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Rust Belt socialism?

Thomas Hummel explores the politics of the upcoming Buffalo mayoral election and the potential socialist mayor, India Walton.

It’s a heartening sign of the times that a candidate identifying themselves as a socialist is no longer the act of political suicide that it once was. This is a positive indication that class consciousness is moving in the right direction. And how could it not? Millions of us are still suffering from the fallout of the 2008 recession and its weak recovery. COVID-19 revealed, in the starkest possible terms, the antagonism between capital’s health and public health. Our cities have become more and more unaffordable, as our electeds sell us out to the avarice of wealthy real estate developers. And of course, the perennial problem of racism in the U.S., and the inability of this system to put a stop to police murders, has awakened many to the need for more fundamental change than what mainstream politics can deliver. If taken on these terms, the Democratic primary election upset victory by India Walton over four-time incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in Buffalo is a hopeful sign that the working-class may be growing tired of what the political mainstream has to offer.

But of course, the wider reality of Walton’s victory is more complicated. What does her win mean for socialists? How can we engage with the growing interest in socialism that won her the mayorship? How should the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has been deeply involved in her campaign from its beginnings in February, interact with figures like Walton?

A picture of a Rust Belt city in the 21st century

Buffalo gained national notoriety last summer when the Buffalo police, dressed in full riot gear, violently shoved a defenseless elderly man, Martin Gugino, to the pavement in front of city hall, hospitalizing him for nearly a month with a serious brain injury. Two officers were initially charged with second-degree assault, but a grand jury dismissed the charges in February. A month after the first uprisings, Mayor Brown was photographed holding a Blue Lives Matter flag shortly after giving weak verbal support to the Black Lives Matter movement. In contrast, Walton says that it was the movement in the streets last summer that inspired her to run for mayor.

Mayor Brown was photographed holding a Blue Lives Matter flag shortly after giving weak verbal support to the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo: @harpersebishop.

Like most cities in the Rust Belt, Buffalo has been in a steady decline for the last half-century. Before neoliberalism sacrificed the working class to save capitalism in the early 1970s, Buffalo was a thriving city in the country’s industrial heartland. In 1950 it was home to almost 600 thousand people, making it the U.S. 15th most populous city. Today, due to automation, outsourcing, and flight to the suburbs, its population barely breaks 250 thousand, making it only America’s 86th largest. Since just 2000, the population has shrunk by 12.5 percent. The city’s poverty rate is over 30 percent, more than double the national average, and the unemployment rate has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic, with nearly 20 percent of the city’s workforce filing for unemployment in April of 2020.

Despite a shrinking tax base, Mayor Brown inherited $166 million in reserves with the help of a fiscal control board whose job was to ruthlessly cut costs. The mayor spent this money on “development” around the city, for example, renovating the medical campus on the east side, which is a poor, mostly black area. Brown’s administration is an old fashioned patronage system that has been extremely friendly to developers. The so-called “Buffalo Billion,” redevelopment program became “pay to play,” with Brown employing tax loopholes to hide campaign contributions from developers whom he gave building contracts and enormous tax breaks. His pro-real estate policies have attracted the attention of real estate vultures around the country. It’s not uncommon to hear about a wealthy landlord from downstate buying up properties around the city. While there is a lot of talk about Buffalo’s revival, the impact on ordinary people’s standard of living has been mostly negative. The cost of housing has skyrocketed. Buffalo has the third-highest average home sale price increase around the country, with rents also rising dramatically. Despite the increase in the minimum wage in New York State, this wage rise has not been enough to keep up with the change in the cost of living. It’s true that Buffalo’s cost of living is a few percentage points lower than the national average, but being one of the nation’s poorest cities, it is becoming increasingly unaffordable for the people who live there.

Under Brown’s leadership, the police set up checkpoints in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, targeting the most vulnerable as a source of easy revenue. The city also set up cameras in front of schools. Anyone caught driving over 15 mph in front of these would receive a fine in the mail. Almost everyone who drives a vehicle in the city has received at least one of these, but as it’s very easy to forget when you’re about to enter a school zone, many people have received quite a few.

As there will be no Republican nominee, Walton would almost certainly become Buffalo’s next mayor. However, backed by developers, the Democratic party machine, and the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, Byron Brown has launched a write-in campaign to try to extend his tenure in office. This initially appeared to have very little chance of succeeding but has steadily picked up steam since the primary. Brown even circulated an independent nomination petition that briefly landed him on the ballot as an independent. This was overturned by the New York Court of Appeals after it was initially upheld as legal by Judge John Sinatra, a Trump appointee and brother of a wealthy Buffalo developer who donates to the Brown campaign. Nick Sinatra, brother of the judge, sought tax breaks for an apartment complex his company is building as recently as August. The Brown campaign has been digging through Walton’s past in an effort to discredit her, and a bike ride around the city finds Byron Brown signs stuck in many front lawns. Success for this kind of write-in campaign is not without precedent. Senator Lisa Murkowski was able to win re-election via this type of write-in campaign in 2010.

Brown’s attempt to pull off a write-in upset has been given additional strength by important union endorsements. Brown’s write-in campaign has been backed by the Carpenters Union, the Ironworkers Union, AFSCME, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the Civil Service Employees Association. While the field of endorsements favors Brown, Walton has been able to carry the Buffalo Teachers Federation endorsement, as well as that of the IATSE local, United Commercial Food Workers, and Workers United, who are currently organizing a campaign among Starbucks employees in Buffalo. And it’s significant to note that while Brown received the official endorsement of the CWA, CWA 1168, who represents the workers of the largest employer in the country, Kaleida Health, has been friendly with Walton in the past, for example, inviting her to come speak.

Who is India Walton?

India Walton is a 38-year-old nurse and a former union rep who became a mother at 14. She is a high school dropout, a survivor of domestic violence, and a former resident of a group home. Walton won the primary election running on a platform of affordable housing, conversion of public vehicles to electric power, turning Buffalo into a sanctuary city for immigrants, and reforming the Buffalo police department.

Walton first made a name for herself as the executive director of a community land trust in the Fruit Belt on Buffalo’s east side. While the west side is deep into the process of gentrification, the east side is only just beginning to feel this pressure. Throughout the city, people are beginning to worry that, in the midst of all this development, they are being left behind. Walton has committed to creating a “bill of rights” for tenants and tenants advocate, and has promised to institute rent controls.

One of the most important pillars of her campaign is reforming public safety. Walton has pledged to turn the focus of public safety to harm prevention and restorative justice. She has promised that, under her administration, police will no longer respond to mental health calls, and will stop enforcing low-level offenses for drug possession. Walton says she wants to focus on making the kinds of investments that naturally reduce crime, such as investing in education and creating living-wage jobs for working-class people.

Who voted for Walton?

Walton performed well in every district of the city. She was competitive in poor working-class areas where progressives had previously had a hard time making headway. To give just one example, in Brown’s home neighborhood, the Masten district, which is 82 percent black and almost exclusively working-class, Brown has won elections by margins as big as 5,805 to 173. In 2018, Cuomo defeated Cynthia Nixon there with 3,655 votes to Nixon’s 791. In contrast, Walton performed extremely well, coming slightly behind Brown with a margin of 1,668 to 1,244. The change is enormous. There is not a single district in the city where Walton was not at least competitive, and in most, she of course held the majority.

The city is deeply divided in many ways by Main Street. East is mostly black, and low-income working class. West is more racially diverse, with working-class neighborhoods mixed in closely with wealthy neighborhoods. West of Main St. is where you will find Buffalo’s Puerto Rican community, as well as immigrant and refugee populations from Myanmar and Somalia. The majority of residents west of Main St. are renters, while those on the east are mostly homeowners. People living west of Main Street are more likely to have a college education than those to the east. Walton won the vast majority of districts on the west side but lost most on the east side. There was also a generational divide, with older voters supporting Brown, and younger voters supporting Walton.

India Walton won the districts that have a higher number of college educated voters and remained competitive across poor and working-class districts. Image by @RustBeltGeo.

How did India Walton win

Walton launched an impressive campaign, enlisting the support of DSA and the Working Families Party. Walton’s campaign was an extremely active one, and with a small army behind her she was able to get her vision to people all over the city. In contrast, Brown, after four successful election runs and being ordained chair of New York State Democratic Party by former Governor Andrew Cuomo, a position he held from 2016 to 2019, felt himself so entitled to keep his seat as mayor that he refused to participate in debates, and did not bother to seriously campaign until just before the election.

It could be argued, since Walton won in the mixed-income, and more racially diverse areas west of Main St., that she was not supported by the working-class. It would be a mistake if this is what we took away from her victory. This idea comes from a very two-dimensional conception of the working class. It’s important to note that, while there is an area west of Main Street that is extremely affluent near Delaware Park, filled with corporate lawyers living in enormous mansions, almost all the other areas west of Main St. are working class. The vast majority of the people who live in these neighborhoods are teachers, nurses, restaurant workers, nursing care aides, package deliverers, and the like. It’s incorrect to say that Walton does not have working class support simply because the neighborhoods that are most deeply oppressed are not behind her. The working class is not monolithic. Sections of the working class do support her. And we also have to remember that Walton narrowed the margin significantly in every district east of Main St. The neighborhoods east of Main St. are not economically homogeneous. Those who came out to vote in those neighborhoods tended to be older homeowners who still have faith in the Democratic party. The most oppressed sections of the working class who live east of Main St. are unlikely to have enough faith in the system to come out to vote in a Democratic primary.

What are the prospects for Walton’s time in office?

If she is able to hold off Brown’s write-in campaign in November, Walton may be able to enact some important reforms during her time in office. However, as good as her intentions may be, this path does not lead to building socialism.

The core defect with Walton’s strategy is that it is not a strategy that is trying to build socialism from below but another example of trying fruitlessly at building socialism from above.

In order to run for a position like mayor with any hope of staying true to socialist values, a candidate needs the active support of the organized working class behind them. A socialist strategy focused on building socialism from the ground up should of course use elections as a vehicle to spread its ideas. If elected to office, socialists can use their position to further amplify their platform. But if they take the reins of government without depending primarily upon the initiative and activity of the working class, they quickly realize that the state under capitalism does not have unlimited agency, but has only the very limited power to direct the state bureaucracy that keeps capital accumulating. Those at the heads of government under capitalism, regardless of their political ideology, are often forced to abandon their values to fulfill that role. These limitations and the disappointments that inevitably arise from this strategy can very easily lead to the souring of the idea of socialism in people’s minds. While the government of a city like Buffalo is at a much smaller scale than a national government, a similar dynamic is at play. Walton may be pushed into a situation where she is forced to compromise her values in order to appease real estate, the police, or to prevent capital flight.

For example, let’s think through Walton’s plans for police reform. Walton, saying that she wanted to avoid using negative language in campaigns, stayed away from using the slogan “Defund the police.” In substance though, her campaign echoed much of the defund movement’s demands, promising to reallocate funds from the police budget into education and other social services that have shown to bring down crime. This is vague enough that Walton may have no actual intention of defunding the police, but even if she did, this is not something that can be achieved through legislation alone.

Shifting funds away from the police budget would require the mobilization and organization of the working class to take up the job of public safety. As happened in NYC, the police may respond to any backlash against them by contributing to the rise of violent crimes through their passivity. This is not to say that policing necessarily leads to lower rates of violent crimes. However, if there is a spike of crime, the result can be disillusionment with the goal of police abolition. We are seeing this to some extent around the country right now, although the rise in crime is largely a consequence of the immiseration caused by the economic impact of COVID-19 and the government’s unwillingness to alleviate it through social spending.

The only way to really abolish the police is to build real workers’ power and organization from the ground up, to keep one another safe as we repair the social wounds inflicted by capitalism that are the cause of crime. But Walton has not given any indication that promoting this kind of class struggle perspective is part of her political project. Walton may then be forced into a situation where she has to admit that it is impossible for her to keep her campaign promises around public safety.

In fact, we can see warning signs of this reversal in an interview between India Walton and Chapo Trap House. While maintaining that she ultimately believes that the police should be abolished, Walton says that she hopes to have a good relationship with the Buffalo Police and their union. She says she sympathizes with the position of police who have to work in a system that forces them into so much overtime and would like to increase their salaries. Discussing her views on police further, she says there “are some bad things going on with police in this country, but at the end of the day police are workers too… we want them to feel just as valued as everyone else in our community.”

But a socialist analysis of the police reveals them to be, not workers, whose place in society gives them enormous power to affect progressive change, but deeply and essentially reactionary as a consequence of their position, tasked with being the capitalist state’s first and last line of defense against its subordinate classes. The interviewer and Walton talk about how, if you’re going to be the mayor of a major city, working with the police department is going to be a reality since we have not yet created the mechanisms that could replace police departments. But again, creating these mechanisms can only be the result of working-class people’s activity, it cannot be decreed from the top down from a mayor’s office. Rather than making the necessary reassessments in regards to a strategy that this calls for, India Walton has already chosen compromise. It’s true that small improvements in police reform may take place under her mayorship. For example, she may be able to get rid of police officers with histories of abusing their power and institute the “Civilian Oversight Board” she has promised. But I doubt much more progress than that will have been made toward the goal of police abolition at the end of her tenure given her approach to the problem.

India Walton speaking at an NYC DSA fundraiser. Credit: India Walton for Buffalo

Walton has also not given any indication that she thinks it’s important to break from the Democratic Party. We are not going to build the kind of power that can change the system within a capitalist party so deeply rigged against working people’s aspirations. In the interview with Chapo Trap House, she proudly declared that she is a Democrat, and seems not to have ambitions beyond being on the left-wing of that party.

It’s important to note that, while it is true that Walton has identified herself as a socialist, she has also said that she would prefer to avoid labels, calling her philosophy “putting people first.” This ambivalence about the label “socialist” is a little troubling. If she is ambivalent about the word, how much more so will she be when it comes to policy?

Walton has already made clear what her idea of socialism means. To her, socialism does not mean building a classless society, but rather slightly modifying our society so that the state more ethically moderates the relationship between classes. In the interview mentioned above, Walton declares that her policies are also good for the wealthy since “when we have more money we can live in their housing and spend more money in their businesses.” India Walton’s rhetoric is a confusion of genuine socialist slogans and modest reformism. She declares that “we need to seize the means of production,” but apparently what she means by this, in reality, is that we have to appease the police, and enact policies that not only do not challenge the rich but will actually make them more secure in their position.

Socialists and India Walton

It’s a step in the right direction that Buffalo DSA did not give its endorsement to India Walton as a blank check, but rather reworked their endorsement process to try to ensure that certain core values were in alignment. Before receiving Buffalo DSA’s endorsement, Walton had to fill out a thirty-three question survey, with questions about her positions on BDS, abolishing ICE, voting rights for immigrants, police abolition, worker ownership of utilities, relationships to unions, an agreement to leave channels of communication open if Walton is elected, and more. Notably absent, however, is any question about working class independence from the Democratic party, as well as about whether the candidate would ever break with the party. This is especially worrisome in the current context, in which DSA nationally is moving further and further away from independence from the Democrats. Buffalo DSA’s new endorsement process does not specify how betrayals of these commitments would be disciplined by the chapter. That is something else that needs to be improved. Would they revoke Walton’s membership if she went back on her word? This needs to be specified. Buffalo DSA’s vetting process is a positive step forward from past practices, but DSA also has to make sure they do not repeat the same mistakes that allow representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman to continue being members in good standing despite some of the most egregious betrayals.

While India Walton and the strategy around her are not paths to socialism, we socialists cannot afford to ignore the interest in socialism these candidates ride in on and often push further. With people like Walton, socialists need to find ways to engage with working-class people interested in her campaign, outside of just condemning her strategy from the sidelines. This means finding areas of work where there is agreement, building the kinds of movements where we can forge relationships, and having conversations about the limits of Walton’s politics. Whether that’s anti-fascism, environmental movements, campaigns around housing, or anti-racism and abolition, we need to be finding and creating the spaces where we can meet this burgeoning interest in socialism.

It is imperative that socialists do not ignore the other half of Main St. on Buffalo’s east side and its class counterparts in the rest of the country. Consciousness east of Main St. may be developing differently than to its west, but it still is developing. This area came alive last summer during the anti-racist riots and protests following the police murder of George Floyd. Socialists cannot afford to put all of their resources into building elections when this section of the working class is unlikely to be moved by them.

I believe that India Walton is sincere in her desire to help the people of Buffalo and her victory could mark a reversal of some of Brown’s bankrupt policies. She may be able to make some incremental changes that create small improvements in people’s lives. But we cannot confuse this with a path to socialism. This can only be done by creating and being part of the movements that will allow us to organize the working class from the bottom up. Socialists, both in and out of DSA, need to be putting the majority of our resources into this type of work.

Featured Image Credit: Tempest.

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Thomas Hummel View All

Thomas Hummel is a member of the Tempest Collective living in New York City.