Expert: India Walton’s campaign called attention to Buffalo's uneven revival, energizing progressive politics

Media narratives have often focused on the city’s revitalization after decades of industrial decline, but that story hides many uncomfortable truths, says urban studies expert Henry-Louis Taylor Jr.

Release Date: November 4, 2021

Portrait of Henry-Louis Taylor Jr.
“The idea that Buffalo is a conservative city trapped in the past is false. There is no mandate for conservativism or status quo politics in Buffalo. ”
Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — University at Buffalo urban studies expert Henry-Louis Taylor Jr. is available to discuss the results of Buffalo’s mayoral election — and what it could mean for the future of the city.

The race captured national attention, pitting India Walton, a democratic socialist who won the Democratic primary, against Mayor Byron Brown, who appears to be on his way to a fifth term after waging a write-in campaign that included giving out stamps that voters could use to mark his name on their ballots.

Taylor, PhD, is director of the UB Center for Urban Studies and a professor of urban and regional planning. He is lead author of a 2021 report, “The Harder We Run: The State of Black Buffalo in 1990 and the Present,” that examined metrics like poverty rates, household income, homeownership, employment and education over time, and concluded that “an entire generation saw little if any improvements in their lives” over three decades.

Looking at early maps of election night results, Taylor says that Brown’s apparent victory appears to have hinged on “overwhelming support from the conservative, white working-class sections of Buffalo.”

The race was hotly contested elsewhere, and Taylor notes that Walton had strong support in and looks to have carried the Niagara district, as well as Ellicott and Masten, encompassing large parts of the city’s East Side, which is home to many of Buffalo’s Black residents and communities. (Absentee ballots have yet to be counted, and the number of write-in votes that went specifically to Brown is not yet available.)

“The idea that Buffalo is a conservative city trapped in the past is false. There is no mandate for conservativism or status quo politics in Buffalo,” Taylor says. “There are nine council districts. Brown’s victory seems to have been driven by overwhelming votes in three of the more conservative districts — Lovejoy, South and North. The race appeared tighter in other districts. Even in the districts of North and Lovejoy, the poverty rates are around 30% or more in those communities. Thus, given the continued rise of progressive politics in Buffalo, it is unclear how long these two districts will remain in the more conservative column.”

Taylor says that while Walton appears to have lost the election, she has ignited the city’s progressive movement. Masten, where Walton did well, was once considered a stronghold for Brown.

“Her campaign was about creating a future where people no longer paid excessive rents for substandard housing, worked long hours, remained poor, and had their bodies ravaged with disease and died prematurely,” Taylor says. “Walton caused thousands of city residents to believe that another Buffalo was possible.”

For many years, media narratives about Buffalo have often focused on the city’s revitalization following decades of industrial decline.

Walton’s campaign brought local and national attention to a different story, highlighting how new developments have not benefited large portions of the city, including many of the poorest residents, Taylor says.

“Brown ignored the realities that Blacks had not progressed in 31 years and that the poverty and the low-income problem would not magically disappear,” Taylor says.

Walton’s campaign called attention to these issues, and that attention is likely to continue, Taylor says. In that way, he adds, Walton’s election loss marks a beginning, not an end, for Buffalo’s progressives: “A progressive movement has been launched in this city, and it will continue to grow and develop.”

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