In June, India Walton, a proud democratic socialist, beat incumbent Byron Brown in the race to see who would become the Democratic nominee for mayor of Buffalo, New York. This past week, Walton got walloped by her opponent, who eked out a last-minute write-in win.
Brown's "campaign was crafty," reports The New York Times, "spending $100,000 to distribute tens of thousands of ink stamps bearing the mayor's name to allow voters to ink his name on ballots, something allowed by state law." This will be Brown's fifth term as Buffalo mayor, one he garnered by emphasizing coalition building with more moderate and conservative supporters. On Tuesday night, he oh-so-humbly declared his own write-in win "one of the greatest comeback stories in our history."
As for Walton, "she exceeded my expectations in the general in some ways," University of Buffalo political science professor Jacob Neiheisel tells Reason. "We thought her ceiling was 30-35% and she outperformed that," though he alludes to the fact that it's hard to tell what percentage of her support is comprised of true believers versus those who simply wanted a change.
Walton's campaign was hobbled, at least in part, by her campaign staff's inability to regain control of media coverage after news reports surfaced that her car had been impounded due to failure to pay parking tickets and an expired inspection. Though Walton initially smartly leveraged this by reminding voters that these are the struggles poor people go through all the time, she fumbled later on when blaming the impounding troubles on her opponent.
"Brown successfully turned the election debate to the petty personal mistakes of Walton, a woman who became a working mother as a teen, before becoming a nurse: she was charged with $295 worth of food stamp fraud in 2003; she owed $749 in back taxes in 2004; she was stopped for driving with a suspended license; she visited her cousin before he went to jail; she failed to show up for a court summons sent to the wrong address; she wrote a rude Facebook post; and her car was towed just last month over unpaid parking tickets," writes Branko Marcetic at Jacobin, noting that Walton did not come from a moneyed background.
Neiheisel says that Brown made a mistake when he underestimated Walton's team initially. "He should have seen this coming," he says, noting that Federal Election Commission filings showed that Walton had significant downstate support, broadcasting ad spots in the right markets, and a solid media team. Still, "I don't think I've seen someone [within Buffalo politics] who has been quite as willing to append the socialist label to themselves [as Walton]," says Neiheisel, noting that there's a "generational gap" at play where younger voters are more willing to outwardly profess their democratic socialist or socialist affiliations.
Walton's platform consisted of boilerplate socialist commitments, especially in the realm of housing policy. She wanted to "provide financial relief to small landlords in exchange for rent forgiveness for tenants" while implementing the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which "means that when a property goes up for sale, existing tenants will have the first option to purchase the property." (TOPA provides funding for tenants to do so.) And, "if a tenant does not want the ability to purchase, they can assign their right to purchase the property to a local non-profit housing agency, which will then manage the property."
Walton's website says that "TOPA is a powerful anti-displacement and wealth generation tool." What her website doesn't say is that Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) proposals to intervene in the provenance of housing stock often creates problems. Tenants' rights protections, which DSA types (including Walton) almost always advocate for, raise landlords' costs of doing business, which results in them either raising rents or selling off their housing stock. Socialists tend to attempt to stymie developers building new housing stock, operating under the delusion that building new luxury apartments will raise rents for everyone, while also failing to recognize that higher vacancy rates correlate with less rent inflation.
Despite Walton's loss, several DSA-endorsed candidates performed concerningly well. Kendra Hicks won her bid for a seat on Boston's city council; incumbent Quinton Zondervan won his reelection bid for a seat on nearby Cambridge's city council. J.T. Scott was reelected to the city council in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Other DSA upstarts in the state were less successful: Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler failed in his bid for reelection to Cambridge's city council. Becca Miller, Eve Seitchik, and Tessa Bridge all failed to garner enough votes to be elected to the seats they were vying for on Somerville's city council. In all, the planned socialist takeover of Somerville, Massachusetts, didn't amount to much, and Boston DSA-backed incumbents had a much easier time getting the votes they needed than new entrants did.
"Our goal is … to take over Somerville and to start implementing a Green New Deal for Somerville, free transit, defunding the police, creating affordable housing, bringing back rent control," Boston DSA spokesperson Seth Gordon told Politico back in March, which noted that such "endorsements are a signal that the Boston Democratic Socialists of America is flexing some new political power, and eyeing a move toward the mainstream."
Elsewhere in the country, Rajesh Barnabas lost the race for a Rochester, New York, city council seat. Three DSA candidates won seats on Minneapolis' city council. And in Florida, Richie Floyd won a seat on St. Petersburg's city council.
2) DSA natl win rate is decent bc partly incumbents but also due to strategic campaigns across jurisdictions within & btw chapters such as in the greater Boston area. Staying local and combining resources across multiple races is key to expanding elected socialist representation.
— David S. Duhalde (@TheDuhalde) November 3, 2021
DSA endorsed 32 candidates in total; though many of the highest-profile contenders like India Walton were rejected by voters, the DSA's strategy of casting a wide net in local races appears to have somewhat come to fruition, with the organization reporting a 69 percent success rate.