Sullivan: India Walton is out to conquer the world, or at least Buffalo

Jerry Sullivan

India Walton, 38, has big goals for her hometown that extend beyond becoming the mayor. “I don’t play in the shallow end of the pool,” she says. “I don’t have a Plan B. I don’t. My community needs me. This race is not only for the mayor’s office. This race is establishing an infrastructure to support other progressive candidates all up and down the ballot.” (Images courtesy of India Walton for Buffalo)

Doris Siddiq didn’t expect it to happen this soon, but she can’t say she was surprised when her daughter decided to run for mayor. Even as a little girl, India Walton was bold, ambitious and supremely confident. She believed she had all the answers.

“I used to call her Pinky, like the character on the old cartoon, ‘Pinky and the Brain,’” Saddiq said.

At some point in every episode in that animated TV series, which was popular with kids in the ’90s, Pinky and the Brain would declare plans to try to take over the world.

That was India, all right. Ready to take on the world and unwilling to take ‘No’ for an answer. Barely 5-feet tall, she learned at a very young age to stand tall, to rise up on her own two feet, and take whatever challenges life had to offer her head-on. 

So why not take on Byron Brown, a career politician looking for a record fifth term as the city’s mayor? Walton has never run a campaign, never held public office. Sure, she’s done a lot as an activist, but even Brown’s harshest critics say she’s too inexperienced, too much of a novice, to run a city this size.

“I am a leader!” Walton said last week at her downtown campaign headquarters. “I think that the whole inexperience line is kind of a trope. It’s inaccurate. I’m very experienced, and even though I’m just 38 years old, an hour is probably not enough time for me to talk about my life trajectory and my story.

“The experiences I have had have shaped me into a bold and fearless leader, and I’m unafraid of anything. I think those are qualities that people are craving in leadership.”

Clearly, she doesn’t lack for confidence. That will happen when you’ve spent the last five years battling the establishment, chanting through a bullhorn to decry police violence at Black Lives Matters protests or negotiating a land trust in Buffalo’s historic Fruit Belt neighborhood.

Inexperienced? It all depends on your definition. Maybe she’s never run a city with a $500 million budget and a work force of more than 2,500. But the people who know her well say she’s a born leader and a brilliant organizer, an empathetic soul with the ability to communicate with people and gain their trust. 

“All politicians started out as non-politicians at some point,” said Eve Shippens, a city teacher who is field director for the Walton campaign. “She’s able to learn things quickly; she’s able to use her ability to build community and get experts in the field on her team and consult with them to move things forward. 

“If she can do this in her professional life, she can do this from from City Hall as well.”

Walton’s advocacy goes back to when she was 12 years old, accompanying her mother to fight against the draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which put some minor drug offenders — including Saddiq’s future husband — away for lengthy prison terms. 

As a registered nurse and a mother of four boys, Walton was active in her union, the SEIU. She’s worked for Open Buffalo and is a member of Citizen Action, advocated for bail reform and adult use of marijuana. She was part of a group (with Shippens) that fought to keep open embattled city schools.

Walton’s greatest achievement was with the Fruit Belt Land Trust. She rose from volunteer to founding executive director of the land trust, which restored much of the land to neighborhood residents, gained nearly $1 million in development grants and fought back against gentrification of a largely African-American neighborhood next to the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

India Walton, center, poses with her four sons (L-R): Twins Marquan and Mikail, 19; Mason, 11; and Mahkahi, 24

“She came in on fire, with that sense of urgency,” said John Washington, a long-time housing advocate who worked with Walton on the land trust. “But in a political climate, it wasn’t about urgency. It was ‘Let’s kind of fix them, but we don’t want to shake too much up while we fix them.’ It was amazing, because the Fruit Belt is an older community. A lot of the older folks knew they needed that urgency but they weren’t capable of it.

“There was a lot of tension in the beginning. ‘Who’s this young woman? She’s from Buffalo, but is she really a part of the Fruit Belt? In six months, she became like everybody’s daughter.”

As someone’s actual daughter, Walton was a bit of a challenge. Siddiq was a single mother, bringing up six kids on Monroe Street in the city as a VA nurse. India, who never really knew her father, was a middle child who looked after her younger siblings while her mom was working. She had a 99 average in grade school. 

At 14, Walton fell in love. Her mother took her to get birth control. India said she didn’t need it. Before long, she was pregnant.  

“I was pregnant at 14 because I was a know-it-all,” Walton said. “I thought I knew everything. I thought I was in love and if I had a baby, it would help me escape from my home. I was the primary caregiver for my younger siblings. I figured, ‘Listen, if I’m going to run a house anyway, I might as well run my own house.’”

Walton wanted to live with her boyfriend and his mother. Saddiq said India would be a ward of the state before that happened. She asked India where she was going with her life, and suggested she give up the baby for adoption. 

“I said, ‘Absolutely not! I’ll leave first,” Walton recalled. “That’s what I did. I left home. At 14. I lived at Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, at a group home specifically for young mothers. I lived there for two years and once I graduated, so to speak, from the program, I got my own apartment.

“I was 17 years old. I had to have special permission to have utilities turned on in my name.”

Her son, Mahkahi Jones, suffered from sickle cell disease. He was in and out of hospitals as a baby. India was going to high school at Lackawanna, where she was on an accelerated academic track. She briefly went back to daVinci High in the city, but dropped out and worked full-time for awhile at McDonald’s. 

It was a tough time, but she never regretted becoming a mother so young. “I think if anything, it motivated me a little more,” she said. “Because now there was someone else who was dependent on me, and … my son saved my life. Absolutely. I would have been out in the streets.”

Mahkahi Jones is now 24, a sterile processing technician at Kaleida Health. He no longer suffers the severe sickle cell pain crises he had as a child. His inner strength he attributes to his mom.“I didn’t know I saved her life,” he said. “I thought that it was vice versa. It’s always been vice versa to me. She’s always been the person that I go to when I need help or need someone to talk to. She’s always been there.

“It didn’t seem like a struggle to me. I was always well taken care of. But looking back, I’m sure it had to be a struggle for her. I can see it now. She will not give up. Whatever she wants to get done, she’s gonna get done.”

India later got married to Vernon Walton. At 19, she gave birth to twin boys, Mikail and Marquan. The twins were born premature. More struggle. (They have another son, Mason, who is now 11.)

“They were born at 24 weeks,” she said. “They spent six months in the hospital. They were little little. A pound, seven ounces. It was touch and go. There were many days when I didn’t know if my children were going to live or die.

“The way I was treated was not OK. So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to go be a nurse.’ I went to nursing school, I came back and worked in the NIC (Neo-natal intensive care) unit.”

Walton got her degree at SUNY Erie School of Nursing. She saw a lot as a registered nurse that aroused her concern for social justice: Contempt for poor, black patients; inequitable treatment, with some given ‘VIP’ status; a lack of Spanish-speaking workers.

She spoke her mind, as usual, and rubbed some folks the wrong way. At one point, she moved into an apartment in the Fruit Belt, near her work at the hospital. But she moved out when the landlord raised the rent. That experience led her to the land trust project, which was trying to stave off predatory land owners.

That’s when she truly found herself as an organizer and leader. Washington, who has been involved with countless housing initiatives over the years, saw very early the potential for a future city leader, a potential mayor.

“Day one,” Washington said. “I mean, day one. We talked about it a lot. In a way, a land trust is the community taking responsibility away from the city. We were saying, ‘This community wants to manage its own land. We don’t need the City of Buffalo to do that’.”

A land trust is a private, non-profit corporation that owns plots of land and sells it to citizens at reasonable rates. The land trust controls the sale of land and ensures that community needs are met. It essentially empowers the neighborhood residents while guarding against gentrification.

City leaders — particularly Common Council president Darius Pridgen, whose Ellicott District contains the Fruit Belt — needed convincing. Walton was so persuasive they made her the executive director. 

(Pridgen did not return a phone call asking for comment on Walton. Neither did the man she is trying to unseat, Mayor Byron Brown.)

“She really did the negotiating with the City,” Washington said. “At first they were ‘Hell no, we’re not letting people run our land.’ We all worked together, but she was the person who was meeting with Pridgen on a regular basis, who was going to his church and meeting with people he knew and was influenced by. 

“Once we convinced Pridgen, he did help move the rest of the city, to say ‘These people actually know what they’re doing. They did their research. They did their homework. This is something people around the country are doing. It’s not that radical; it’s not that hard.’”

Of course, there were people who wondered if this tiny, ebullient woman could run a land trust. There’s surely no lack of skeptics who wonder if she’s capable of running a city.

“I’m definitely being underestimated,” Walton said, “but that’s OK. I’ve always been underestimated, and that is a winning strategy. Because what I have a tendency to do is keep my head down and keep my shoulder to the plow. When I think about the community land trust, there were so many odds against it, so many people who said it would never happen.

“In one year, I was able to grow that to a $1 million budget, shovels in the ground, homes. It was my second time writing a grant proposal. I’m not a grant writer. I’m not a non-profit leader. I’m a nurse. I’m a little Black girl from the East Side. 

“I’m a fast learner.”

You can almost see the assured smile on her face when she says it. Walton is a big underdog against Brown, who has presided over a downtown revival and has a reliable hold on the electorate. 

But his critics say Brown has mismanaged city finances, failed to reform the police department, failed to invest in city infrastructure and done little to eradicate poverty in one of the nation’s poorest cities.

Walton and her team share those criticisms. She has been vocal about the need for police reform, unafraid to utter the word “defund” in her public appearances. She recently made a public appearance with Martin Gugino, the activist who was famously bowled over by police in front of City Hall a year ago.

Her three stated campaign priorities are: Public Health, Neighborhood Stabilization and Fiscal Responsibility. 

Walton got a major boost when she was endorsed by the Working Families Party, which had endorsed Brown in every election since 1998. But in April, county election officials ruled her ineligible to run on that line in the June primary because she failed to meet a deadline for accepting the nomination.

In Walton’s mind, it was a technicality that betrayed the Democratic establishment’s disdain for her candidacy. Still, the Working Families Party is clear in its support.

“India is running a transformative campaign that focuses on the needs of working families in Buffalo,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of Working Families. “Buffalo has had the same mayor for over 15 years, and for many people who are struggling to get by, things haven’t gotten better.

“India is the only candidate for mayor with the bold vision and moral clarity that is required to help Buffalo recover from this pandemic in a way that uplifts those who have been left behind.”

Walton is running amid a rising tide of Black female mayors. Cities led by African-American women include Chicago (Lori Lightfoot), San Francisco (London Breed), Atlanta (Keisha Lance Bottoms), Boston (Kim Janey), St. Louis (Tishaura Jones), Charlotte (Vi Alexander Lyles) and Washington, D.C. (Muriel Bowser).

“I’ve known this was my purpose for a long time,” Walton said. “I didn’t know when, but the stars are aligned. I think that Byron Brown has never been more vulnerable to challenge than he is today. The lack of leadership in city government as a whole, especially in this last year, is concerning to me.”

The question is, can she win? Washington said it’s a long shot. Brown won by 17,000 votes in 2017. Washington believes there are 17,000 people who could be convinced they need a better leader. The key is getting them to the polls on June 22.

“The people are out there,” Washington said. “They’ve been reached out to. The real question is, will they show up? The realist in me says we’re not ready. The optimist in me says the only way we’re going to get to be ready is if we do this, right? 

“And if she does lose, I promise you she will win the next one. She’s a very serious and determined person. I think she believes she can win.”

Really, you had to ask?

“I’m pretty sure that I’m going to win,” Walton said. “I don’t play in the shallow end of the pool. I don’t have a Plan B. I don’t. My community needs me. This race is not only for the mayor’s office. This race is establishing an infrastructure to support other progressive candidates all up and down the ballot. 

“We’re coming for the mayor’s office, we’re coming for Common Council seats, we’re coming for School Board.”

Walton said the progressive movement, which has had a profound effect on downstate elections, is making its way to Buffalo. She’s ready to conquer the world. 

“It’s here,” she said. “We are behind, but I believe now is the time. I think that people are ready for something.”

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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