tried to paint Walton as inexperienced and unfit for political office. They were prepared to take advantage of any mistake that she made. When asked in a debate if she would raise taxes on Buffalo residents, Walton stated that, “Unfortunately we’re going to have to look at a modest, incremental tax increase in order to balance our books.” This was an invitation for Brown to go on the offensive, when it should have been an opportunity for Walton to expose his record of tax breaks for big business and corporate developers.

Buffalo is a Union Town

The fight for union endorsements is a key battleground in any election campaign, but this is especially true in a Democratic Party city with relatively high union density. Taking on a sixteen-year incumbent who has built his career exchanging favors with the union bureaucracy is no easy task. Determined to make the election a referendum on “defunding the police,” the establishment went on the offensive and used fear mongering to spread false claims that Walton would fire 100 police officers and lay-off other city employees, undercutting their contracts. Walton secured a handful of union endorsements and was a vocal supporter of the Workers United organizing drive at Starbucks. However, she came up short against machine politician Byron Brown who significantly outflanked her. 

Despite Walton winning the Democratic nomination, Brown had the support of almost all major unions in the city and the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. After endorsing Walton in the primary, the Buffalo Teachers Federation declined to endorse Walton in the general election, saying it would be “too divisive.” While this change of tune can likely largely be attributed to pressure on the union leadership by the establishment, Walton opened herself up to this backpedaling when she reversed her previous position and expressed support for “school choice” and charter schools in comments to business leaders

While bureaucratic union leaders are unwilling to break with the establishment out of fear of jeopardizing their own positions, workers across the country are excitedly looking on as Buffalo Starbucks workers show the potential for a bottom up fight back in the labor movement. To win labor support, Walton needed to tap into this combative mood and openly fight for the support of rank and file union members.

Socialist Alternative is no stranger to the barriers genuine left candidates often face while fighting for endorsements in the labor movement. In our struggle against the right-wing Recall in Seattle, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign was able to win over 20 local union endorsements. But none of these were automatic and many were only won through serious struggle waged from the bottom up by rank and file members within their unions. Rebuilding a fighting labor movement will require taking on both the bosses and the conservative labor leadership, as well as forging a new, militant activist layer within the unions. This is a key task for socialists today. It will inevitably bring the movement into conflict with the Democratic Party establishment, who despite posturing as pro-union, fully understand that a militant labor movement would threaten their position and are prepared to submit to the whims of the bosses at the first sign of trouble.

Naming the Class Enemies

Attacks by the establishment weren’t the only difficulty facing Walton’s campaign. The most dynamic left electoral campaigns over the past few years have been bolstered by their connections — whether concrete or perceived — to wider social movements, worker, tenant and student struggles. The lull in social struggle during the elections, primarily brought on by the Biden honeymoon, was a real challenge. However, this in itself was not a death sentence; it is possible for vibrant socialist campaigns to cut across a lull in the broader class struggle. Again, the fact that Starbucks workers across Buffalo were discussing unionizing during Walton’s campaign proves there was a mood of working-class anger that she could’ve tapped into.

Walton’s platform included extensive policy details on a wide range of important issues. She correctly centered her campaign around key things at the front of working people’s minds like public safety, affordable housing, education, and healthcare. But the best defense against political attacks is a good offense. Walton’s campaign struggled to forcefully counter the false narratives of the local Democratic establishment with her own narrative on the key issues facing working people, and bring one or two key demands to the forefront of the race. 

A movement-building approach of consistently focusing on a few concrete demands, could have helped to further expose her opponent, whose corrupt, pro-corporate record was well known. Building a campaign around a key demand and using it as a launchpad for struggle, can establish an electoral campaign as a pole of attraction for young people, renters, and poor and working class people who are typically less likely to vote, especially in local elections. This is what Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant has done time and again in Seattle. She has won three elections by running on (and subsequently winning) critical demands for working people like the $15 minimum wage and taxing big business to fund affordable housing. While this approach on its own would not have been a guarantee to overcoming the objective difficulties that existed, it would have put the movement in a stronger position even in the case of a loss. 

How Socialists Respond to Red-Baiting

In the face of countless personal attacks about her past, Walton responded in a bold and politicized way, likening her experiences with the criminal justice system, domestic violence, and poverty to the experiences of the vast majority of working people in Buffalo. This same unapologetic approach needed to be adopted when taking up red-baiting and fear mongering.

While Walton did not hide her DSA membership or socialist politics, she rarely brought it up herself and instead was often stuck on the defensive, forced to respond to ludicrous attacks. When pressed about her loyalty to the Democratic Party and the term “democratic socialist,” Walton responded “I won the Democratic primary. Secondly, I am a self-avowed democratic socialist. The first word in that is ‘Democrat.’” 

She doubled down on this mistaken approach in the final stretch of the campaign, touting endorsements from staunch figures in the national Democratic establishment, including New York Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer. These endorsements should not be mistaken for any genuine support for Walton’s program, but rather are indicative of the confidence that this wing of the establishment has in their ability to neutralize Walton in a more tactful way by bringing her into the fold. These endorsements, in the final analysis, hurt Walton’s ability to claim to be the anti-establishment candidate running against the corporate politician. Unfortunately, attempts to cozy up to the establishment have been increasingly common among progressives within the Democratic Party like AOC and “the Squad,” and represent a serious mistake for the socialist movement. The strength of our movements – whether in city hall, on the picket lines, or in the streets – comes from working and oppressed people fighting back collectively, not from backroom negotiations or proximity to those in power.

The local establishment’s offensive against Walton, drawing support from the GOP and the right, was part of a nationwide backlash against progressives and the Black Lives Matter movement. Walton had a good program on public safety and was correct to use language that could be easily understood by the majority of working people, rather than activist buzzwords. But the issue of how to respond to working class consciousness on any issue is first and foremost a political question, not just one of clever messaging. While she was correct to avoid using the slogan “defund the police” as a central part of her campaign, a full-throated defense of Black Lives Matter and the struggle against racism, would have put her in a stronger offensive position than getting into debates about the semantics of the words “defund” vs. “reallocate.” By skirting around the issue, she allowed the establishment to double down on the accusation that she had something to hide. 

The Problem with the Inside Strategy

“Who is the real Democrat?” was a running debate between Brown and Walton throughout the election. Brown hurled accusations at Walton that she shouldn’t call herself a Democrat because she was really a socialist. She argued that she was the Democratic Party nominee while Brown was just a sore loser working with Republicans and corporate donors to try and get a do-over. The stark reality is that these tactics — collusion with the right-wing to cut across the left, vitriolic personal attacks, backroom deals, corporate money — are the tried and true methods of the Democratic Party. And while both Walton and Brown are Democrats, this election shows who really owns the party.  

After barely campaigning, seemingly with the flip of a switch Brown was able to dramatically turn things around, nearly quadrupling the number of votes cast for him from the primary to the general. While Walton caught the establishment unaware in the primary, she felt the full weight of the Democratic Party machine once it sprung into action in the general election. While the formal structures of the machine have eroded in recent decades, it still reaches deep down into many working class neighborhoods where political loyalties and connections determine who will get a contract, city position or union apprenticeship, which pothole gets filled, or where a new playground is built. Brown was able to lean on this machine to secure donations, union endorsements, and turn out voters armed with “Byron Brown” rubber stamps. 

Far from a shortcut to electoral success, Walton’s run within the Democratic Party left her facing sabotage from the inside out every step of the way. While the party demands compliance from its left wing, the establishment feels no need to offer anything in return for that obedience. New York Governor Kathy Hochul and State Democratic Committee chairman Jay Jacobs declined to endorse Walton even though she was the Democratic nominee. When pressed on the issue, Jacobs defended the non-endorsement saying that the party was under no obligation to automatically support the Democratic nominee. To explain this he used the analogy that in the same way the party would not support KKK Grand Wizard David Duke if he had won the primary, they were not going to endorse Walton. If you can get past the absurdity of the comparison, it does shine a light on one blunt truth. This wing of the Democratic Party establishment sees India Walton, a working class Black woman and socialist activist, as being just as unacceptable as having a Nazi on their ticket.

The Fight Is Not Over

The Democratic Party is not just a ballot line that can be used strategically by socialists looking to challenge the status quo, it is a complex web of well-connected politicians and bureaucrats with loyalties to mega-nonprofits, religious leaders, developers, and of course big business. Despite Walton repeatedly professing her commitment to the party and even winning the nomination fair and square, the party’s real allegiance lies with those willing to do the bidding of its corporate donors.

Even the most charismatic and genuine progressives face two possible fates within the confines of the Democratic Party, isolation or co-optation. To break this corporate stranglehold we need a new, mass working class party that would be truly accountable to working people instead of trying to stifle our struggles and demands. Unlike the Democrats, this party would be tied to a clear political program, have democratic structures, and serve as a tool for struggle and movement building. Millions of working people and youth across the country are clearly hungry for an alternative to corporate politics, this is the kind of party we need to take that struggle forward. 

It was courageous Starbucks workers in Buffalo that kicked off what has now become a tidal wave of Starbucks organizing and unionization across the country; these workers cannot afford to have their struggle snuffed out by the corporate Democratic Party. To build fighting unions that can win strong contracts, workers need more than just platitudes, they need active support in building the movement nationwide through a real class struggle approach. Councilmember Kshama Sawant has been able to take this approach precisely because she is not beholden to any corporate interests or to the rules set by the Democratic establishment.

Over 25,000 people cast their vote for a self-proclaimed democratic socialist in Buffalo, showing the huge opening for socialist ideas. While the Democratic establishment was able to neutralize this particular challenge, between the recent wave of workplace actions and the looming threat to reproductive rights, their position is far from stable. India Walton’s campaign offers rich lessons which are relevant far beyond Buffalo, NY; the establishment will take note, socialists should too.