Interviews & Profiles

India Walton still has a general election to win, and Buffalo’s elite aren’t making it easy

Byron Brown will not be on the ballot, but not for lack of pulling strings.

Democratic nominee India Walton has a clearer path to victory in the general election in Buffalo now that Byron Brown is off the ballot.

Democratic nominee India Walton has a clearer path to victory in the general election in Buffalo now that Byron Brown is off the ballot. Libby March

A few days before the June 22 Buffalo Democratic mayoral primary, a low-grade panic had set in among the wealthy, the connected and the powerful in Buffalo.

Larry Quinn, who has spent decades working on development projects for billionaires and sports team owners, posted to Facebook a since-deleted, error-laden missive that warned of the looming danger of a potential victory for India Walton, the Working Families Party-backed candidate and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, over the city’s forever mayor, Byron Brown.

“Thé Buffalo election is being run and funded by the Alexandra Occasio Cortez crowd from Queens with an assist from Phil Rumore the diabolical destroyer of our public education system,” Quinn wrote, referring to the member of Congress and Buffalo Teachers Federation president, respectively. “WAKE UP PEOPLE. VOTE FOR BROWN BEFORE OR ON TUESDAY.”

A week before the election Quinn heard rumblings that things were not going well for the mayor, giving him cause to put up the post with the all caps treatment. Brown hadn't run much of a campaign – despite having a deep war chest and a highly tuned fundraising apparatus. He refused to debate Walton before the primary. He hadn’t even uttered her name in the run up to the election. He held no campaign rallies or events. He went about his business as if there were no election.

The Brown camp commissioned two polls in early June and supporters had been calling around to sound the alarm bells. The mayor might have a problem.

Around the same time, money began to flow into the campaign at a fevered pace. In the final week of the race, a who’s who of Buffalo players began dumping contributions, many at or near the maximum allowed by state law, into Brown’s campaign fund. Quinn gave a grand. At least six members of the Jacobs family, owners of the global food services conglomerate Delaware North, gave $5,000 a piece. Bob Rich Jr., billionaire scion of the global frozen foods giant Rich Products, gave $10,000. In total, he raised nearly $120,000 in the week leading up to the election. The campaign spent more than $140,000 on radio, television and print advertising and campaign literature in a last-minute blitz, according to campaign finance reports.

It was all for naught. India Walton defeated the incumbent by 4.4 percentage points.

In the weeks after her victory, big-money names tried to brush her off with the same hubris that Brown showed during the primary. Rocco Termini, a well-known developer credited with leading the way on renovations of existing buildings around the city, claimed to know almost nothing about her.

“I wouldn’t know her if I saw her,” he told The Buffalo News a few days after her victory. “I’m willing to give everybody a chance, but I’ve never met her. Nobody even knows what she basically stands for.”

The day after Brown’s primary loss, developer Carl Paladino began organizing meetings to rally support for Brown, according to multiple media reports. The meetings never ended up happening, with some fearing being associated with Paladino, a Trump loyalist who has a history of racist and sexist comments.

On June 28, Brown said he would wage a write-in campaign in November’s general election, with some prominent Buffalo figures – former mayor and current lobbyist Anthony Masiello and Common Council Member Joseph Golombek among them – standing by his side. After a controversial ruling from U.S. District Court Judge John Sinatra, the brother of real estate developer and major Brown donor Nick Sinatra, it looked like he would have a line on the ballot under the newly formed Buffalo Party, despite submitting his petitions nearly three months after the deadline set by the state Legislature. Sinatra addressed the appearance of a conflict of interest by saying he considered the guidelines for recusal, spoke to another federal judge about the matter and he saw no reason to recuse himself. He ruled that the deadline was too early to allow for late-emerging candidates to take part and it limited the participation of voters, particularly Republicans and independents who cannot vote in the Democratic primary. However, Brown will not appear on the ballot after a state appellate court overturned that ruling and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay on the Sinatra decision, clearing the way for the Erie County Board of Elections to begin mailing ballots without Brown’s name on them. Walton’s camp cheered the outcomes, taking to Twitter and issuing a press release celebrating the victories.

“As of now, Byron Brown’s frivolous legal actions have failed, and we are calling on him to cease them once and for all, and let us get back to the issues,” Jesse Myerson, a campaign spokesperson, said in the release.

India Walton
India Walton (Libby March)

Most people in the business community don’t want to say much of anything about the mayoral race these days. City & State reached out to 10 people in Buffalo’s business circles. Termini picked up, but quickly ended the conversation upon learning of the nature of the inquiry. There was radio silence from the others.

In fact, only Quinn was willing to speak to City & State.

Quinn has been in the business and development community for decades, helping to oversee the construction of the city’s downtown arena and teaming up with billionaire Tom Golisano to keep the Buffalo Sabres in town after the previous owners went bankrupt in the early 2000s.

Now semi-retired, he works as a consultant on development projects. He is currently helping another of the region’s billionaires, Rich, working in partnership with a media-focused investment group on a major film and television studio complex on the city’s West Side.

To him, the initial reaction from the business community to Walton’s victory is a result of the trust that Brown, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has built with developers and other business leaders throughout his time in office.

“I think what the mayor has shown is that he is a good collaborator in that movement toward reinvestment,” Quinn said.

He also believes that Walton’s lack of executive experience – she was the executive director of a community land trust, a role that Brown attempted to paint as insignificant and oversold by the Walton camp in their only scheduled debate earlier this month – does not make her a good fit as more private investment flows into the city.

“She’s a young person who has a certain amount of idealism,” Quinn said. “If she wants to voice it, that’s OK with me. I just don’t think, by the way, that she’s experienced enough to do this job and that’s a different matter.”

Walton said she has tried to reach out to developers and other business leaders and has met with several people. She stressed that she has no intentions to try to slow down development. But neither will she promote the use of tax breaks for developers while so many regular Buffalonians are struggling.

Under Brown’s watch, Buffalo has begun its transformation. A former state office building that had become run down, a symbol of disinvestment in the city, is now a Marriott with restaurants on the first floor. The University at Buffalo moved its medical school downtown. The state built the Northland Workforce Training Center on the city’s East Side, a massive job training facility that specializes in preparing people for advanced manufacturing gigs. And what used to be gravel parking lots and an old arena is now a children’s museum and a replica of the old canal system that doubles as a skating rink in the winter.

But high rates of deep poverty persist. Buffalo remains one of the most segregated and poor big cities in the nation. And the Brown administration spent down the city’s reserve fund to cover budget gaps in recent years and was facing a significant budget hole before the American Rescue Plan was passed.

“We are not bringing in enough revenue to support city services as it is,” Walton said. “So why is it that we give tax breaks to folks who don’t really need them and allowing development to continue to happen on the backs of good, hardworking, taxpaying Buffalonians?

So what in particular has caused so much concern among the business class?

Part of it seems to stem from Walton’s membership in the Democratic Socialists of America. Walton has not shied away from identifying herself as a socialist. But recently, including during the debate, she has tried to emphasize the Democratic portion of the group’s name, likely a reaction to Brown’s scare tactics, repeatedly referring to her as a radical.

In addition, she has made it clear that she will pursue more concessions from developers through community benefits agreements and other means in exchange for any kind of subsidy or benefit on a given project. She would seek to end some tax breaks entirely. She has said she will ask for the Common Council’s support in opting the city out of the lucrative 485-a state tax break, a program that allows developers to avoid property taxes  for 12 years on projects that refurbish abandoned buildings.

And her proposal to raise property taxes has raised eyebrows among the city’s largest landholders. Brown, who has kept the tax rate flat throughout his tenure but did initiate a citywide reassessment of property values in 2019, has seen her plan as an opening, concentrating on the proposed tax increase during their recent debate.

Rob Galbraith, a senior researcher with the Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo-based nonprofit that analyzes the intersection of money and power in Buffalo and beyond, has been observing and writing about the relationship between Brown and the Buffalo business class for almost 10 years.

They don’t want to be out there up until the moment of the election with their hair on fire saying that she’s a communist demon or something. Because there’s a good chance that they’re going to have to work with her.
– Rob Galbraith, a senior researcher with the Public Accountability Initiative

He said Walton represents a change in the status quo, and the removal of a mayor who has been more than friendly to business leaders.

“The developers are not going to be dictating the terms anymore,” Galbraith said, in the case of a Walton victory. “I think that is the sort of relationship dynamic that they’re used to.”

But Galbraith, who has donated to the Walton campaign and volunteered time phone-banking, said members of the business community also don’t want to overstep.

“They don’t want to be out there up until the moment of the election with their hair on fire saying that she’s a communist demon or something,” he said. “Because there’s a good chance that they’re going to have to work with her.”

There are plenty of ways the mayor can influence how development moves forward in the city. From sitting on the board of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency to putting people in leadership positions overseeing real estate and code enforcement, mayors have some levers to pull when negotiating the terms of real estate deals.

But those pressures are limited and whoever ends up in office next January won’t want to be seen as an executive that is anti-development or anti-progress.

Developers realize there are limits to what she can accomplish through the powers of the office, Galbraith said.

“They know that just because a socialist steps into an elected office, she doesn’t have the power to seize all the productive capital in Buffalo,” he said.

Walton, while maintaining she will be aggressive in her pursuit of better deals for taxpayers on development projects, also acknowledges that developers have a role to play in the city and that she is willing to work with them to try to find common ground.

“I’m not anti-development at all,” Walton said. “What I am is anti-giving away taxpayer dollars to further enrich the wealthy, when we are leaving communities behind.”

Still, Quinn said her aggressiveness in seeking more commitments and tax revenue from the business community has the potential to cool investment in a city that has seen a lot of change under Brown.

“Will people shut down projects because India Walton is elected mayor?” he said. “I don’t think so. I just think you won’t see that creativity and that interest in investing and you’ll never know that it’s not there because you’ll never see it. That’s the real danger.”

At first glance, Walton’s goals for Buffalo and Brown’s priorities might look pretty similar – expanding housing opportunities and improving public safety. But the devil is in the details, and it often boils down to a difference in philosophy on how to get there. Brown has long been supportive of tax breaks and other incentives for developers in a way that Walton views as too generous and benefiting wealthy people at the expense of the city's poor and middle classes.

“If folks want to develop private property with private money then go ahead and feel free to do that,” Walton said. “But anytime there is a subsidy expected from taxpayers and anytime there is an attempt to utilize city resources, aka public resources, then we’re going to make sure that the private serves the public good.”

Quinn views that stance as hostile to business. He said Brown had put people in place who would work with the business community to move things forward, a change from what he called the “bad old days” of previous administrations, when a project might be held up if the developer wasn’t in good standing with City Hall.

“What a businessperson, a developer, really wants is a professional, nonpolitical operation,” he said.

But Galbraith said the links between many in Buffalo’s business community and the Brown administration are undeniable.

He pointed to Nick Sinatra letting his real estate company’s property taxes fall more than $1 million behind without the city pursuing foreclosures as a prime example of one way businesspeople who donate to the Brown campaign get preferential treatment, as the city sometimes forecloses on residential properties that are just a few hundred dollars in arrears. The company has since caught up on its tax bills, but was allowed to continue doing business with the city and state.

I’m not anti-development at all. What I am is anti-giving away taxpayer dollars to further enrich the wealthy, when we are leaving communities behind.
– India Walton

And Brown has created an environment that, through the levers of power afforded by the office, is more permissive to big landlords than to residential property owners.

“All of that together can create and has created a system that has absolutely favored these larger, corporate landlord-type developers,” Galbraith said.

Walton and many of her supporters also pointed to Judge John Sinatra’s decision to not recuse himself in the case where he ruled that Brown would be allowed on the general election ballot. His brother Nick Sinatra has given at least $11,755 to Brown over the years, including $1,000 during this campaign. Brown has appeared in promotional videos supporting Nick Sinatra’s real estate company. And John Sinatra used to be a partner at Hodgson Russ, a major Buffalo law firm that contracts with and constantly has business before the city, and which has also donated to Brown’s campaign in the past.

Quinn took issue with the idea that wealthy people and developers were inherently corrupt and afforded undue influence in Brown’s City Hall.

“You’re automatically assuming that a guy is corrupt because he’s a developer,” Quinn said about John Sinatra’s ruling. “That’s not healthy.”

Now, with just over a month left before the election, Walton will have to sell the idea that developers should be doing more to help alleviate the systemic poverty in some Buffalo neighborhoods to people outside of her base.

She has been constantly out door-knocking, trying to convince people in neighborhoods where Brown lawn signs have sprung up like tulips in April after her shocking victory over the longtime mayor.

As long as she can get in front of people and convince them to hear her out, Walton said she will often be successful at showing them that her ideas aren’t radical.

“When I can speak to people and I can explain to them that I know what the hell I’m talking about, they change their mind,” she said.

So in the coming weeks she will continue on pushing that message: that the city can have development and a better future for residents she said were left behind during Brown’s tenure.

“We’re not talking about Main Street Buffalo, our small businesses that circulate dollars in our communities,” Walton said. “We’re talking about large companies that largely extract from our community and exploit our workers by paying slave wages. And if someone is afraid that I’m going to come in and demand that people are paid a living wage and have a decent standard of living, then that’s their problem.”