In first debate, Brown touts development while Walton says she'll make it more equitable
Much of the Buffalo mayoral race has centered on whether Byron Brown and India Walton will, or will not, debate each other.
First, Brown refused to debate Walton during the run-up to the Democratic primary. Then, Walton, after upsetting Brown, would only agree to one debate with him.
On Thursday, the two finally squared off face-to-face for the first time. The debate, hosted by the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists and WUFO, featured Brown and Walton, as well as write-in candidates Ben Carlisle and Jaz Miles.
Brown, a four-term incumbent touting his record on economic development and property values, insisted he’s the clear choice for the November general election.
“It's a choice between proven results and false empty promises,” he said.
Walton, a political newcomer arguing that not everyone has enjoyed the city’s supposed renaissance, painted herself as change after 16 years under Brown.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get the change that we need,” she said. “Don't let a coordinated smear and fear campaign steal that away.”
The November ballot
Walton, a registered nurse and activist, seemed all but guaranteed to be Buffalo’s next mayor after upsetting Brown in the June primary, but Brown’s subsequent write-in challenge and ongoing legal challenge to get on the ballot have made the general election a question mark.
Last week, both a federal judge and state judge ordered the Erie County Board of Elections to place Brown on an independent line, the Buffalo Party, despite him missing the filing deadline by several months. Appeals from Walton’s campaign and the Board of Elections are pending.
Walton said the Democratic primary typically decides who will be Buffalo’s mayor.
“Because it's me. you want new rules created,” she told Brown. “You ran as a Democrat, you used to be the head of the state Democratic Party, and now you want to create a new party for a second chance, when you should have just ran the first time.”
Brown defended his efforts to stay in the race.
“When you win a primary, you don't win an election,” he told Walton. “Every election is a primary and a general election. So yes, you are the Democratic nominee, but let's look at the results on Nov. 2.”
Brown and Walton were perhaps most divided on taxes.
Brown praised his administration for lowering taxes by 16% during his tenure while criticizing Walton for proposing what she called a “moderate” 3% tax increase.
“3% is not a modest tax increase. If you own a $100,000 home in the city of Buffalo, that means an extra $300 a year,” Brown said.
Walton said the increase is needed to “balance our books,” given the city was facing a $65 million deficit and had used up its $100 million reserve fund prior to getting federal COVID relief.
She also said many city residents she’s spoken to support a moderate tax increase if it means services are adequately provided.
“Cutting taxes means that we are not funding municipal services like trash pickup and snow removal,” she said. “So let's think about what's actually being said and let's not allow the wool to keep being pulled over our eyes.”
Brown also accused Walton of misleading voters by talking about eliminating fines and fees while planning to increase taxes.
“It's a shell game with Ms. Walton. She's making false promises. It doesn't add up,” he said, adding he has eliminated 15 fines and fees.
Walton replied that Brown only eliminated the fines and fees after public pressure from groups like the Fair Fines and Fees Coalition.
“What’s exciting about me running for mayor is now people don't have to fight and scream in order for me to just do what's right,” she said.
Buffalo was threatening to break its annual record for homicides of 92 dead in 1994 prior to a recent drop off in violence. Fourteen people were shot during the Fourth of July weekend alone, including a 3-year-old boy who died.
Brown said his plan is to continue working with law enforcement agencies to get guns off the street, saying over 15,000 illegal guns have been confiscated since he became mayor. He added that the city’s “custom notification” program sends officers to the homes of teens at risk of committing violence.
“Those things, prior to the pandemic, were helping to reduce gun violence and crime in the city of Buffalo,” Brown said.
However, Walton said Brown’s “extra enforcement” strategy hasn’t worked. She said the root causes of violence need to be addressed, by creating decent-paying jobs and increasing home ownership.
“Give our young people something to live for, some hope for the future so they’re not out there in moments of desperation harming one another,” she said.
Brown accused Walton of wanting to defund the police, saying she proposed a $7.5 million reduction in the city’s police budget.
“That would result in 100 less police officers on the streets with this community,” he said.
Walton, who has pushed for reallocating some police funding, said the $7.5 million figure was from a report by the Partnership for the Public Good.
“A great audit of the police budget suggests that positions may be eliminated through attrition and the budget can be decreased by decreasing overtime and properly staffing the police department — that's not defunding, that’s a responsible use of taxpayer dollars,” she said.
Access to affordable housing, particularly on Buffalo’s East side, was also a major topic.
Walton said the city needs to close the racial homeownership gap, by creating in-fill housing and using public subsidy to make permanently affordable housing. She also called for more mixed-income neighborhoods that offer high quality amenities.
“I'm proud to have grown up on the East Side of Buffalo, and I know that it's not our fault that things are the condition that they’re in,” she said. “It’s the resources that have not been equitably distributed in our community that’s the problem.”
Brown said he has addressed housing and development on the East Side. He said his administration has helped create over 2,200 units of affordable housing and demolished over 8,000 vacant structures that were unsalvageable. He cited the development of the Tops grocery store on Jefferson Avenue and the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, where Thursday’s debate took place. He also noted the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center is providing assistance to minority and women-owned businesses.
“So development is coming to this community and there is more on the way,” he said.
Write-in candidates make debut
The debate was also likely many voters’ first chance to hear from two write-in candidates not named Byron Brown.
Carlisle is an attorney who said he’s neither Republican or Democrat, although he offered mostly conservative viewpoints during the debate. He said he’s against tax increases, gun restrictions and COVID-19 lockdowns.
“Increasing crime is directly attributed to closing down our schools and closing down our businesses,” he said.
Miles, who ran as a Republican for state Assembly last year, used much of his time to discuss the history of the Democratic Party after the Civil War and former President Barack Obama. At one point he advocated for the death penalty.
As for Buffalo, Miles said he is in favor of a larger police presence.
“We need to have additional stations. We're going to increase the patrols, foot patrol, bike,” he said. “We currently only have two drone operators available. I think we should have more drones in the air to check out the hotspots in the area.”
Miles also routinely criticized Brown, claiming at one point to have met him “at the ballpark 15 or 16 years ago,” and accusing him several times of a “pay-to-play” scheme that shut down his food business.
Brown denied this, saying, “I don’t know Jaz Miles and after tonight I don’t want to know Jaz Miles.”
Both Miles and Carlise advocated for a transparent economic development process free of favoritism.
“When I'm mayor, no one is going to be cutting the line in City Hall,” Carlisle said. “Every developer will be treated equally.”
Walton defended attacks on her status as a Democratic Socialist throughout the debate. Carlise said socialism “terrifies” him, while Miles said Walton becoming mayor will mean city residents “don’t get to own a home” because socialists “don’t like property owners.”
Walton said she’s been a Democrat her entire life. She said her being a Democratic Socialist simply means she wants policies like real estate developers who get tax subsidies to agree to a community benefits agreement.
“If that is what you call socialism, then sign me up. And I don't think there's too many people in this room who would disagree,” she said. “Let's not mischaracterize who I am and what I believe. Ask more questions and read more books.”
Brown, who has repeatedly referred to Walton as a socialist in prior speeches and public comments, did not utter the word during the debate.