How India Walton Surprised Everyone by Winning a Mayoral Primary: 'I Was Not Tied Into the Establishment'

"My life has not been the typical politician’s life," Walton said earlier this year. "I gave birth to my first child at 14. I dropped out of high school and lived in a group home. I earned my GED while pregnant with twins"

India Walton
India Walton. Photo: Joshua Bessex/AP/Shutterstock

India Walton notched a political victory — not her first, but her biggest — in June when the relatively unknown candidate beat Buffalo, New York's four-term mayor in a Democratic primary, seemingly putting her on a path to become the city's first female mayor and the first to identify as a democratic socialist.

Incumbent Byron Brown threw a wrench in that plan that same month, however, launching a campaign as a write-in candidate in a move that — if he wins — would make him the city's longest-serving mayor. After essentially ignoring Walton's campaign against him, Brown went on the offensive, criticizing her "radical socialist" politics and lack of political experience.

It's the reverse of the positive message Walton has been sharing: As detailed in a sprawling new profile for The New Yorker, the 38-year-old, who has been endorsed by leading progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has not always seen such success.

"I always remember being on food stamps, being a little bit food insecure, having our gas shut off at times and having to warm water on a hot plate to take a bath," Walton told The New Yorker.

As the magazine recounts, Walton became pregnant at 14 — dropping out of high school and getting a job at McDonald's to support her son, who was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia.

At age 19, she had twins, later going to nursing school and getting a job at the Buffalo Children's Hospital.

Around that time, her interest in policy began to grow; she became active in her union, even speaking at a rally and appearing on MSNBC.

But it wasn't until she moved to a neighborhood on Buffalo's East Side — an area that's become central to the city's conflict over gentrification — that she began making strides to alter the way politics were conducted in her own neighborhood. She also navigated personal turmoil, including a period of homelessness before she ultimately divorced her estranged husband.

She made local headlines in 2016, staging a one-woman protest to highlight the lack of street parking for long-time residents. The stunt was successful, and Walton negotiated with a city councilman over the issue — leading to the use of parking permits in the area.

Walton then decided to make the leap from nursing to organizing, landing a job at Open Buffalo, which describes itself as focused on racial, economic and ecological justice.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began affecting Buffalo, she said she focused on getting food to those in need and aiding those who needed help to get around the city. Speaking to The New Yorker, Walton contrasted her own efforts to that of Brown's: "The mayor's solution to the pandemic was to put door hangers on doors, saying 'Check on Your Neighbors.' " (Brown encouraged vaccination against the virus and took other major steps, including declaring a state of emergency.)

It was during the upheaval of the pandemic that Walton began contemplating a campaign of her own in earnest, she told The New Yorker. The nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd cemented that plan. "Why not? I know I can do it. I was not relying on the city for funding my organization. I was not tied into the establishment in any way," she told the magazine. "The mayor, really — I mean, he can't do anything to me to stop me from working. I'm a registered nurse. I can always go back to that if that's what I have to do."

Walton announced her campaign in November 2020, telling The Buffalo News: "My mind is made up. It's time for new leadership. It's time for a person of the people."

Her campaign has since won the endorsements of Sen. Bernie Sanders's political-action committee and the Democratic Socialists of America as well as the Western New York Working Families Party, which had previously backed Brown in all of his campaigns.

Her increased profile has also brought greater scrutiny.

Walton has faced criticism over past legal and financial issues, such as her and her then-husband failing to pay their taxes on time in 2004 and her once being accused of welfare fraud of roughly $300. (She paid back the money with interest and by 2009, the judgment was satisfied.)

"Everything that I've been through has prepared me to lead, it's prepared me for these attacks on my character," Walton said in an earlier interview with local station WKBW addressing her past legal and financial issues. "I own my identity."

About the fraud case, Walton compared it to a "poor tax" levied on someone in an unstable situation.

"In hindsight, I would have been more proactive about reporting my income in a more timely manner, but this is not something that is uncommon," Walton told WKBW. "I think most people who have received any type of government assistance knows that there are overpayments, there are underpayments, and you know, it was paid back."

She said then that "currently I don't owe any taxes."

She told The New Yorker it would take a lot to deter her from running for Buffalo mayor: "I've been through almost every unfortunate experience you can think of. I've been in an abusive marriage. I've been raped. I've been hit by a car. I've given birth to babies. ... And those types of experiences allow you to put things into perspective about what's really important. So, unless someone is going to kill me, I'm going to keep fighting."

"It is difficult to be running for office," she said. "let alone a woman with children or a woman who's led a life where she wasn't groomed to be in this position."

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