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India Walton was just 14 when she had her first baby. After leaving a home for young mothers, and quitting high school at 19 when her twins were born, she went on to get her GED (the general educational development test for those who did not complete their schooling), have a fourth child and become a nurse.
Now she’s firmly on the path to becoming the mayor of Buffalo, New York – the first socialist mayor elected to a US city since 1960, when mayor Frank Zeidler of Milwaukee, Wisconsin left office.
Once seen as a long shot in the race for the Democratic party mayoral nomination against Byron Brown, a 15-year establishment incumbent, Walton may soon make history in more ways than one. Not only would she be the first socialist mayor of a US city in decades, but she would also be Buffalo’s first female mayor.
Walton’s nomination success created headlines and provided a shot in the arm for America’s socialists, who see a chance of wielding real power in a big city.
When asked to what she attributed her success, Walton said: “The struggle. The struggle of being a black woman, of being a teenage mother, of growing up poor, and really experiencing so many tragedies and traumas.”
Buffalo is the second-largest city in New York state, with a population of just over 250,000. Located on the shores of Lake Erie, it’s nextdoor to Canada.
With a population that is 36.5% black and 12.3% Latino, it’s rich in diversity but poor compared with the average US standard of living.
According to the US census, the median household income for the city is around $37,300 (about £27,000), just over half that of the national figure. The city, once a centre for railroad commerce, steel manufacturing and shipping, is now struggling, with 30% of residents living below the poverty line.
While she lacks a political background, Walton said: “My experience is the Buffalo experience. When I was growing up, we had one of the highest teen-pregnancy rates in the nation. I was a part of those stats. But I overcame. I think it’s a remarkable story that resonates with a lot of people who are average people in Buffalo.”
Although Walton beat Brown – a traditional Democrat – in the primary and thus secured the Democratic nomination, he won’t go down without a fight.
Brown refused to concede the result and has launched a campaign, asking voters to write in his name on the November ballot.
Brown also refused to debate with Walton during the campaign. “He didn’t even acknowledge that there was an election happening. And the fact he now is not cooperating – it just speaks to his character,” she said.
Despite her victory and seemingly smooth path to office in the majority Democratic Buffalo, Walton said she still can’t rest until the November election is over. “We won, but it wasn’t a landslide,” she said.
Walton is not afraid of her socialist identity. In a video circulated on social media, Walton was asked directly by the press if she considers herself a socialist. Without missing a beat, she replied: “Oh, absolutely.”
They are unafraid to align themselves with politics branded controversial by establishment Democrats and those on the right. The refusal to shy away from the S-word many Democrats deem a handicap or even political suicide could be indicative of a new approach on the left that is expanding.
“It’s just semantics,” Walton said. “We all want the same thing but we’re allowing the right to use our language against us as a dog whistle and as a way to make people afraid. For me, it’s more about policies. We have to stop coddling the elite and business class and really draw down resources and power into the hands of the people who are doing the work.
“To me, [socialism] is about putting workers first – the people who make the wealth but don’t often have access to it.”
She added: “Now that I’ve won this mayoral primary, it’s going to crack the seal on a lot of other US cities and we’re going to see similar trends. People are tired of working harder for less. Many of us are still poor, even though we are in one of the richest nations in the world.”
Walton knows all about working hard for little reward. The nurse-turned-politician said the combination of her own hardships and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are what drove her to politics.
“Being a mother made me want to do it. I need to leave this place better for my children. And what makes me want to fight so hard is to make sure that other people have opportunities to make better choices and have a decent life. Everyone deserves a decent standard of living,” she said.
“I decided to just go for it. Why wait? We can’t wait any more.”