Brown’s Town: How Byron Brown Overcame Defeat and Won a Fifth Term as Buffalo’s Mayor
On November 2, 2021, one of the biggest comeback stories in New York State politics as well as a historic milestone as incumbent Buffalo mayor Byron Brown won in a 12,302-vote blowout over Democrat nominee India Walton to earn his fifth term in office. Brown’s victory as a write-in candidate marked the first time since 1985 that the Home of Buffalo Wings did not elect the Democratic nominee for mayor. For the majority of Buffalonians it marked the defeat of socialism as moderacy prevails while some people in and outside of Buffalo believed that the majority of voters went with a Democrat with Republican money in his pocket and allied with a Buffalo Public Schools board of education member turned bigot. The latter didn’t prove much as Byron Brown cruised his way back to City Hall for another four years in office.
Flashback to 2020, when Brown was still in office, a line of challengers started coming around, hoping to unseat probably the longest reigning mayor Buffalo has ever had since James D. Griffin from 1978 to 1993. First, there was Scott J. Wilson Jr., who had worked for Comptroller Mark J. F. Schroeder and later unsuccessfully ran for comptroller in 2017. Wilson was the first to announce his campaign for mayor on June 13, 2020. Wilson was a fresh face looking to redeem himself after his failed bid as comptroller, but he did not collect enough signatures to appear on the primary ballot. Next was India Walton, a longtime member of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She announced her campaign on December 13, 2020. If you ask me, this is probably the most under qualified candidate in Buffalo’s history. Finally, there was Le’Candice Durham, a compliance clerk for Buffalo’s 3–1–1 line, ran in the election.
Unfazed by the depth of challengers coming for his crown, Brown announced that he would seek reelection to an unprecedented fifth term through a Facebook video on February 25, 2021. During the primary campaign the Brown campaign spent $71,000, which was $289,000 less than the $360,000 he had spent during the 2017 primary. Brown even refused to participate in debates, despite having participated in two debates during the 2017 primary, and his greatest expense during the primary was $9,730 on lawn signs. Brown only turned in around 6,000 signatures to appear on the primary ballot which was less than the 20,000 he turned in in 2009, and the 15,000 he turned in in 2017. If there is one thing about Byron Brown, the man was looking forward to putting this one to bed really quick and cruise to November unopposed.
Late in the primary campaign trail, Walton’s campaign received a boost when New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams endorsed her and headlined several fundraisers to support her campaign for mayor. Walton had previously received some local attention while active in the George Floyd protests, when she criticized Brown for his handling of the Buffalo police shoving incident, which served as a black eye in the community. In the aftermath of said incident, Brown announced changes to the Buffalo Police Department. Some reforms they were.
In the primary, the unthinkable has happened. India Walton defeated Byron Brown and Le’Candice Durham in the Democratic primary, putting an end to Brown’s dominance as a Democratic nominee. Byron Brown got really lazy and didn’t even take Walton seriously. Her 1,507-vote lead over him was a real punch in the gut, if you know what I mean. Most people who would’ve voted for Brown didn’t even know there was a primary election. Even his refusal to participate in debates bit him right in the butt. For Walton, the victory pushed her to new heights, and probably the one to end the Byron Brown era.
Even in defeat, Brown did not immediately concede. After the primary Erie County Democratic Party chairman Jeremy Zellner stated that the party was in support of Walton and Brown was shut out. To his credit, Byron Brown resurrected Buffalo back from the dead, when the city had 261,310 people living there back in 2010 in his second term as mayor, to 278,349 people in 2020. He successfully lobbied for a replacement for the Exchange Street Amtrak station. He announced changes to the Buffalo Police Department following an incident between protesters and police during the George Floyd protests. He also oversaw a period of development after the passing of the Buffalo Billion program, a New York state government project led by former Governor Andrew Cuomo that aims to invest $1 billion in Buffalo. Now, the only way to retain his seat of power in the Nickel City is the one thing he can possibly do; run as a write-in candidate.
Following India Walton’s shocking defeat of Brown in the Democratic Party primary, Brown launched a write-in campaign for the general election. Brown’s staffers staged a rally outside Sahlen Field (Home of the Toronto Blue Jays Triple-A affiliate Buffalo Bisons) days after the primary to encourage support for his write-in campaign in the general election. The president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association John Evans stated that Brown would have the support of the union if he ran as a write-in candidate.
“We’d absolutely endorse it,” Evans told WIVB, a CBS affiliate in Buffalo. “We hope that he does strongly consider it, and our hope is that he’d be successful.”
On June 28, Brown announced that he would run as a write-in candidate. But when he did, a well-known Trump supporter from the area would endorse a man of color to continue as mayor. Enter Carl Paladino.
Paladino, who previously served on the Buffalo Public Schools board of education and unsuccessfully ran in the 2010 gubernatorial election as a Republican, considered running as a write-in candidate, but would only have run if Brown pulled the plug on his campaign in the general election. Paladino also had a history of racist comments dating back to 2016, when Paladino took part in an interview with alternative weekly newspaper Artvoice. When he was asked what he would like to see happen in 2017, Paladino replied it was President Barack Obama dying of mad cow disease, which is appalling to say the least. He was fired months later, which was for the best. That same year, Paladino endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and was the New York co-chair of Trump’s campaign. Paladino played the role of a mobster, aggressively pushed and threatened Republicans in New York’s delegation to Congress and the State Legislature to support Trump, even writing an open letter:
“This is our last request that you join ‘Trump for President’ and try to preserve what’s left of your pathetic careers in government.”
Paladino endorsed Brown in the general election but withdrew his endorsement on August 26 and announced a boycott campaign instead, urging Buffalonians to neither vote for nor donate to Brown, Walton or any other candidate. Paladino was in it only for himself in the end. Of course, Brown repudiated Carl Paladino’s support immediately, but he has no control over who sends out mailers or spends money on his behalf. But allying with scum like Paladino will turn you into scum. Byron Brown will have to live with that.
Meanwhile, India Walton continues to pick up endorsements. On August 19, 2021, a majority of the members of the Buffalo Board of Education were firmly behind her. Eleven days later on August 30, 2021, Walton publicly stated her support for Starbucks employees’ effort at unionization in Buffalo. In October 2021, Walton voiced support for elderly, veteran, and disabled tenants at Peace Bride Apartments fighting the owners of the apartments for lease renewals. Walton also spoke in favor of increased funding and maintenance for city parks at an event at Shoshone Park in October. Not bad for a nurse who beat Byron Brown in the primary.
But then again, even candidates have shady pasts. On August 19, the same day the Buffalo Board of Education endorsed India Walton, The Buffalo News published an article on Walton, who was arrested in 2014 on a charge of second-degree harassment after Walton allegedly threatened to commit bodily harm to a fellow nurse at the Buffalo Children’s Hospital. The charges against Walton would later be dismissed. A month later, The Buffalo News separately reported that Byron Brown and his administration have been under investigation by federal authorities, including the F.B.I., for multiple allegations involving political donations and city government contracts since 2015, Brown’s third term in office. Many of Brown’s close political advisers and employees have been interviewed by investigators and Steven Pigeon, a political operative who lobbied Brown’s office on garbage contracts, pleaded guilty to arranging an illegal donation to the campaign of former Governor Andrew Cuomo, also Brown’s closest ally. For what it’s worth, Brown has not been charged, but multiple investigations remain open.
Brown attempted to appear on the general election ballot through a petition and court challenge as an independent, with the party label Buffalo Party, but ultimately lost the court cases and continued campaigning as a write-in. Brown was placed on the ballot by Judge John Sinatra, who had been appointed by former President Donald Trump. Walton criticized the ruling and accused Sinatra of bias, pointing out that his brother, developer Nick Sinatra, is a regular contributor to Byron Brown’s campaign. The Erie County Board of Elections and the Walton campaign appealed the decision, and on September 16, state and federal courts definitively took Brown off the November ballot. The following day, the Board of Elections began printing general election ballots with Walton as the only listed candidate.
Byron Brown’s campaign accepted significant donations from individual Republicans and benefited from independent expenditures by the New York Republican Party, including mailers promoting his write-in campaign. That made most people pissed at him for taking GOP money, which I and most Buffalonians could care less about. Brown expressed openness to accepting Republican support, saying:
“I don’t see a conflict of interest because we’re in the general election and there are over 155,000 people eligible to vote in the general election. I’m appealing to every voter. And we’re appealing to people who live in the City of Buffalo, residents, homeowners, businesses, people who care about the future of our community.”
Brown accepted significant assistance in gathering signatures for his attempt at ballot access from Republican activists opposed to Walton, including Republican elected officials, members of the Erie County Republican Committee, and at least one member of local far-right organizations, as well as members of the Conservative, Independence and Libertarian parties. As part of his write-in campaign, Brown distributed “push stamps” with his name so that voters can simply stamp his name onto the ballot. Everyone who wanted competent leadership in Buffalo — May it be Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Conservatives, Libertarians, unaffiliated voters — is down with Byron Brown. Democratic Socialists can cry in their sleep.
But there were some people who decided to remain neutral in a race like this. Governor Kathy Hochul declined to endorse a candidate in the race, despite Walton winning the Democratic nomination. On October 18, Jay Jacobs, Chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee and close ally of former Governor Cuomo, restated his own refusal to endorse. He said that it is not a requirement for him to endorse every Democratic nominee, especially if someone defeated an incumbent mayor in a primary. In a comparison that quickly drew controversy and condemnation, he used the example of not endorsing white supremacist former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke if he won the Democratic nomination for mayor of Rochester to explain his refusal to endorse Walton, who is African American. Jacobs’ remarks had many prominent Democratic leaders in New York called for Jacobs to resign, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, and Congressman Jamaal Bowman. It wasn’t Paldino-ugly, but you get the hint.
During the November 2 general election, Byron Brown was re-elected after winning 58.8% of the vote as a write-in candidate. Most Buffalonians couldn’t imagine that India Walton lost to a write-in candidate that was popular with the Buffalo area. And she seemed outraged at having to run in a general election like any other candidate, fought tooth and nail to keep everyone else off the ballot including Brown, and was still rejected by 60% of the electorate. I once said if Byron Brown was re-elected via write-in, I wouldn’t be surprised. India Walton had a steep hill to get over in the first place and needed to have everything in order. She didn’t and made herself unelectable because of it. That town was anti India Walton and pro Brown because he was for the blue-collar working class of Buffalo.
Brown declared his surprise victory as “one of the greatest comeback stories in our history.” Brown had focused his campaign on rejecting the supposed radical views of Walton while stressing his own moderate credentials.
“I think it clearly is a rebuke of defund the police, it is a rebuke of socialism, and I think there were those from outside the city of Buffalo that underestimated the Buffalo community. They tried to come in and tell us who to vote for, and the people fought back, and we won,” he said in an interview on CNN. “She was wrong about a lot of what she said during the course of the campaign. She was wrong about wanting to defund police, she was wrong about wanting to raise our taxes as we’re coming through a pandemic. So just another misstatement from Ms. Walton. And the reason why she is the loser in the election is because of her inexperience and lack of qualifications for this position.
“I’m a healer, I’m a uniter, my entire political career, I’ve brought people together, and that’s what we’re going to do going forward in the city of Buffalo.”
Of course, Byron Brown became the longest serving Mayor of Buffalo on January 1, 2022, breaking the record held by James D. Griffin. India Walton will probably never run for any form of office again, once she gets some experience in government. Fact of the matter is this: Mayor is not an entry-level position. It takes a lot of experience and a lot of hard work to make it to the big time. Byron Brown, despite the brief endorsement from a well-known bigot and the majority of Buffalo behind him, earned some redemption after losing the primary. Even if I hate to admit it, Byron Brown is the right man for the job. Once he retires, then someone new and qualified can take over the city and maintain the progress Brown has put in.
That is Democracy in action for you.
Spectrum News 1 Buffalo: Judge rules Byron Brown can be on Buffalo mayoral ballot (spectrumlocalnews.com)