Gilded Rust: The Making of Buffalo’s Socialist Upset

C.M. Lewis

On Tuesday, June 22nd, India Walton pulled off a stunning victory in the Buffalo mayoral primary, becoming the presumptive first socialist mayor of a major American city in over fifty years.

Buffalo is best known for its weather, its dead presidents, and its failures: the Blizzard of ‘77, William McKinley’s assassination during the Pan-American Exposition, and Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV. The Buffalo Bills have been a punchline to jokes on network shows like 30 Rock; the Buffalo Sabres don’t rate even that. More Buffalo fans can be seen at away hockey matches in the Sun Belt than there are at home games: a function of the widespread post-collapse exodus to warmer climes.

It’s a curious place for a socialist upheaval. Even during Buffalo’s industrial peak, it was never known for political radicalism; the city once boasted the most millionaires per capita of any American city. Frank Lloyd Wright buildings commissioned by the elite are strewn throughout Western New York; Buffalo’s Delaware Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park. Downtown Buffalo, including the imposing City Hall, still has lingering traces of art deco architecture bankrolled during the city’s industrial heyday—the buildings that survived the wrecking ball after the city’s economy collapsed.

Erie County is Democratic, but not by overwhelming margins. It has a long history of producing conservative figures like Jack Kemp, a long-time Buffalo congressional representative, Bob Dole’s Vice Presidential nominee, and a former captain of the Buffalo Bills. Jim Kelly, the beloved quarterback and Bills captain that went to (and lost) four straight Super Bowls, is well-known for his deep conservatism; his family is closely connected to Liberty University. Buffalo’s congressional representatives, headed by the likes of Brian Higgins, are milquetoast at best.

The city itself is a shadow of its heyday, with the banks of Lake Erie littered with abandoned grain elevators and steel mills. Buffalo’s economy rapidly collapsed along with the American steel industry. Major employers like Lackawanna Steel, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel, had shuttered by the 1980s. People went with the jobs: as of 2020, Buffalo had fewer residents than it did in 1950. The “Baby Boom” fled the city, whether for the suburbs or other states.

None of this meant that a socialist revolt was an inevitability, nor did any serious political commentator believe that Walton had a chance at defeating Byron Brown, the incumbent mayor. But she did.

Walton’s candidacy was always a long shot. Brown has been in office for a decade and a half and boasts close connections to Andrew Cuomo’s administration—connections he has used to funnel money to Buffalo. He’s defeated multiple challengers over the years, with the results never much in doubt. He declined to campaign significantly against Walton, and refused to debate her. To residents of Buffalo, he seemed like an immovable fixture in Erie County politics, presiding over a political machine more akin to the early days of Richard Daley than a modern American mayor.

Few endorsed Walton; she garnered one union endorsement from the Buffalo Teachers Federation, of which she is a member. She also received backing from the Buffalo chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. New York powerhouses like SEIU 32BJ and SEIU 1199 (Walton was previously an SEIU 1199 representative) endorsed Brown, as did the Western New York Area Labor Federation. The Buffalo News recommended Brown. Walton’s only significant newspaper endorsement was from The Challenger, a regional Black paper in Western New York. Most of the remainder of her backing was from national progressive and left organizations like Our Revolution, rather than local powerbrokers.

But beneath the surface of Brown’s invincibility was deep political weakness, and beneath the surface of India Walton’s victory is a deep disquiet with Buffalo’s future. Both these realities were created by more than a decade of neoliberal urban “revitalization,” creating a false veneer of liveliness over soaring inequality and gentrification.


The Buffalo Billion

Buffalo’s “revitalization” has been decades in the making, the result of a careful plan to lure pharmaceutical and medical investment and draw in “high-tech” industries to replace long-gone jobs in manufacturing. Nothing was more emblematic of this strategy than the so-called “Buffalo Billion”: a multi-phase public-private partnership scheme bankrolled by the State of New York, masterminded by Andrew Cuomo, and carefully shepherded by his local consigliere, Byron Brown.

It seemed to work. Along with the rollout of the Buffalo Billion, the Buffalo Sabres snagged Terry Pegula, a Pennsylvania billionaire who made his money on fracking, as a new owner. Pegula (who also later bought the Bills) turned around and invested in revitalizing Buffalo’s waterfront with the assistance of generous tax incentives. The HarborCenter project—a major development creating a multi-use facility that would quickly become a linchpin for U.S. Hockey—claimed it would create jobs for a chronically impoverished city.

Breweries, distilleries, and nightlife have exploded; the children of suburban “white flight” have begun to move back into the city. The waterfront and Buffalo’s downtown are now places to go, rather than places to pass through on your way to a Sabres game. Glowing New York Times profiles echoed tourism literature proclaiming “Buffalo is blooming.” The past ten years have seen, for the first time in decades, buildings being built rather than demolished—all elements that have created the illusion of life in a city long on life support.

None of it was real. There were signs that the “growth” was smoke and mirrors. As City & State reported in 2019, most of the post-recession jobs added were in the low-wage, high-turnover service industry. The poverty rate is essentially unchanged since 2010. Now as then, nearly a third of Buffalo residents live below the poverty line. Violent crime has soared. Even as capital flooded into Western New York, little of it reached the pockets of those that needed it most. The “revitalization” has been a superficial playground for the children of white Clarence suburbanites, deepening rather than alleviating poverty and inequality.

Years of reporting have exposed the graft and corruption in the Buffalo Billion project. Allegations mounted that money was funneled to Cuomo’s supporters, securing the bulwark of upstate backers that stood by him in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. Promised jobs rarely materialized, and a 2020 audit by the New York state comptroller revealed that investments consistently underperformed. The same report showed that Tesla’s Buffalo facility (which briefly saw an attempt at union organizing) returned a dismal 53 cents on every dollar of public funds invested, just months after it was reported that New York spent $50 million on equipment for Tesla that the company never used.

The Buffalo Billion was just a continuation of a longtime pattern of graft and corruption. Individuals tied to Byron Brown have repeatedly been subject to corruption investigations, though none of it has stuck to the mayor. Most notoriously, Brown hired G. Steven Pigeon, an infamous former Erie County Democratic Party official, as an aide. Pigeon was later investigated multiple times for money laundering, fraud, and campaign finance violations. Brown himself was recently scrutinized by federal investigators over allegations of pay-to-play politics, including campaign donations in exchange for municipal sanitation contracts. 


The Socialist Revolt

Policing also became a flashpoint after highly publicized videos emerged of Buffalo police shoving a 75-year-old protester to the ground during a march following George Floyd’s murder. Mayor Brown has long been cozy with the police; the then-Chief of Police controversially appeared in one of his 2013 re-election ads. The lukewarm “reforms” introduced by Brown following the attack on protesters drew tepid reviews, with The Investigative Post noting they fell well short of activist demands.

All of it—the Buffalo Billion, persistent corruption, and lackluster responses to calls for police reform—paints a portrait of a crony machine presiding over the strip mining of what little Buffalo has left, selling every piece of real estate to developers and handing out tax abatements like door prizes. Even as public officials hit the drumbeat of Buffalo’s revitalization and Byron Brown sat high atop his machine, residents continued to suffer.

The backdrop to India Walton’s victory suggests there should have been warning signs for an establishment too confident in its own security—that the sharp dichotomy between a narrative of revitalization and stagnant inequality could deepen distrust in neoliberal prescriptions. 

Still, the backlash will come quickly. Carl Paladino, the arch-reactionary one-time gubernatorial candidate, is sure to rear his head; the threat of capital flight will be immediate. It’s only a matter of time until a reporter asks Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula what this means for the planned stadium project, which is considering a downtown location. Even though Walton’s path to victory in November seems assured, the siege will start well before she ever takes office.

It’ll also be a reckoning for New York labor, which did what New York labor does and backed Brown in a show of craven, cynical realpolitik. Walton is a union champion, and nothing points to retaliation against opponents—but whether they will embrace her mayoralty remains to be seen. Some unions, like NYSNA and SEIU 1199, will likely pivot, as they did after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory in 2018. Others, like the Building Trades, may well throw in with developers.

But for the moment, it seems like neoliberalism’s chickens have come home to roost—that the unwilling residents of the developer’s playpen created by Byron Brown and Andrew Cuomo have finally had enough, and want something different. By electing the first socialist mayor of a major American city in decades, Buffalo has sent a seismic shockwave through local and state politics and cleared the way for the return of municipal socialism unseen in nearly a century. In the process, they’ve demolished a major, seemingly invincible pillar of the Democratic establishment.

For her part, India Walton’s mission and politics are clear. Upon winning, she immediately and unapologetically responded to reporters that she considers herself a socialist. What her mayoralty will be about is not in doubt: working-class power. “All that we are doing is claiming what is rightfully ours,” she told supporters. “We are the workers. We are the workers. We do the work.” ♦

 

 


C.M. Lewis is an editor of the labor publication Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania.