or decades, the city of Buffalo has been mocked as a lovable loser. Defined by dismal winter weather, a deteriorating Rust Belt economy, a declining population, and the Buffalo Bills improbably losing in the Super Bowl for four consecutive years in the nineties, New York’s second-largest city is used to hard times. In 1990, during a halftime segment of Monday Night Football, Jerry Van Dyke, who starred in the hit television series “Coach,” riled up all of western New York when he said that the final score of a game between the Bills and the New York Jets didn’t matter because “even if you win, you lose. . . . You still have to go home to Buffalo.”
In the past year, Buffalo has been back in the national spotlight for two disparate but connected reasons. The first came in the summer of 2020, during a Black Lives Matter protest, when reporters captured footage of a seventy-five-year-old man named Martin Gugino speaking heatedly to police. Apparently provoked by Gugino’s remarks, an officer shoved him to the ground, cracking his skull and causing a brain injury that would leave him hospitalized for a month. Two officers were suspended with pay and charged with assault. As an act of protest against the punishment, fifty-seven of the city’s officers quit their assignments to a crowd-control unit.
Almost a year later, a local housing activist, India Walton, stunned Buffalo’s Democratic establishment by winning the mayoral primary, defeating the four-term incumbent, Byron Brown. The first African American mayor of the city, Brown has been a favorite of businesses and developers, presiding over a transformation of Buffalo’s downtown. Walton would be an unlikely successor. A Black woman who identifies as a democratic socialist, she became a mother at fourteen, as well as a high-school dropout and a welfare recipient. She survived sexual assault and domestic violence. Walton went on to become a nurse, but she left her profession to work as a community organizer. Even in the midst of a general election, she is outspoken about democratic socialism. She told me, “Socialism has been weaponized against the people it benefits the most—and we have bought into it. It is my job to change that narrative, to change the culture, and say that it is O.K.”
Under normal circumstances, in a liberal city, the winner of the Democratic primary wins the race. Republicans have such a marginal presence in Buffalo politics that they did not even bother to field a candidate this year. But these are hardly normal times. Instead of supporting his party’s nominee, Brown launched a write-in campaign for the general election. Drawing on hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from local business interests, he has tried many of the G.O.P.’s recent campaign tactics on Walton, raising fears about the Black Lives Matter movement’s platform and socialism. “I think people themselves are afraid of her,” he said of Walton, this summer. “They have heard her positions. She’s talked about cutting the police department, defunding the police department, at a time when crime is going up in communities all across the country, including here.” More recently, Brown warned voters, “With an unqualified, radical socialist, our community will only go backward . . . and we can’t allow that to happen.” Shortly before the election, the New York State Republican Party sent out mailers to thousands of voters on Brown’s behalf, urging them toward Brown as a last-ditch effort to “stop socialism in the City of Buffalo.” These tactics appear to be working—a recent poll showed Brown leading Walton by more than seventeen percentage points. Brown told me, “I think a Brown victory on Election Night will send a strong message to the far left that these are not positions that resonate with the majority of people in the Democratic Party or in the country.”
Lately, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing conflict within the Democratic Party in Washington, between those who embrace an aggressive brand of progressive politics and the centrist establishment. But the phenomenon is hardly limited to Congress. Across the old Rust Belt, from St. Louis to Pittsburgh and Buffalo to Detroit, you will find showy development and claims of downtown renaissances—alongside stifling poverty, a degraded public sector, and rampant police misconduct. Democrats have largely overseen these disasters, but for those who wish to challenge them the Democratic Party tends to be the only viable vehicle from which to do it.
In a place like Buffalo, this raises the question: What is the Democratic Party? Does it facilitate home demolitions or does it promise affordable housing and tenants’ rights? Does it mute criticisms of local police or does it stand with Black Lives Matter? On November 2nd, Walton, who has the support of prominent progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will be the only mayoral candidate on the city’s ballot. But Brown, who has the backing of powerful unions, including the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters, may well win the race by forming a coalition against the left flank of his own party. When I asked Brown what he would say to voters who supported Walton in the primary, saying that they wanted change in Buffalo, he replied, “I don’t think a lot of voters are saying that anymore.”