A High-Profile Primer Examining Black Buffalo Political Power Structures

BUFFALO — They were two of the most prominent black women in Buffalo politics: India Walton, a well-known progressive rebel, reeling from a painful election loss; and Zeneta Everhart, up-and-coming newcomer, is tempered by a terrifying incident.

They are both Democrats in dark blue city, each with strong supporters in the tight-knit black community that makes up Buffalo's East Side. They said they were friends; they wish the best for each other.

But for now, they are opponents.

Miss Walton and Miss Everhart are competing in Tuesday's Democratic primary to represent the Masten district on the city's General Assembly — a contest between two candidates who have garnered national attention under very different circumstances.

A stronghold of black political power, the Masten Park neighborhood is also the site of one of the city's most traumatic events: last May's racist massacre of 10 people, all black, by a white gunman in a Tops supermarket. The tragedy suddenly pushed Ms. Everhart made headlines.

His son, Zaire Goodman, was one of only three people shot that day who survived. Shaken and angry, he soon found himself talking, including during trip to Capitol Hillin which he testified that the nation was founded on “violence, hatred and racism”.

“I keep hearing after every mass shooting that this is not who we are as Americans, and as a nation,” said Ms. Everhart. “Listen to me clearly: This is who we really are.”

Ms. Walton, who shocked Democratic leaders across the state and nation with her June 2021 primary loss to Byron Brown, the city's longtime mayor, only to lose her written campaign during the general election, agrees with Ms. Everhart on many problems facing the black community in Buffalo and the country beyond.

But Ms. Walton, a democratic socialist who has worked as a nurse and community organizer, drew sharp contrasts between herself and her opponent, who worked as diversity and inclusion director for local state senator Tim Kennedy.

“I am a person who recognizes that the condition of Buffalo — the racism, the systemic racism, the redlining, the food desert — is no accident,” said Ms. Walton, 41, in an interview. “It is the result of policy decisions by the people currently in power. I am not attached to those people.”

Indeed, in some ways, the race can be seen as a proxy fight in the struggle between moderate and more liberal candidates in New York, something that has played out repeatedly since a resurgent left helped Democrats win a solid majority in the State Legislature in 2018.

Ms Everhart, 42, a former television news producer, has impressed members of the state's Democratic establishment, including Senator Chuck Schumer, who backed it up earlier this month. He also senator's guest at the State of the Union in February.

Mr Kennedy, a Democrat who represented Buffalo's East Side in the State Senate, said Ms Everhart, who had worked for him for six years, had a unique ability “to connect with people” at Masten.

“If you care about the people and you are dedicated to doing good things in and for the people,” he said, “there is a place for you in government.”

In an interview, Ms Everhart said she thought the impact of “5/14” – the date of the Tops attack – was still being felt in Buffalo.

5/14 opened the world's eyes to the East Side of Buffalo,” he said, adding that issues such as food insecurity, education, and a lack of safe housing and mental health services suddenly received renewed attention after the attacks.

“Buffalo has remained in the mainstream media for over a year, as 10 people were killed and taken from us, another three were seriously injured and the whole community was traumatized,” he said.

After her disappointing victory in the mayoral primary, Ms. Walton quickly found himself on CNN and other outlets, its winnings hailed as proof surging power progressive candidate of the party.

“If you are in the elected office now, you will be notified,” said Ms. Walton at the time of his main triumph. “We come.”

But the proclamation proved premature, as Mr Brown – who is Buffalo's first black mayor and has been in office since 2006 – mounted an unlikely written campaign during the general election.

With some Republican supportwho warned of a socialist taking over America's big cities, and the support of loyal Democratic voters who had known him during his four terms in office, Mr. Brown easily beat Ms. the city's first female mayor.

The loss stung even more, he said, as he watched Buffalo struggle through a series of crises, including a December blizzard that killed more than 30 people, most of them black, something recent reports said was partly due to a poor performance. by city officials.

“There was never a question in my mind that I still needed to serve the Buffalo community,” said Ms. Walton, in an interview, added, “And I think Masten is the perfect place for me to continue my political career and my ministry career.”

Like Ms Everhart, Ms Walton said the East Side's problems – poverty, lack of opportunity and poor health outcomes – were exposed by the shooting.

Like, he says, they are to blame.

“The same people who show up to condemn white supremacy and say we need investment on the East Side of Buffalo are the same people who have ruled for decades who have been responsible for the condition of this community from the beginning,” said Ms. said Walton.

As she did with the mayoral election, Ms. Walton, who had worked for and supported the New York Working Family Party, a left-wing group, had considered the Masten election as one between himself and the Democratic elite, noting that the Erie County Democratic Committee has supported Ms. Everhart.

“Zeneta is a good person,” said Ms. Walton, said the two had worked on community issues together in the past. “He and I are very friendly to each other. But his candidacy is an extension of the mayor.”

Miss Everhart, who was running for public office for the first time, rejected this idea.

People say, you know, he's part of the company,” said Ms. Everhart. “No, first and foremost, I am Zeneta Everhart. I am my own woman always and forever. But if I'm going to change my community and change my city and change the world, I need everyone at the table. I don't care who hates who.

On Buffalo's East Side, which was a target for shooters because of its large black community, there was strong sentiment about both candidates.

In front of the Boss, who was now stretched out outside Masten district afterwards redrawing the lines of the Joint Council last year, Dominique Calhoun, a paralegal and former district head candidatesaid in an interview that he supports Ms. Walton.

For him, housing—not shootings—is the district's most important issue.

He said he had rented a house in the neighborhood without knowing that it contained dangerously high levels of lead, which was causing his son to become ill.

“India Walton had seen the stories about my son, and she contacted me,” said Ms. Calhoun. “And he's reaching out to other people affected by housing conditions that should never be rented out.”

Earlier this month, at a vibrant Juneteenth parade that took place along the Masten border, another resident, Mary Mack, said she plans to vote for Ms. Everhart. He described his preferred candidate as “quieter” than Ms. Walton, whose outspoken political style Ms. Mack as a burden.

“Against people, sometimes they fight too fast,” said Ms. Mack. “So I would choose someone who I think is more grounded and grounded in their life.”

At the parade, Ms. Everhart appeared to be enjoying the adulation of various elected officials – including Attorney General Letitia James and Senator Kennedy, who were photographed with him – and their supporters.

She lined up at the front of the parade route, right behind Mr Brown and Gov. Kathy Hochul, while Ms. Walton followed about a mile behind, his float emblazoned with the defiant message: “Not Purchased and Not Hired.”

The two candidates did not appear to see each other at the parade, not even when they were both chatting with potential voters.

For her part, Ms. Everhart said he and Ms. Walton had known each other for years and “always got along.” But, he added, his reasons for running had nothing to do with his opponent.

“I'm not against anyone,” he said. “I'm running for Masten.”