In the final debate between candidates in the Buffalo mayoral race, Democratic nominee India Walton and incumbent Byron Brown – who is waging a write-in campaign – each attempted to paint the other as hopelessly out of touch.
Brown, according to Walton, is walled off from regular people and beholden to the campaign donors, many of them Republicans, who fill his campaign coffers. Walton, according to Brown, is a naive neophyte with no successful track record in management.
Walton stunned the political world in Buffalo and throughout the country with her June primary victory over the four-term incumbent Brown, who did not campaign. In Wednesday’s debate, she concentrated on some of the biggest issues that continue to plague Buffalo – poverty, crime and housing – pitching herself as someone who will be available and accountable to everyday Buffalonians.
“I want the same things that most of us want,” Walton said during her opening remarks. “I want safe, affordable housing. I want a quality education for my children. I want people to have access to health care. I want people to be happy, healthy, safe and whole and I don’t think there’s anything irresponsible or radical about that idea.”
Brown, meanwhile, continued to tout his record over his nearly 16 years in office while also working to paint Walton as a radical with fringe ideas.
“I don’t see Ms. Walton as a Democrat,” Brown said. “If you look at publications that she has been in all across the country, she is described as a socialist, and I think that her ideas for Buffalo are bad at best, and unworkable.”
The debate, part of a longstanding tradition at the private Catholic school St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, comes at the end of a furious, unusual and contentious election cycle that has drawn statewide attention and seen accusations of voter intimidation and electioneering law violations hurled by both the Brown and Walton camps in the first days of early voting. It also comes on the heels of an Emerson College/WIVB poll that has Brown up by 17 points.
While the mood around the race has been heated, the feeling in the debate was calm with candidates answering questions from the school’s AP Government students. Ben Carlisle, an unaffiliated write-in candidate, also participated.
Walton was attacked by both Brown and Carlisle throughout the debate for her plans to shift funding from the police department to social services in an effort to prevent crime. Both highlighted her organizing efforts last summer around protests following the murder of George Floyd, characterizing the demonstrations as riots and demonstrators as violent. They both pointed to her use of the term “defund the police” during those demonstrations – Walton has moved away from that term – as proof that she is anti-police. And Brown has claimed in an advertisement, which was played during the debate as part of an exercise where ads from all three candidates were shown, that Walton’s shift in funding would eliminate 100 officers.
Walton has repeatedly denied this claim, which appears nowhere in her campaign literature.
“There is nothing in my plan that will eliminate 100 police officers from the police force,” Walton said. “It’s false. It’s fear mongering, and because my opponent has no plan, he resorts to personal attacks on me.”
Brown also repeatedly brought up Walton’s track record as the leader of a nonprofit that worked to build affordable housing, claiming that she never accomplished anything because her organization had partnered with Habitat for Humanity on the two homes built during her two years from the founding of the organization to her resignation to run for mayor.
“She has no record of success with her ideas or philosophy,” Brown said. “In fact, she’s been a failed housing executive.”
Walton has defended her record at the not-for-profit, saying it is normal for agencies to partner on projects. She has emphasized the expansion of land trusts citywide as a key plank of her housing platform.
In response to questions around federal investigations into city hall – a city agency that distributes grant funding was raided in 2019 – Brown said that because no charges have yet been filed, his administration has done nothing wrong. Several Brown allies have taken guilty pleas in recent years, but he has never been charged.
“If there was anything that was being done wrong by the Brown administration, I would no longer be mayor of the city of Buffalo, because the federal government would find that and root it out,” he said.
Walton also tried to differentiate herself from the mayor as the candidate with a plan for the future. Her campaign website has a robust outline of her ideas and platform on a wide range of city issues. Brown’s campaign site contains a letter to voters that touts prior accomplishments but does not detail plans for the future. In recent campaign stops he has offered some details for plans on infrastructure and other issues, but the campaign has offered no detailed plans on what an historic fifth term would look like.
“Now we have an opportunity to have a person who will be open, honest, transparent, listen to and value the opinions and the ideas of others, a person who has a bold vision and a plan for the future of Buffalo,” Walton said.
Brown touted his experience through crises like the global recession and ongoing pandemic, asking voters to give him an opportunity to get Buffalo back on track coming out of the pandemic.
“I know how to help grow this economy,” he said. “I know how to partner with the development community. I know how to bring jobs to the city of Buffalo. I’ve done it before, and I can and I will do it again.”