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Buffalo's progressive activists back Walton with ideas – and money

Buffalo's progressive activists back Walton with ideas – and money

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India Walton

India Walton, the democratic candidate for Buffalo Mayor, talks to supporters at the start of a canvassing event in North Buffalo, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

India B. Walton knows what she wants to do as mayor, and she's spelled it out on her website, replete with short-term, near-term and long-term goals on each and every issue.

Her anti-crime strategy is an anti-poverty strategy, one that shifts funding from the Police Department to mental health services. Her housing policy sets aside half the city-owned land "for the public good" and aims to create land trusts across the city to keep homes affordable. And her economic development strategy backs neighborhood investment over big downtown developments by big downtown developers.

Where did all these ideas come from? 

"These are the things that local advocates have been working on for the last decade," she said.

Sure enough, the Walton agenda appears to be the culmination of a progressive nonprofit movement in Buffalo that took root in the 2000s and that grew exponentially in the mid-2010s thanks to more than $5 million in grants from a charity founded by liberal billionaire George Soros.

That gift created Open Buffalo, which runs a leadership program that counts Walton among its graduates. And it supercharged a number of other local nonprofits – the Partnership for the Public Good, PUSH Buffalo, Voice-Buffalo, the Coalition of Economic Justice – that have provided ideas and energy to the Walton campaign.

While those five nonprofits are, by law, apolitical, their 115 staffers and board members can make political contributions – but Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown got only one $18 contribution from those people.

Meanwhile, state campaign finance records show that 18 of those people donated a total of $23,840.70 to the Walton campaign. About a third of that money came from employees and board members of the Partnership for the Public Good, a think tank that provided research and proposals that are similar to what is found in Walton's campaign platform.

Walton said her platform is just part of a burgeoning progressive movement in Buffalo that is key to her campaign.

"It is the reason why I believe we are successful, and it's the reason why I believe that our administration is going to be successful and that we're going to actually be able to create positive, sustainable change for the City of Buffalo," Walton said.

A detailed platform

Walton's platform couldn't be any more different than Brown's. She spells out detailed plans on the "Issues" section of her campaign website, which devotes 5,718 words to explaining her plans. In contrast, Brown's website includes a letter from the mayor touting his accomplishments, but no section that mentions issues or details his stance on them.

Some of Walton's plans appear to stem from work performed by the Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo think tank formed in 2007 that provides the research underpinning Buffalo's progressive movement. She cited PPG's research work as the basis of her call for police reform, and the ties between the two come clear on PPG's website and the website of the Walton campaign.

"The most effective crime-prevention strategy is an anti-poverty strategy," the think tank says on its website.

Walton "will prioritize addressing the root causes of crime such as concentrated poverty and lack of living-wage jobs," the campaign website says.

"Mental health emergencies should be handled by trained mental health professionals, not insufficiently trained police," PPG says on the 2021 community agenda developed with input from 300 local organizations.

Meanwhile, on her campaign website, Walton vows to "work with County and BPD leaders to establish a new response to crisis mental health calls that utilize mental health professionals."

Those are not the only parallels between PPG's work and Walton's.

"Development resources should be concentrated in high-need areas where they will have the greatest impact," PPG says. And Walton vows to do just that, saying she will invest resources in "the basic needs of our most vulnerable residents."

Meanwhile, PPG calls for "providing dedicated governmental funding for cultural groups," and Walton vows to "commit to invest in frontline arts organizations with consistent annual funding."

That doesn't mean the think tank wrote Walton's campaign platform.

"We do public interest research; it's out there publicly, and a lot of different candidates and elected officials draw on it," said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, PPG's executive director. For example, she said the Brown administration's American Rescue Plan agenda includes PPG proposals on food security, vacant land use, public safety, restorative justice and arts funding.

For her part, Walton said her relationship with PPG's policy ideas is a complicated one. She said she and other progressives in Buffalo have been working for years to shape a policy agenda – which, over time, contributed to the think tank's work.

"It's not that PPG has informed my policies and platform so much as I helped, along with hundreds of other Buffalonians, to shape the policies that are coming out of PPG," she said.

A burgeoning movement

PPG is not the only institution rooted in what looks like a progressive nonprofit renaissance in Buffalo that has provided Walton with plenty of allies.

"In a way, this candidacy is the intellectual byproduct of more than a dozen years of progressive organizational development in Buffalo," said Heidi I. Jones, a Buffalo lawyer who chairs the board of People United for Sustainable Housing, more commonly known as PUSH Buffalo.

Some key players in that movement, like the Center for Economic Justice and VOICE Buffalo, have been around for decades. But leaders in the movement said it started growing around 2005 with the formation of PUSH, which aims to turn abandoned housing into affordable housing while pushing economic and environmental justice. Then came the formation of PPG and, also in 2007, the start of a series of conferences that drew the leaders of Buffalo's nonprofit community together.

The John R. Oishei Foundation gathered those leaders at the Beaver Hollow Conference Center in Java Center with no set agenda.

"The idea was basically to do nonprofit leadership in the sense of helping people in the nonprofit sector to connect with one another," said Paul T. Hogan, the now-retired executive vice president at the foundation who came up with the idea.

Nonprofit leaders said those sessions formed bonds that helped various Buffalo nonprofits work together. And four of those nonprofits – PPG, PUSH Buffalo, VOICE-Buffalo and the Coalition for Economic Justice – in 2013 won the first of a series of grants from the Open Society Foundations, founded by Soros, one of the world's wealthiest progressive philanthropists.

Open Society, which did not respond to a request for comment, ended up investing more than $5 million in Buffalo over several years. Among its achievements was the creation of Open Buffalo, formed with the goal to "advance racial, economic, and ecological justice."

In addition to running the leadership training program that Walton graduated from, Open Buffalo and the other groups that applied for the grants shared some of it with other nonprofits such as Buffalo Peacemakers, the Public Accountability Initiative and Prisoners Are People, Too.

"I think it made a tremendous difference," said Franchelle C.H. Parker, Open Buffalo's executive director. "For some organizations, this was their very first funding."

Lining up behind Walton

Coincidentally or not, plenty of people who work at or serve on the boards of Buffalo's progressive nonprofits are putting their money behind Walton.

Told that she had raised nearly $24,000 from people associated with Open Buffalo, PUSH-Buffalo, VOICE-Buffalo, the Coalition for Economic Justice and PPG, Walton said: "I think it just speaks to who supports what. Republicans and wealthy donors support Byron Brown, and everyday working people support me through small donations. And you know, some of the folks who work for organizations who are pushing the policies that I'm championing are supporters of mine. It makes perfect sense. People are supporting what's in their best interest."

Eight employees or board members at PPG donated a total of $8,085.80 to Walton, including $4,000 from Sam Magavern, a senior policy fellow and former codirector at the nonprofit.

Magavern said all those people individually decided to back Walton.

"The organization as a whole does not support political candidates," Magavern said.

Of the $23,840.70 that Walton raised from people connected to those five nonprofits, more than half came from one donor: Carl Nightingale, a professor in the Department of Africana and American Studies at the University at Buffalo. Nightingale, co-secretary of the board at PUSH Buffalo, did not return a request for comment.

But other significant Walton donors include Stephen Halpern, a professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at UB and a PPG board member who gave $2,100, and Andrew Delmonte, director of cooperative development at PUSH Buffalo, who gave $950.

"This progressive network has been building trust for years," said Jones, chair of PUSH Buffalo who also owns the Intersection Cafe on Elmwood Avenue in Allentown. "There's a lot of us, and it's time we had real solutions."

For her part, Walton said the progressive network that's supporting her will, formally or informally, serve as her mayoral brain trust.

"When I say that there are very highly intelligent, skilled folks who are ready and able to assist, I mean that it's not just the campaign," she said. "Even if they're not, you know, members of the administration, it's just exciting to know that there's going to be an open door to even consider a lot of these bold policy ideas that folks have been trying to pursue over the last few years."

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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