ALBANY – On primary night on June 22, Democratic insiders in the five boroughs of New York City were anxiously awaiting returns from crucial campaign contests for mayor of New York and City Council posts.
Not Queens resident Zohran Mamdani, or many other left-leaning Democratic insurgents like him who are among a new breed of activists occupying the furthest left of an already leftward-leaning party in the Empire State.
Instead, their eyes, as self-identified Democratic socialists, were watching from afar the returns roll in from Buffalo, as one of their own – Democrat and socialist India Walton – was pushing aside incumbent Byron Brown in the Democratic mayoral race.
The opportunity to have Walton, endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, as chief executive of a major U.S. city has left socialists like Mamdani “very jazzed up” and has created “elation and hope not just in New York State and New York City but across the country," said the Queens Democratic state assemblyman, who himself 12 months ago shocked party insiders in his first run for elected office by defeating an incumbent to join three other new socialists in the 150-member chamber.
Now, as Walton pivots to a general election campaign against incumbent Mayor Byron Brown, who is running a write-in effort against her in November, supporters from out of the Buffalo area like the 29-year-old Mamdani are gearing up to provide whatever help – money, phone and text calls to Buffalo residents and knocking on voters’ doors across the city – she needs.
Support begins at home
India Walton’s electoral fuel, of course, rests with the voters of Buffalo in November as she seeks to become the city’s 63rd mayor. She and her non-Buffalo supporters know the hype her candidacy is gaining would not be there without city Democrats rallying to her side.
But Walton will have to also turn to people outside of one of the United States’ poorest cities to help fund her campaign. Such outreach beyond the city’s boundaries is hardly new; Brown has done it for years, as do veterans and newcomers of the Buffalo area delegation of the state Senate and Assembly.
In Walton’s case, she will be getting help – and already has – from left-leaning Democrats, an increasingly organized mix of socialists who reside both locally and around the state and country, and, importantly, supporters and campaign experts of the small but influential Working Families Party that provided key campaign help for her primary win.
Brown’s campaign was given financial aid – at least $30,000 in the closing couple of weeks – from out-of-area wealthy and connected political benefactors, including those with business interests before the city, for his losing primary run.
But Walton, 39, who has never sought elected office before, also attracted money and volunteers in her primary run from liberals from around New York and the nation – and they are already being called on again to send money and volunteers to help her win in November. Walton’s campaign officials say they understand a key moment in time is available to tap into the excitement among liberal Democrats who don’t get so many such victories as hers of chief executive of a major U.S. city.
“She’s going to have people flooding to help her in whatever way they can," said Amanda Litman, who worked on past campaigns from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton before several years ago co-founding Run For Something, a left-leaning national group that provides support – as it did for Walton – to Democrats under age 40 running for office for the first time.
"I'm prepared to take on the challenges that the majority of Buffalonians are facing, and I'm not going to back down, I'm not going to cower and I'm not ashamed," Walton says.
Litman said progressive Democrats beyond Buffalo have pledged help for Walton because of her personal life story, her policy positions and willingness and energy to take on an entrenched incumbent. “Inspiration is a really powerful driver for fundraising," she said.
But Walton, without an elected office history, wasn’t able to do the usual “dialing for money” effort that sees everyone from Brown to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo having to make personal, direct appeals for campaign cash. Instead, they said much of her primary money came in “organically," in the words of one campaign source, as word spread on social media and through outreach by the New York chapter of the Working Families Party, which helped run the Walton campaign using its experience in such things as primary day get-out-the-vote efforts.
Mamdani, the Queens lawmaker, said he and fellow Democratic socialists from New York who backed Walton weren’t concerned with state geographic politics. Rather, they saw Walton as a fellow traveler in the Democratic socialist movement as she shared stories of working-class struggles and took anti-establishment views on everything from taxation to health to policing issues. In Walton, they saw the potential for a major force to push their movement within the Democratic Party.
“I don’t think India has a ceiling in the excitement she can generate," said Mamdani, who will become a long list of Democrats from outside Buffalo – from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – expected to journey to Western New York in the coming months to rally troops to get out to vote for Walton in her general election campaign against Brown.
A flow of out-of-region help
For her primary campaign, Walton got $100 from a Boston area college professor, $150 from a North Carolina author, $500 from an emergency room doctor in Brooklyn, $125 from a museum worker in Tallahassee and $171.60 from an education researcher in San Francisco.
Some of her larger out-of-area donors have been givers to liberal candidates around the country. Arden Buck, 87, a retired research engineer outside Denver, donated $1,000 to Walton in early June. Farhad Ebrahimi, a wealthy heir to a tech fortune who heads Boston-based Chorus Foundation and is a benefactor or supporter to everything from climate change groups to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, also gave $1,000. Other out-of-area donors to Walton include Jason Katz-Brown, an executive with a left-leaning polling company called Data for Progress, who gave her $5,000, and David Pechefsky, a Brooklyn resident who has unsuccessfully run for Congress and the New York City Council, who gave $1,000.
And a national Democratic Party megadonor, Dr. Karla Jurvetson of Palo Alto, who in the past hosted a fundraiser for Obama in her home and gave a whopping $14.6 million to a super PAC that backed Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 Democratic presidential primary bid, gave Walton $2,000 on June 10. One source said it came after a general fundraising appeal by the Working Families Party.
Those bigger Walton donors, as is often the case in other campaigns with deeper pocket contributors, did not respond for comment.
Walton provided a written comment to The Buffalo News, in which she focused on the small donations from backers living in Buffalo, including what she says is hundreds of individuals since primary day. “I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck, and I know that while $25 might not seem like a lot to some, it’s a lot for someone who is struggling to get by," she said.
The campaign says 75% of its primary donations – the final public disclosure report for the mayoral primary isn’t due to be filed until July 15 – came from Buffalo residents, and donations across all donors averaged about $50.
On Monday, when Brown announced he would challenge her as a write-in candidate, Walton said she raised $40,000 in 24 hours from 600 supporters. It also helped that famous liberals, like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, took to social media to celebrate Walton’s win.
“India’s vision of a government that truly works with and for the people is galvanizing those who don’t usually feel seen or heard by the political establishment," said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the Working Families Party.
With a 2019 change in the state political calendar, the Buffalo general election campaign will be a long one – four full months – now that primaries in New York are held in June rather than mid-September. That extra time can be both good and bad, for both Brown and Walton.
Walton backers prepare
Walton, a nurse, is a Democrat and also a self-described socialist. She was supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, which has a small membership of a couple hundred people in Buffalo. But they are motivated and engage in grassroots mobilization on everything from health care and tax law changes to Walton’s campaign.
The DSA is not a formal party. It is member-driven without staff or offices. The New York City chapter is growing in influence, especially after helping to elect a half-dozen Democrats in the state Legislature last year.
“We were already out there in the community, canvassing, texting people about issues working people in Buffalo care about because we are working people," said Mo Madden, the secretary of the Buffalo chapter. The past several months, the group added Walton to its portfolio being pushed with voters.
Steve Jackson, the chapter’s treasurer and electoral committee chair, said the DSA’s work for Walton will continue to involve knocking on doors, telephone calling and other work. “It’s a David and Goliath story that’s taking place in one of the hardest-hit Rust Belt cities in the 20th century,” he said of the Walton-Brown race.
Jackson said DSA chapters from Rochester, New York City, Ohio and as far away as Atlanta have expressed interest in helping Walton’s fall campaign.
The DSA doesn’t have nearly the operation of a seasoned political campaign or party. But, members and politicians say, they have extremely motivated voters in their camp. “Our membership was very excited when Walton announced her candidacy,” Madden said.
From Queens to Buffalo
In May, Mamdani, the Queens lawmaker, joined the other five Democratic socialists now serving in the state Assembly and Senate – all from New York City – and endorsed Walton. It was an act that got little media attention but made many liberal Democrats take notice. It came as the entire state Democratic delegation from the Buffalo area either backed Brown or stayed on the sidelines.
Mamdani said also that members of the DSA New York City chapter – the people who helped elect him and the others last year – grew increasingly excited by Walton’s Buffalo campaign and urged the six state lawmakers to help her out.
Mamdani, who moved with his family at age 7 from Uganda to New York, has been using his Twitter account to ramp up support outside of Buffalo for Walton, calling for volunteers to head to Buffalo.
A week ago, he wrote a lengthy thread explaining why the six New York City Democratic socialists endorsed in the Buffalo mayor’s primary when some, including himself, had not taken a stance among the crowded field of candidates in the New York City mayoral primary. “One answer is that our politics is one of solidarity & we made the commitment to fight for working-class people across our state – from Astoria to Buffalo," he wrote.
In an interview, Mamdani, a former foreclosure prevention counselor, said he knew their endorsement of Walton goes against an unwritten rule that says lawmakers should avoid straying into political minefields outside their own communities, and said there was explicit and implicit pressure from some legislative leaders for them to stay out of the Walton effort.
Mamdani called Brown’s write-in effort “selfish,” a move that would be excoriated by party leaders and lawmakers if done by an insurgent loser in a primary. And he dismissed as worn-out the characterization by Brown of Walton as a “radical socialist.”
“The mayor can call her whatever he wants to, but at the end of the day he’s really going to have to call her Mayor Walton," Mamdani said.