Buffalo Mayor’s Race Hangs in the Balance With Write-In Ballots

The signs were promising for Byron Brown, the incumbent trying to defeat socialist India Walton, who won the Democratic primary in June.,

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Buffalo mayor’s race hangs in the balance with write-in ballots.

Jesse McKinley

Nov. 2, 2021, 11:23 p.m. ET

Nov. 2, 2021, 11:23 p.m. ET

Mayor Byron Brown waged an aggressive write-in campaign against India Walton, a democratic socialist, who had defeated him in the Democratic Primary in June.
Mayor Byron Brown waged an aggressive write-in campaign against India Walton, a democratic socialist, who had defeated him in the Democratic Primary in June.Credit…From left, Libby March for The New York Times; Malik Rainey for The New York Times

BUFFALO, N.Y. –Mayor Byron W. Brown of Buffalo, an incumbent four-term Democrat, declared victory on Tuesday night in his write-in campaign to defeat his own party’s official nominee, India Walton. But Ms. Walton refused to concede.

The results were far from final in a race that drew national attention for reflecting the ideological schism in the Democratic Party: With nearly 70 percent of the vote counted, about 60 percent were marked for “write-In,” and many of those could eventually translate into votes for Brown, though that process of counting will be laborious and could take weeks to finish.

Ms. Walton, a democratic socialist who had earned the endorsements of some of the nation’s best-known progressives, said on Tuesday night that “every vote needs to be counted” and railed against the Brown campaign, which did not reject support from Republicans, a small cohort in this heavily Democratic city.

“Right now it’s ‘Walton’ against ‘Write In,’ whoever that is,” she said. “Who Write-In is remains to be seen.”

Indeed, there is at least one other write-in candidate who has actively campaigned — Benjamin Carlisle, a former Democrat. Ballots marked “write-in” will have to be checked individually to see which candidate — Mr. Brown, Mr. Carlisle, or others — is indicated. And absentee ballots will not be tallied until mid-November.

Still, the results on Tuesday seemed to boost the hopes and mood of Mr. Brown, who lost to Ms. Walton in a Democratic primary in June, after running a lackluster campaign.

“They said it was impossible to win as a write-in, but you can never count a Buffalonian out,” said Mr. Brown said to a raucous crowd at a downtown event, adding he would find a way to thank all his voters “over the next four years.”

“This hasn’t been easy,” he said. “But it’s been worth it.”

The political oddity of a potent write-in campaign and a battle pitting moderates versus progressives inside the Democratic Party turned this city’s usually lackluster mayoral race into one of the most closely watched contests in the nation.

Mr. Brown, 63, was seeking a fifth term, trying to cobble together a varied coalition of conservative and moderate Democratic supporters, as well as managing the vicissitudes of a write-in campaign, including spending $100,000 to buy specially made rubber stamps to allow voters to ink his name on ballots.

On Tuesday, such a process didn’t seem to discourage Brown supporters like Fred Heinle, 66, who voted for the mayor and said, “Byron Brown has done a lot of tremendous things for the city.

“Has he been perfect? No,” said Mr. Heinle, who is retired. “But he’s done some wonderful very good things for the city to be proud of.”

In her remarks, Ms. Walton accused Mr. Brown of betraying the Democratic Party and benefiting from deep-pocketed donors who poured money through independent expenditure committees. And indeed, some local Republican officials — who are badly outnumbered in voter registration in Buffalo and did not even field a candidate for mayor — did voice support for Mr. Brown’s campaign.

“Buffalo is a Democratic city,” Ms. Walton said on Tuesday night. “And what we have seen is my opponent actively cooperating and colluding with Republicans and dark money to defeat a person who was going to be a champion for the little guy.”

A win for Mr. Brown — the city’s first Black mayor and a lifelong Democratic centrist — would be a stinging rebuke for the progressive wing of his party, which had celebrated Ms. Walton’s unlikely victory in June.

In many ways, Ms. Walton’s candidacy has underscored a deeper rift in the Democratic Party, which has seen moderates like President Biden and Eric Adams, who easily won his election for New York City mayor on Tuesday, repeatedly scuffle with more left-leaning candidates and elected officials.

Since winning in June, Ms. Walton had drawn the support of a bevy of prominent national progressives, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx but traveled to Buffalo in late October to campaign on Ms. Walton’s behalf.

She had also begun to draw the support of more Democratic establishment figures, including both of the state’s U.S. senators — Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand — who could face challengers from the left in future election cycles.

Still, Ms. Walton was not uniformly embraced by state party leadership, as Gov. Kathy Hochul — a Buffalo native — and Jay S. Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee, declined to endorse her.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Mr. Jacobs had come under particular fire after suggesting Ms. Walton’s win in the primary was akin to an infamous white supremacist, David Duke, winning his party’s nomination. (Mr. Jacobs, who heard calls for his resignation, later apologized.)

Ms. Walton, 39, was tying to become the first woman and first Black woman to lead New York’s second largest city, as well as the first socialist to lead a major American city in decades. A first-time candidate, she has an evocative life story as a single mother and labor organizer — a narrative that she leaned on in advertisements, some of which were paid for by groups like the Working Families Party, a labor-backed organization that often supports progressive candidates.

She had run an energetic primary campaign, surprising Mr. Brown, who largely refused to acknowledge her candidacy, having won past campaigns comfortably in a city in which Democrats far outnumber Republicans.

The mayor’s blase attitude changed radically, however, after Ms. Walton’s win, as he announced his write-in campaign and attempted a legal push to get himself put on the ballot. That effort failed after a pair of judges ruled against Mr. Brown in September, leaving Ms. Walton the only candidate whose name was on the ballot.

Still as the campaign continued, political observers here repeatedly suggested that Mr. Brown could be a favorite, if only because of his 16 years in office and widespread name recognition.

But on Tuesday, some of Ms. Walton’s supporters said they both liked her policies and had tired of Mr. Brown’s long time in office.

“No one is owed a position in public service,” said Matthew L. Schwartz, 37, social worker in Buffalo. “I don’t understand why he feels he has the pulse of the community.”

Still Mr. Brown seemed confident in the days before the election, joking on Sunday about the potentially notable nature of his win as well as his rubber stamps.

“There’s a growing feeling,” he said, “that the stamps are going to become collectors’ items.”

Lauren D’Avolio and Dan Higgins contributed reporting from Buffalo.

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