Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But since the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women announced their plans to run for public office. And we want them to win. So we’re giving them examples of women who have run. The point: You can too.
When India Walton, 38, found out she won the Buffalo mayoral primary this June—a stunning upset in which she beat out Byron Brown, a four-term incumbent and the former chair of the New York Democratic Party—she left the bar where her team celebrated to make an important call. “Mommy! I won! Mommy, I’m the mayor of Buffalo,” she yelled into her phone. “Well not till January, but yeah!”
In the deep-blue New York city, winning the Democratic primary means Walton will most likely become Buffalo’s first female mayor and the first socialist mayor of a major American city in decades. Throughout her campaign, the Buffalo native spoke openly about becoming a mother at 14 and later a registered nurse after having twins who were born prematurely. She also leveraged her experience as a union representative and community organizer to defeat an opponent who largely disregarded her. “I knew there was a good possibility I could win, but I didn’t expect the international excitement and outpouring of support,” Walton told ELLE.com. “We call ourselves The Little Campaign That Could.” Below, Walton explains why she decided to run in the first place—and why her win still doesn’t feel real.
It all came to a head last summer. For the last half decade, I’ve been working with community groups trying to get things done. Trying to build affordable housing. Trying to implement meaningful transformations in the way we think about public safety. Trying to preserve the fabric of neighborhoods by stopping demolitions. And the majority of the time, the opposition we faced came from the executive branch of City Hall.
Then this past summer, people were in the streets protesting after the murder of George Floyd and were largely ignored. The pandemic response was lackluster at best. I was head of a nonprofit affordable housing developer, and people were calling me for food. We started collecting donations and delivered fresh groceries to seniors. All the while, my opponent—the guy with all the resources—was passing out flyers that said, “Check on your neighbors.”
Our community has been caring for itself for so long. We have so many local organizations and individuals who are filling in the gaps and substituting for the lack of care from our municipal government. So I decided: My children are older. I’m pretty secure in my personal life and my identity. I don’t have the same threats as other people whose livelihood depends on their relationship with the mayor, since he often holds the purse strings. I can say things and do things a lot of other people who want to see change can’t. And if someone doesn’t do it now, things are only going to get worse. So I called up some of my closest friends and said, “I think I’m going to run for mayor,” and we laughed about it. Then we got to work.
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Growing up, my family didn’t really have political leanings. My grandmother is a Jehovah’s Witness, so for a short period of my life, I didn’t know anything about voting. But as I became more aware of how government interfaced with everyday life, I became more interested in politics.
When I was 12 years old, my mother met a man who was in prison with a 25-year-to-life sentence for a drug charge. My mother was a member of Families Against Mandatory Minimums because she thought it was unfair he was incarcerated for such a long time for a nonviolent offense. She eventually married him, and I saw he’s a really good person who cares deeply for my mom, me, and my siblings. But [former New York governor Nelson] Rockefeller was able to make a decision that said people who sell drugs are inherently bad—and we know that disproportionality those people are people of color who have been blocked out of other economic opportunities— and make them go to prison for half of their life. That was my first indicator that government and legislation does matter. It’s not some far off thing, and the people should have influence over it.
Then as I became involved in the local activist and social justice community, I needed to go to the Common Council and the mayor’s office to try and move our agenda. I thought, It would be nice if our leadership was compassionate to our needs and listened to us. We shouldn’t have to fight for every single basic thing, and that fight would be a lot easier if we had electives who cared.
Running for this office does take quite a bit of courage, because people are so tied into this administration. There are a lot of people who are angry with me because I’m a threat to their power and their wealth. But I’ve been through so many traumatic experiences in my life that there’s not much I’m afraid of. I’ve made some poor choices. I’ve had some failures. I’ve been assaulted. I’ve been raped. I’ve been molested. I’ve been hit by a car. I almost died during childbirth. There’s not too much I haven’t experienced. I don’t have room in my spirit for fear. There’s too much to be done. There are too many people who need help. Someone has to do the work and set the example, so why not me? Everything I’ve been through is preparation for a time like right now. On election night, my victory speech began with: “I hate to say, ‘I told you so.’” You can ignore and underestimate us all you want to, but it’s not going to make us work any less. We know what it takes to win.
I’ll never forget the night I won the primary. I wanted to make sure that when the results came in, my mom was the first phone call I made. She’s a hardworking person who raised six children for a long time on her own. And I was not always an easy child. I had a baby when I was 14. I dropped out of high school. So I’ve always wanted to make my mother proud. I’ve done things that are good, like I became a registered nurse and a nonprofit executive. But potentially being the mayor of the second largest city in New York state, that is the moment where I finally didn’t even have to ask. I know she’s proud.
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I hope that this is a blip in time that inspires someone to be a David and take on their Goliath, whether than means running for office, or going back to school, or starting that business, or pursuing whatever dream. I would be the first woman to be mayor of Buffalo. I would be the youngest-ever mayor of Buffalo. But I’m still India. The most exciting part about this is it proves average people can do extraordinary things. Recently, I got a call from Rep. Ilhan Omar, and I was asking her, “When does it become real? Because it doesn’t feel real.” And she said it just doesn’t. You will always be in awe. It’s an honor for me to be able to be in this position. I look forward to staying grounded and doing it justice.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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