Buffalo race becomes early test for a divided Democratic Party

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Buffalo race becomes early test for a divided Democratic Party
© Associated Press – Joshua Bessex India Walton and Byron Brown

An unexpected showdown between Buffalo, N.Y.’s mayor and the young progressive activist who defeated him in a Democratic primary earlier this year is becoming a new proving ground for New York Democrats ahead of what is likely to be a series of contentious electoral contests pitting progressives and moderates against each other next year.

The race to be decided next week pits India Walton, 39, a nonprofit leader and a self-described democratic socialist, against Byron Brown, 63, a former chairman of the New York Democratic Party who is seeking his fifth term in the mayor’s office.

Walton, moved to run after witnessing Buffalo police shove and seriously injure a 75-year-old man during protests over the murder of George Floyd, scored a surprise upset over Brown in June’s Democratic primary. Brown announced just days later he would run in the general election as a write-in candidate.

Now, with less than a week to go before Election Day, a flood of Democrats from New York City have waded into the race on the shores of Lake Erie to stump for their chosen candidate.

“It’s a very high-profile race, and people from outside of Buffalo on both sides have been involved,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D), the deputy majority leader who represents a district in Queens.

Earlier this month, Rep. Tom Suozzi (D), who represents Long Island’s Nassau County in Congress, stumped for the incumbent Brown. Gianaris held a fundraiser and appeared at a rally for Walton, the official Democratic nominee. This weekend, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D) put out a call for volunteers to help Walton’s campaign.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) back Walton. So does Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), who was among the first to call for Jay Jacobs – Brown’s successor as state Democratic Party chairman – to resign after Jacobs compared endorsing Walton to endorsing David Duke, the former klansman who ran for office in Louisiana.

The late endorsements do not appear to have helped Walton. A survey conducted by Emerson College for WIVB-TV, released Wednesday, showed Brown leading Walton by a 54 percent to 36 percent margin – even though his name will not appear on the ballot. The 18-point spread is a wider advantage than the 10-point edge Brown enjoyed the last time Emerson polled the race in August.

But New York Democratic activists and strategists see a longer play behind the sudden interest in a mayoral contest on the other side of the state, a microcosm for a broader evolution inside a state Democratic Party that has been virtually frozen in place for a decade.

“This is a big battle going on within the Democratic Party and in the country generally,” Suozzi said in an interview Wednesday. “This is about Buffalo, this is about New York state, and this is about the United States of America. The president talked about the soul of America in his race. This is about the soul of the Democratic Party.”

Over the last 10 years, New York Democratic politics were virtually entirely controlled by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But in recent years, that control was shaken by progressive candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman, who both beat longtime Democratic incumbents in recent years; by Attorney General Letitia James (D), who won office in 2018; and by a new generation of state legislators who claimed control in Albany and forced through an ambitious agenda that Cuomo had been unwilling to champion.

When Cuomo was forced from office earlier this year amid a cloud of accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women, it produced what amounted to a political earthquake that shook loose a tsunami of pent-up ambition.

Now, many who harbored hopes of winning higher office are taking their first steps toward appealing to the Democratic base – and Buffalo is a handy first stop.

Suozzi, who ran for governor in 2006, is said to be contemplating a challenge to Gov. Kathy Hochul in next year’s Democratic primary.

“I’d love to be the governor of New York, but right now I’m focused on getting [state and local tax deductions] done down here in Washington, give the governor the chance to show she’s doing a good job,” Suozzi said.

Hochul, who hails from Buffalo, has not gotten involved in the race. Neither has another potential gubernatorial aspirant, James. If the state attorney general does run for the state’s top job, Gianaris is likely to be among the Democrats who seek her current post, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

“There are some fierce protectors of the status quo within the Democratic Party, and the energy within the Democratic Party right now is for more aggressive change,” Gianaris said in an interview. “The Democrats in Buffalo spoke. To now encourage people not to support the Democratic nominee who won fair and square is crazy.”

Schumer may be playing his own defense against a potential primary challenge next year. Schumer has gone out of his way in recent months to work with Ocasio-Cortez, a proven fundraising powerhouse who would pose a substantial threat to his political career.

The two sides see stark choices for Democrats ahead, one that embraces a growing wave of progressivism that has swept New York state politics and one that pursues the art of political compromise aimed at winning over centrist voters across the country.

Walton’s backers say a new era of progressivism is dawning, whether Democratic moderates want to acknowledge it or not.

“The defenders of the status quo keep making excuses. The incumbent wasn’t paying attention or turnout was low or it was an aberration for a lot of different reasons. But we’ve now had AOC and Jamaal Bowman and [Rep.] Mondaire Jones,” all of whom won primaries over more moderate Democrats, Gianaris said. “There is something happening in the Democratic Party and those who don’t see it, who don’t open their arms to this element of the party, will likely suffer politically.”

But to Brown’s backers, the race has become a messaging test that will apply to Democrats across the country – just as a few candidates who supported defunding the police in the 2020 elections helped Republicans extend that message to other Democratic incumbents in far more moderate suburbs.

“I’m very concerned not only about the people of Buffalo, certainly, and about my state and about our country, but I’m concerned what happens the day after Election Day if the self-avowed socialist wins,” Suozzi said. “The far left has not had that many victories, but they’ve had victories, and we’re getting nicks and cuts. And the right, the extreme right especially, is promoting that message as ‘the Democrats.’ We can’t be defined by that message, and so we have to do something.”

Cristina Marcos contributed.

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