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Meet India Walton: Black Socialist on Democratic Ticket for Buffalo Mayor Snubbed by NY Dem Party

StoryOctober 20, 2021
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As early voting kicks off Saturday in a nationally watched mayoral race in Buffalo, New York, we speak with India Walton, who shocked the Democratic establishment when she defeated four-term Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary. Since then, the self-described socialist has faced stiff opposition from within her party, with many top Democrats in the state, including Governor Kathy Hochul and Senator Chuck Schumer, refusing to endorse her. State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs even compared Walton to former KKK leader David Duke in an interview, for which he later apologized. Walton is a Black single mother, a registered nurse and longtime community activist. If elected on November 2, she will be the first mayor of a major American city in decades who identifies as a socialist. Walton says she is “hyper-focused” on her campaign and does not want to take part in the vitriol of her opponents. “I am running for mayor of Buffalo as an expression of love,” Walton adds.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The chair of New York’s Democratic Party is facing calls to resign, after he compared Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Walton shocked the Democratic establishment in June when she defeated the Buffalo four-term Mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary. India Walton is a Black single mother. She’s a registered nurse, a longtime community activist and a self-described socialist. But many of the state’s top Democrats, including Governor Kathy Hochul and Senator Chuck Schumer, are refusing to endorse her in the general election. The Buffalo mayor, Byron Brown, is now running a write-in campaign in attempt to stay in office. But she already defeated him. On Monday, the chair of the state’s Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, was asked by Spectrum News about why many Democrats are not endorsing Walton.

JAY JACOBS: Just take a scenario, a very different, where David Duke — you remember him? — the grand wizard of the KKK, he moves to New York, he becomes a Democrat, and he runs for mayor in the city of Rochester, which has a low primary turnout, and he wins the Democratic line. I have to endorse David Duke? I don’t think so. Now, of course, India Walton isn’t in the same category, but it just — it just leads you to that question: Is it a must? It’s not a must.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jay Jacobs, the chair of the New York State Democratic Committee. He later apologized because of enormous outcry.

Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded by tweeting, quote, “Jay Jacobs absolutely should resign over his disgusting comments comparing a Black single mother who won a historic election to David Duke. India Walton is the Democratic nominee for Mayor of Buffalo. No amount of racist misogyny from the old boys’ club is going to change that,” she said. AOC will be heading to Buffalo Saturday to campaign with India Walton.

This comes as nearly 2,000 nurses at South Buffalo’s Mercy Hospital are on strike, one of many strikes underway nationwide this month. And India Walton is a nurse.

With Election Day less than two weeks away, we go now to Buffalo, where we’re joined by India Walton. If she wins in November, she’ll be the first mayor of a major American city in decades who identifies as socialist.

India Walton, welcome to Democracy Now! Congratulations on your victory in the Democratic primary. Are you also calling for the head of the state Democratic Party to resign? And talk about what your platform is.

INDIA WALTON: Good morning, Amy. Thank you for having me.

I am hyper-focused on the next week and a half, approximately, a little more than that, and in winning the general election convincingly enough to let people know that the voters of Buffalo is who was calling for a change in leadership. You know, I think what Jay Jacobs said about me is unfortunate and misguided, but I’m definitely not focused on that. I don’t have the energy. I don’t have the space in my heart for too much anger, because right now I am running for mayor of Buffalo as an expression of love.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, India Walton, I wanted to ask you — you were not only a nurse, you were a union delegate of 1199SEIU. Clearly, the labor movement was a big supporter of yours. How do you react, not so much to Jay Jacobs, but just to the refusal of the Democratic Party, in general, to endorse the candidate who won the primary?

INDIA WALTON: You know, the way I see this race right now is a class struggle, right? We have the managers and leaders against the shop and the workers. And as a union delegate, I would often experience that dichotomy. We didn’t always agree. The members didn’t always agree with the leadership. And that’s fine. And I think I have the benefit and the honor of being a boots-on-the-ground organizer who was able to go into neighborhoods, into communities, knock on doors and have conversations with the people who matter. And that’s the voters.

So, while, you know, it’s my hope that established Democratic leaders would endorse and support, that’s not who I’m here for. I’m here for the voters of Buffalo. And I would add that, you know, the chair of my local party, the Erie County Democratic Committee, even though they endorsed my opponent preprimary, they have come on board after I won and been true to their word of supporting the Democratic nominee. My assemblyperson, Jon Rivera, is in support. My county legislator, April Baskin, is in support. And my state senator, Sean Ryan, is also in support. So, you know, there’s a few people who are publicly supporting, but, more importantly, there are thousands of everyday, working-class Buffalonians who are going to come out to the polls and vote for me on November 2nd.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you were not only a longtime labor activist, but you also were involved in affordable housing and through the — as executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust. Could you talk about how your experience in fighting for affordable housing shaped your decision to run for office?

INDIA WALTON: Yeah. The Fruit Belt Community Land Trust came out of that community’s desire to stay in place, to protect homeowners from huge increases in their tax bills as a result of reassessments and rising rents. And, you know, the prior administration had a policy of demolition as a means to combat blight in the community. So there were 200 city-owned vacant lots in the Fruit Belt neighborhood that folks really wanted to put to productive use, but also use as leverage to get some community benefits from a growing medical campus that’s adjacent to the neighborhood.

And, you know, working in the Fruit Belt proved to me that the people know what they need where they live, and the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution. And experiential expertise, living the life of an everyday person, is enough when you can enlist the help of experts and professionals and highly skilled folks to get the job done. Not only that, but approaching the city and trying to just purchase land to build affordable housing on and seeing how complicated that process was — and it was like, “Hey, like, this is what the community is asking for. We all know there’s an affordable housing crisis” — and to have very little cooperation from the city, who had all of the ability and all of the power to help us construct affordable housing to the benefit of the community, really was motivating to me to go ahead and run, so that we will finally have a compassionate and empathetic ear in City Hall to want to work along with community groups who are trying to do good, and not work against them.

AMY GOODMAN: India Walton, I mean, this was an amazing victory on your part. You beat the four-term Democratic incumbent mayor, who’s now going to — who’s launched a write-in campaign against you. This reminds me very much of Cori Bush, who ran for Congress and who, you know, beat a real dynasty that went on for decades. So, if you can talk about what you think is most different about your candidacy, and also, I mean, the striking nurses? You’re a nurse in Buffalo. Thousands are out on strike. Are you a part of that?

INDIA WALTON: I often visit the picket line. I take water and coffee, and I support those nurses, who are not only fighting for, you know, a fair wage and benefits, but really fighting for their lives and the lives of people in our community, who deserve safe staffing ratios and who deserve to be prioritized over the profits of executives in companies who are bringing home millions of dollars and expecting the people who do the work to work longer hours, to suffer. You know, we’re facing a nursing shortage all over the country. And I’m very proud of the nurses at Mercy Hospital and of CWA and all of the solidarity from other unions and community members for standing with them. I’m super proud of that. But to the first part of your question, which I don’t even quite remember what it was —

AMY GOODMAN: Your victory against Byron Brown really upset the Democratic establishment. And how you think — why you think your message so resonated?

INDIA WALTON: Yeah. You know, we were out in the streets last summer protesting after the murder of George Floyd, and we watched Buffalo police push a 75-year-old man to the ground. He was bleeding from his ears. His name is Martin Gugino. And the response out of our city leadership was not only disappointing, it was embarrassing. The country watched that on national news, and our leader, our mayor, defended the actions of his police department. And he totally ignored the cries for justice from protesters, from community members, from our own governor, who compelled him to put in place reforms in order to get state entitlements and funding. That was the only reason why there was action taken on behalf of the city of Buffalo to address our policing issue. And those reforms have been lackluster at best.

So, you know, I felt personally like if he would ignore thousands of people in the streets last — the summer before last now, that he would also ignore a campaign that was being spearheaded by those people. You know, I don’t feel like I won the Democratic primary. I feel like the city of Buffalo won the Democratic primary, because the strategy was to have boots on the ground, people on doors, people having conversations and really having a truly grassroots-based campaign. And that’s what we did. Our campaign hasn’t accepted any money from corporations or lobbying groups or large developers. All of our fundraising has been small-dollar, you know, grassroots, from individuals who truly believe in what we’re doing. I have a diverse group of supporters from many countries of origins, across socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, educational attainment, working-class, you know, well-to-do.

It’s just been an honor for me and impressive to see how this campaign has come together and continues to fight over the long haul. You know, a lot of us thought that we would have a reprieve after the primary and have a little room to relax a little, but this write-in campaign has kept us, you know, full steam ahead. And my team and my dedicated volunteers have been with me every single step of the way. And that’s what this campaign is about. It’s about people.

AMY GOODMAN: India Walton, Bernie Sanders called you on primary — after you won the primary?

INDIA WALTON: He did. I’ve spoken to him several times since the primary.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response when he first called?

INDIA WALTON: I cried. Bernie Sanders is a person who I admire very much and who sort of gave me inspiration to be more involved in local politics.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask you quickly about Byron Brown continuing to try to run as an independent, and some of the supporters of him, considering that he is still nominally a Democrat. Could you talk about the far-right Trump supporters who are backing him?

INDIA WALTON: Yeah. You know, Buffalo is 65% Democrat. So, anyone who’s going to run a successful campaign for mayor here pretty much has to be a Democrat. But the values of our current administration have not displayed the values that I believe Democrats hold, which is putting people and workers and families first. But, you know, his campaign is being supported by members of the Republican Party. And not only members of the Republican Party, but known local members of white supremacist groups, you know, carried petitions to get him back no the ballot. Actually, the judge who placed him back on the ballot was appointed by 45. So, you know, we know that he’s actively colluding with Republicans in order to maintain his seat of power.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Judge John Sinatra and his support of Byron Brown, the far-right Trump appointee who I think you’re referencing?

INDIA WALTON: Mm-hmm. So, John Sinatra is the brother of a local developer, Nick Sinatra, who is one of Brown’s biggest financial supporters, who’s also been found to owe back city taxes, in the same cycle that the mayor then was featured in a promotion video in support of him. So, the ties that bind are not very difficult to draw. This is something that pretty much every person in Buffalo who watches the local news is well aware of. But this is how power works. Those with money and those with power are able to manipulate the system, skirt the rules. But, ultimately, I believe that justice will prevail. And in this case, a panel of appellate court judges decided that he could not be on the ballot. So he’s using a lot of money and independent expenditures, funded by the real estate lobby, to continue to stoke fear among voters and smear me personally. But I don’t think it’s going to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, India Walton, we’re going to continue to follow your race, Democratic nominee for mayor of Buffalo. If she wins in November, she’ll be the first mayor of a major American city in decades, back to 1960, who identifies as a socialist. Early voting starts on Saturday. That does it for our show, but, Juan, before we end, I wanted to give you the last word.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Amy, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the considerable criticism we received last week from viewers over comments that I made during an interview segment on U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan. In the prelude to a question, I remarked that Taiwan is an integral part of China and always has been, and while Taiwan was indeed a province of China for hundreds of years during the Imperial Era, it is also true that a vibrant movement for Taiwanese self-determination and democracy has long existed, one that’s independent of great power conflicts. My apologies to the supporters of that movement for failing to recognize that reality. And next time we discuss Taiwan, we’ll be sure to invite experts that can more fully delve into that history.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that does it now for our show. And just a couple things. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for two full-time jobs: director of finance and administration and a human resources manager. You can learn more and apply at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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