Outside the Merriweather Library on the corner of Jefferson and East Utica a sea of blue tee-shirt wearing advocates for Byron Brown and yellow tee-shirt wearing supporters for India Walton rallied on behalf of their candidates in a display of political consciousness not seen in this town for decades.
Inside, India Walton, the fearless young endorsed Democratic Party nominee, went toe-to-toe against Brown, a 16-year entrenched incumbent and two mayoral hopefuls – Jaz Miles and Benjamin Carlisle. For 90 minutes she successfully stood her ground against the slings and arrows of fear mongering, veiled insults and doubt cast about her ability to lead.
Last Thursday’s much anticipated debate laid bare the political chasm between the candidates – mainly Mayor Brown and Ms. Walton.
Hosted by the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists and the legendary WUFO Radio, the questions covered many of the issues that concern voters from gun violence, police funding, poverty, schools, housing, taxes and safe neighborhoods. The issue of Ms. Walton’s Democratic Socialist status and “defunding” the police came up time and time again during the debate – issues Walton welcomed as they gave her the opportunity to clarify her position and to set the record straight.
–Defunding The Police Issue-
Citing the rise in violent crime and other issues, Walton defended her position on police reform, – which she said, is not focused on dismantling or handicapping our police force. Walton accused Brown himself of “defunding” community centers, seniors and other services…“My plan is to free the police to do police work which is solving crime, investigating crime to keep our community safe.”
Brown said Walton was “completely wrong” by saying she will not defund the police. He said she proposes to cut $7.5 million and that would clearly be defunding police leaving 100 less police on the streets.
Rebutting Brown’s claims, Walton noted, “The $7.5 million my opponent was referencing came from a very good study put out by the Partnership for Public Good.. after a thorough audit of the police budget.” The problem she said could be addressed through attrition and increased overtime. She assured it is not defunding rather “thoughtful use of tax payers dollars.”
The Socialist Question-
At one point during the debate Carlisle attacked Walton as being “very confused” and said “we’re all terrified” that she will implement socialist policies…”why do you have to make everyone in Buffalo terrified?”
Replied Walton: I have been a Democrat my entire life. I am currently the Democratic nominee for Mayor of Buffalo
…I am a Democratic Socialist – Democrat is the first word in that term. It means that we put workers first, we take care of poor people, we take care of children, we provide healthcare for all. It’s as simple as that. Let’s put it to bed once and for all…!
-Equity in Development-
The question was asked about achieving the right balance in development projects between the medical campus, downtown waterfront and neighborhoods.
Walton, citing her last job as director of building permanently affordable housing in the Fruitbelt neighbored declared, “I’m not anti-development…I am anti-development with displacement – we can do smart development that keeps neighborhoods intact, create mixed income neighborhoods with high quality amenities…and we can do it without draining tax payers….If a developer wants to develop something using tax subsidies, or our tax dollars, I believe there should be a legally binding community benefits agreement and there should be on going support to surrounding neighborhoods…If that is what you call socialism then sign me up…Let’s stop mischaracterizing who I am and what I believe…and ask more questions and read more books.
Brown then accused Walton’s comments about the Fruitbelt Land Trust as being “absolutely false.” According to public record he said the Fruitbelt Land Trust “did not build one single house so what she just said was completely false.”
“It’s amazing that in your own city you don’t know what’s going on,” Walton shot back. She then gave the address of two houses that were in fact built and talked about how they did it in partnership with Habitat for Humanity . She also noted how the city refused to let them pursue a bigger project and forced them pay market rate for city owed land to build affordable housing to serve the public good.
Brown came back later during the debate and mocked her “fairytale” of being a successful not for profit executive having only built two houses. “That was your great success?” he chided.
“We could have done much more had we had the cooperation of the City of Buffalo that’s part of the reason why I’m running for mayor,” Walton replied. “ I know there’s so many people who do so much good work in this community and the barriers we face time after time from the second floor of city hall and it’s time that we end that right now!”
When the question of experience came up, Mayor Brown, proudly listed his accomplishments as having “successfully managed the finances of the city and citing the tax rate to the lowest level in 30 years. He also cited his diverse work force and his political resume history as a senior staffer in city county and state government, a city council member and member of the NY State Senate and now in his 4th term as mayor.
Carlisle replied “I have absolutely no experience in politics” then took a swipe at Brown adding that nor had he ever “fear mongered, wasted taxpayers money..”
“I don’t have government experience,” said Walton, “but as I said I’m a registered nurse, and what I learned is that we plan, we implement, and we evaluate. And what has not happened over the last 16 years is evaluation of how we are spending our money, where we’re putting our priorities and that needs to happen. When something isn’t working then we need change.”
She then added that this year the year S&P actually lowered the city’s financial outlook to negative, and Fitch downrated our credit rating twice, most recently in 2020. “Cutting taxes means we are not funding municipal services like trash pickup, and snow removal. So let’s think about what’s actually being said and let’s not allow the wool to be pulled over our eyes…”
When the candidates were asked if they would raise taxes if elected – they all said no except Ms. Walton.
She said citizens she’s talked to said they would be ok with a modest increase in taxes as long as we can fund city services. “People are confused as to why we have a city budget that relies on fines and fees to fill in the hole….Before the American Rescue plan we were at a $65 million deficit we had our rainy day fund spent down to $100 million. We are not bringing in the equitable revenue to keep our city going, so unfortunately we’re going to have to look at a modest incremental tax increase in order to balance our books….”
Brown accused Walton of “ making a false promise that doesn’t add up – a shell game.”
He added that he had reduced more than a dozen fees or fines during his years in office.
“Those fines and fees were not eliminated under the mayor’s own volition,” Walton shot back. “It was the Fair Fines and Fees Coalition that did that because of community outrage he had no choice… the exciting thing about me running for mayor is (if I win) people don’t have to fight and scream in order for me to do what’s right – yes I’m going to be honest, yes I said there would be an incremental tax increase in taxes.”
-The Stadium, Term Limits-
All of the candidates agreed that there should be term limits. Mayor Brown did not respond to the question.
They all also agreed that the Bills stadium would best serve the city if built downtown. Walton said she’s ok as long as it did not displace people and that a re-investment in the community agreement is put in effect. Brown said the city had no say in the negotiations. Carlisle chided him, saying that as mayor of the city he should at least lend his voice and his connections to push for the stadium. Jaz Miles, to audience approval, said we need to bring back the Buffalo Braves Basketball team!
The mayoral election is November 2