Sullivan: Inside India Walton’s campaign is largely a women’s world

India Walton-Byron Brown mayoral race

“It’s easy to support a mom who wants to clean stuff up,” one campaign leader said, “because that’s what moms do.” (Photo courtesy of the Walton campaign)

Eve Shippens first met India Walton about seven years ago, when they were among a group of parents and community activists who rallied against Buffalo’s plan to close four of the city’s failing schools.

Shippens, a science teacher at East Community High School, began bumping into Walton on a regular basis: Demonstrations for a $15 minimum wage; union rights protests; gatherings of supporters for the legalization of cannabis; criminal justice reform … 

“Time and time again, I kept running in her in the places and on the issues that really mattered to me,” Shippens said. “We became friends, and then when I found out last fall she was going to run for mayor, I said, ‘I’m on your team! You have no choice. I have some skills.”

Shippens had worked on small campaigns in recent years. She’s a leader in the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Teachers, of course, are well-versed in organizing and motivating large and often diverse groups of people. 

Walton agreed. She made Shippens the field director for the mayoral campaign. That meant recruiting, organizing and educating the volunteers, reaching out to city voters, essentially running the ground game for the Walton campaign out in the community. 

Their bond grew even stronger. The more Shippens learned about this irrepressible, 38-year-old woman from the East Side, the more she felt the connection.

Supporters like Ashley Brunner, Courtney Friedline, Victoria Misuraca, Jess Wheeler and Eve Shippens (L-R) say they were drawn to Walton and often see of bit of themselves in her underdog spirit. (Jerry Sullivan/WIVB)

“I was also a former teenage mom who had my first child when I was in high school,” Shippens said. “And just like India, I was told, ‘You’re not going to amount to anything.’ 

“It’s almost like your life is over when you’re a teenager because you had a baby. You’re going to be a welfare queen, have a baby a year. People say those things to teenaged moms! It’s awful. Our young folks in that situation need more support, not judgment, not criticism, not being told that their life is over. 

“Because you can do great things.”

You might even become mayor of a large American city. Walton, a huge underdog and avowed socialist, beat incumbent mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary in June in one of the great upsets in local and state history. 

The work got even harder. Now her supporters face the challenge of beating Brown again as a write-in candidate in the general election. It’s a lot more than they bargained for, and it’s hard to believe how far they’ve come in less than a year.

“We started in early November of last year,” said Jess Wheeler, one of the volunteer coordinators who was on hand for one of the campaign “door knocking” events on a recent Tuesday evening. “Back then, there were probably seven of us. We were a small group back then.”

Wheeler, a hairstylist who studied journalism at Buffalo State, laughed at the memory. Leading up to the June primary, they had 400 volunteers. Another 500 or so signed on after Walton won. Now she estimates there are about 1,300. She can’t say she was confident about winning when it all began.

“Last year, early in the campaign, I just wanted to be part of a campaign that had values I stood for,” Wheeler said. “Whether we won at that point didn’t really matter to me. I just wanted to help as much as I could.”

(Photo courtesy of the Walton campaign)

The same was true for Victoria Misuraca, an original volunteer who was one of the co-coordinators at last Tuesday’s door-knocking event. Volunteers gathered in a parking lot on Fleming Street on the city’s East Side.

“I believe the more people we can get engaged in the civic process the better,” said Misuraca, who owns a doggy day care. “Like Jess, it wasn’t that important to me whether we won the primary or not in the beginning. It was, ‘I believe in India,’ and I wanted to help her in any way I could.”

Misuraca said the volunteers were currently going door to door on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They’ll soon add Thursday door-knocking. They have about 20 volunteers working phone banks on Sunday and Monday nights. 

On a recent Tuesday, about 45 volunteers showed up at the Fleming Street site, most of them clad in yellow tee shirts that read “India For Buffalo Mayor” on the back with the number 63, signifying her run to be the city’s 63rd mayor.

The great majority of the volunteers were women. That reflects a national trend, with women winning office in increasing numbers around the country, including Black female mayors in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, St. Louis and San Francisco.

Women are pushing the agenda in progressive politics, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and the “Squad” in Congress. Women comprise a record 27 percent of the U.S. Congress. More than 30 percent of state legislatures are female for the first time. 

So the Walton campaign, which was endorsed by the Working Families Party, is largely a women’s endeavor. Walton says “the people closest to the problem are also those closest to the solution,” and that’s often mothers.

“Absolutely,” said Courtney Friedline, who was Walton’s campaign manager for the primary before stepping aside. “It really is. We started off as some friends of India, and friends of friends. I think being a mom is really one of the keys, because everyone wants it to be better for their own children.

“I just had a grandchild,” Friedline said. “I have three kids. We see what’s going on around the country.”

(Photo courtesy of the Walton campaign)

Friedline, a North Buffalo native, spent 18 years working in municipal government in Arizona. She has a master’s in public administration. She knows how government works, and how it doesn’t, and she’s sure that Buffalo can do better. 

“I met India about two and a half years ago when I first got home through cannabis advocacy,” Friedline said. “We became friends through the Uprising. We were spending a lot of time, talking about what was going on, watching Brown not doing anything. 

“I knew it was something India had thought about doing for a long time. She’s so amazing, that goes without saying. She’s the North Star, just an amazing leader. She has brilliant policies. She’s just brilliant. If not us, then who? If not her, then who? So here we are.”

Brown has accomplished many good things for Buffalo in his 16 years as mayor. But Walton’s supporters believe he hasn’t done enough to benefit the neediest people in one of the poorest cities in America. They want a better education and safer streets for their children. 

Walton wants a more efficient police department and wants to establish a police oversight body. She has cited a study by the Partnership for Public Good that says millions more could be cut from the police budget and allocated elsewhere.

A day or two before the Walton campaign’s recent canvassing event, Brown ran a TV ad that claims Walton will lay off 100 police officers, with the youngest going first. It was the main issue when the volunteers were being briefed before door knocking. 

“This is where politics gets really dirty, where they start to lie about you,” said Adam Bojak, a lawyer and activist and a leader in the campaign. 

Ashley Brunner, a Lovejoy resident, told the volunteers it was important to let citizens know that Walton plans to reallocate police funds. Avoid the phrase “defund the police” at all costs. Brunner said Lovejoy residents want the cops to respond more quickly than they normally do.

“India’s campaign is going to have to counter that ad with facts and positivity,” said Brunner, a small business owner and mother of three. “It’s fear-mongering.”

Brunner said she was a Brown supporter at first. She comes from a military family and feel structure and accountability matter. She didn’t like the idea of defunding police. But she reached out to Walton, arranged a conversation, and was won over.

“It’s easy to support a mom who wants to clean stuff up,” Brunner said, “because that’s what moms do. We raise kids. We get them through all their crap. Anytime a man can’t accomplish something, there’s always a powerful woman behind him, trying to clean up the mess.”

In this case, it’s a self-described “little black girl from the East Side,” who rose above the streets and above her teen-aged struggles to become a registered nurse and union leader, then community organizer who negotiated a land trust in the Fruit Belt.

Walton has called her campaign a “radical act of love.” It has been a labor of love for her volunteers and for Shippens, who didn’t know quite what she was getting into when she told Walton she had the skills to run things in the field.

“The night of the primary, when India won — actually, when we knew we were leading — I couldn’t stop crying,” Shippens said. “I told people, ‘Everyone said she would be nothing. Everybody said I would be nothing.’ And here we are, two nothings, two underdogs, two people nobody thought would ever amount to anything.

“It means so much to me as a teacher. We have three girls at our school this year who came back from Covid pregnant. I want those girls to know that the sky’s the limit. I want to shatter glass ceilings, not just for women, for Black women, but for all of us who have struggled and have gone through some things. 

“India’s brave and intelligent, a ground-breaker, she’s opening doors for so many other women, so many other people who came from poverty, so many black and brown folks,” Shippens said. 

“She is definitely still an underdog. We have people with power and money who are working night and day — not a bunch of moms who have families and day jobs who are doing this in all their extra time. How often do we do laundry anymore? When is the last time I cooked?”

Shippens jokes that she’s been able to see her boyfriend about five minutes a week during the campaign. “Yeah,” she said, “and if he wants to see me longer than that, he has to do some campaign stuff with me.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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