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Democratic socialist achieves stunning win in Buffalo mayoral primary

Democratic Buffalo mayoral primary candidate India Walton delivers

Democratic Buffalo mayoral primary candidate India Walton delivers her victory speech after defeating incumbent Byron Brown, on Tuesday in Buffalo. Credit: AP/Robert Kirkham

ALBANY — A 38-year-old democratic socialist who had never before run for office is in line to become mayor of the state’s second largest city after Tuesday’s Democratic primary upset in Buffalo, which drew attention nationwide and energized the socialist movement in New York.

India Walton, a nurse and community activist, beat four-term Mayor Byron Brown 52%-34%. She faces no Republican nominee in the general election in November in the heavily Democratic city.

"I think we are seeing that progressive ideas are winning in New York state," said Ravi Mangla of the state Working Families Party. "I think we can expect these will only continue and we are building an infrastructure for change in New York state."

Analysts, however, note that while this is a historic win for socialists and progressive Democrats, many other factors were at play in the Buffalo race. They said socialists so far haven’t shown they can win statewide office or challenge the established Democratic Party’s statewide power.

"This is a tremendous achievement," said Bruce Gyory, a political strategist who studies election results and voting trends. However, "there is going to be a tendency to see this solely through the ideological prism. I think it would be a mistake … whether it becomes a continuing achievement for Democratic Socialists is a matter of time."

Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Research Institute poll also cautioned against seeing a local win determined by a few thousand voters as a statewide watershed moment.

"I don’t think local races tend to say anything broader than the issues involved in that race," Greenberg said. For example, voters have often soured on longtime incumbents, he said.

Walton defines socialism as "government stepping up to take care of its people." She told NBC in one of many national and international interviews after her upset that her priorities are "putting resources in neighborhoods and really tackling the issue of poverty.

"Buffalo is the third poorest city of our size in the country," she said. "That is unacceptable."

Her message resonated in the city where its residents, including a large Black community, have seen decades of hard times under mostly Democratic control.

Today, "socialists aren't joined by a particular ideology, however vague or fluid, but rather by an opposition to the ‘establishment’ and the inequities of the American capitalist system," said Sheri Berman, political science professor at Barnard College of Columbia University.

"Walton speaks of how hard it is for individuals to get by, no matter how hard they work because the current system is stacked against them: outrageous health and housing costs, a substandard K-12 education system, expensive college and so on hinder individuals' ability to reach their potentials," she said.

The right message can overpower wariness about socialism, said Stanley Feldman, political science professor at Stony Brook University

"If a candidate stresses popular issue positions, some voters may not care if they also use the label ‘socialist,’" Feldman said.

Walton, who is Black, came from a poor background and spoke of hard time for residents from her own experience. Brown, 62, is a liberal Democrat and a close ally to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who helped Brown become Buffalo’s first Black mayor.

Cuomo, head of the state Democratic Party, held press briefings announcing grants and programs from Buffalo over the last several months with Brown. But Brown was seeking his fifth term in a state that analysts say prefers even its popular leaders to exit after two or three terms.

Brown also chose the strategy of some incumbents by paying little attention to the primary to downplay the contest and deny attention to a challenger. But Cuomo called that strategy a mistake when energetic challengers are knocking on doors and building coalitions in neighborhoods.

"Avoiding the campaign, (acting like) ‘This isn’t really happening,’ doesn’t work," Cuomo said. "We’ve seen that movie before."

Liberals and socialists, however, don’t see Walton’s win as result of a misstep by Brown.

The Democratic Socialists of America said Walton "pulled off a stunning defeat."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx) tweeted congratulations Tuesday night "on her win and all the amazing Buffalo folks who made it happen!"

Walton’s high-profile upset made an impact well beyond Buffalo, said Feldman of Stony Brook University.

"I think that the label socialist, or democratic socialist, has lost some of the negative connotation," Feldman said. He cited the national popularity of democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Ocasio-Cortez.

"Surveys have found that young people, in particular, are comfortable with the label socialist," Feldman said. "They have grown up long after the end of the Cold War and the threat of communism so socialism — what they understand as socialism — doesn't seem at all scary to them. "

"I'm sure that the democratic socialist label would still be an impediment in many places in the U.S.," Feldman said. "But, increasingly, it's not the handicap it historically has been."

And that should concern the traditional Democratic Party, Berman said.

"The more people they elect to local, state and national office the more the Democratic Party has to reckon with them and their demands," she said. "Democratic socialists do have the potential to generate real change — how much depends on how successful they are in convincing voters that their policies and goals are the way forward for their communities and country."

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