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Who is India Walton, the democratic socialist poised to become Buffalo’s next mayor?

While many New Yorkers were watching the tight New York City Democratic mayoral primary on Tuesday, a progressive community activist staged an stunning upset upstate. 

India B. Walton, a political newcomer running her first campaign, defeated four-term Democratic incumbent Byron Brown in Buffalo’s mayoral primary. And considering New York’s second-biggest city votes heavily Democratic, and there’s currently no Republican candidate for the fall election, it’s likely that Walton, 38, will be elected mayor come November. 

“Mommy, I won!” Walton is seen screaming triumphantly over the phone to her mother in a widely-shared video on Twitter. “Mommy, I’m the mayor of Buffalo. Well, not until January, but, yeah.” 

Should Walton become mayor this fall, she would be the first female mayor in Buffalo’s history, and also the city’s first socialist mayor. In fact, she would also be the first socialist mayor of a major city since Milwaukee’s Frank P. Zeidler stepped down in 1960. 

Walton’s primary surprise led both her name and the city of Buffalo to trend on Twitter and to spike on Google searches on Wednesday. But who is she and what’s her background? Here’s five things to know about Walton: 

She’s been a full-time working mom since she was a teen. 

Walton was born and raised on Buffalo’s East Side as one of six children, her campaign site says. She left school and had her first child at age 14, and she began working at McDonald’s. She earned her GED while she was pregnant with her twin sons, who were born prematurely when she was 19. “My story is remarkable, but not uncommon,” Walton told CBS Buffalo affiliate WIVB. “And I just want to be the example for people like me that you can do whatever you set your mind to.”

Giving birth to premies inspired her to become a nurse. 

Her twin sons were born prematurely and had to be cared for in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU.) But while the hospital took good care of her babies, she has recalled that the jargon-ey medical language that the hospital staff used made it even harder for her to make informed medical decisions for her newborn sons. So she went back to school and earned a nursing degree at SUNY Erie. And guess where she ended up working once she graduated — in the same NICU that had cared for her boys. 

“Being able to deliver babies and save lives and have that type of impact on families was so meaningful,” Walton told Mother Jones. She also worked as a nurse in Buffalo public schools. And her experiences as both a patient and as a health-care provider also got her thinking about how women of color are treated by the medical community across the country. 

She’s been politically active since she was 12.

Walton protested the Rockefeller Drug Laws (which pushed some of the most severe prison sentences for narcotic sales and possession in the country) as part of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums activist group when she was a tween. So began her long history with prison reform. She eventually left nursing to become a community organizer for Open Buffalo, where she pushed for criminal justice reform and fair housing. And as the founding executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, she developed more permanent, affordable housing by renovating vacant homes for low-income residents.

Walton also became a union representative for 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East while she was working as a nurse, where she became more determined to work toward addressing racial injustices in the country’s health-care system. She was invited to speak at a national women’s rights rally before the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.

She was also prominent in the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s death, and condemned Mayor Brown’s response — especially after two Buffalo police officers knocked a 75-year-old man to the ground, which put him in the hospital for a month. Charges against the officers were later dropped. She has said that Brown was “doing nothing to advance the quality of life for poor and brown people and hold police accountable.”

Oh, and Walton was praised by AOC on Twitter on Tuesday night, when her primary victory was already looking like a lock.

She’s fine with being called a socialist. 

Walton hasn’t shied away from the divisive label, and has scored endorsements from the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party. “The pandemic has proven that we can have social programs that prioritize people and working-class families … and it works,” she said Wednesday on MSNBC.

When asked Tuesday whether she considers herself a socialist, she told the Buffalo News, “Oh, absolutely! The entire intent of this campaign is to draw down power and resources to the ground level into the hands of the people.”

She added: “I’m just excited to be a part of this movement that is ushering progressive politics into Buffalo. Being the third-poorest midsize city in this country, we should be considering how we begin to eradicate concentrated poverty and disadvantage, and democratic socialist leanings are a big step in getting us there.”

Here’s what she has planned for her first 100 days in office. 

If Walton becomes Buffalo’s mayor in January, she plans to sign a tenant’s bill of rights that would protect tenants by installing a tenant advocate and instituting rent controls. She also wants to stop police from responding to most mental-health emergency calls, and to reallocate some police funding to other city services. She also plans to declare Buffalo a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, and to create the city’s first comprehensive climate-action plan. Read more about her stances on key issues and her plans for office here.

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