BUFFALO, N.Y. — If Byron Brown succeeds in his frantic quest for a fifth term as mayor of Buffalo, he may well have a rubber stamp to thank.
First elected in 2005, Mr. Brown, 63, is currently running a write-in campaign against India Walton, a self-described Democratic socialist who stunned the political world in June by winning the Democratic primary here.
A general-election victory by Ms. Walton would be history-making on several fronts: She would be the first socialist to lead a major American city in decades, and the first woman — and first Black woman — to lead Buffalo, New York’s second-largest city.
Ms. Walton’s early success, however, did not assure her a hearty embrace by state party leadership, as Gov. Kathy Hochul and Jay S. Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee, declined to endorse her, even as the race entered its final days.
That lack of unified, institutional support has given hope to Mr. Brown, who is considered a formidable challenger because of his long presence on the city’s political scene.
Still, Ms. Walton’s is the only name that will be printed on ballots; outnumbered in a heavily Democratic town, Republicans are not mounting a candidate nor are any other parties.
As a write-in candidate, Mr. Brown faces numerous logistical challenges, including trying to get voters to correctly mark his name on ballots; serious misspellings could disqualify any votes intended for him.
So Mr. Brown’s campaign has purchased tens of thousands of ink stamps bearing the mayor’s name, at a cost of approximately $100,000, and has distributed them to a variety of supporters across the city, according to the candidate.
Under New York election law, using such a rubber stamp is legal. Mr. Brown has been aggressive about leaning on labor allies — including the powerful Civil Service Employees Association and the Transport Workers Union of America — to get the stamps to voters.
Ms. Walton, 39, has been trying to press her inherent advantage of being the only candidate on the ballot, and has employed the help of progressive stars in the party, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who traveled to Buffalo on the first day of early voting to stump for her.
“We want to show that postindustrial cities like the city of Buffalo can thrive with progressive policies,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, said in an interview with the Buffalo television station WIVB.
“When you talk about capitalism, socialism, et cetera — these are very high-minded debates,” she said. “I think what’s important is we say ‘Where’s the beef? What are the policies each candidate is actually proposing?”
The congresswoman’s rhetoric underscored some of the challenges that Ms. Walton faces in the general election, including a nonstop battering from Mr. Brown, who has argued that Ms. Walton is inexperienced and that her proposed policies are too extreme for Buffalo.
Those attacks have been echoed by some Republicans who have found themselves in the peculiar role as potential kingmakers in a city in which their votes often have little impact.
Ms. Walton, a registered nurse making her first run for public office, says that Mr. Brown — a former leader of the state party — has done little to benefit regular Buffalo residents in his four terms, favoring instead deep-pocketed developers who have built a series of projects along the city’s Lake Erie waterfront.
She’s been assisted in making that argument by groups like the Working Families Party, which has regularly opposed moderate Democrats like Mr. Brown in favor of younger and more progressive candidates like Ms. Walton, whose campaigns are often invigorated by social justice issues.
Ms. Walton has also drawn the support of other prominent national progressives, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as downstate figures like the New York City public advocate, Jumaane Williams, who is now officially exploring a run for governor.
In the campaign’s closing weeks, Ms. Walton has seen the pace of endorsements from establishment figures pick up, with both of the state’s U.S. senators — Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand — coming out for her.
Still, Ms. Hochul’s lack of backing has been a glaring development considering that she is a lifelong resident of the Buffalo area, as well as a candidate for governor who will need to woo the very same left flank of the party that Ms. Walton has galvanized.
And in mid-October, when being pressed as to why he would not publicly support Ms. Walton, Mr. Jacobs likened it to a scenario whereby the party would abstain from supporting David Duke, the former leader of the KKK, if Mr. Duke were to win a Democratic primary. His remarks drew a furious response from many elected Democrats, and calls for Mr. Jacobs’s resignation.
Mr. Brown represents a more centrist faction of the New York state party, and corporate and business groups have been pushing for his re-election, including real estate interests, which have been pouring money into the campaign via independent expenditure groups.
Mr. Brown, who was the city’s first Black mayor, has been unapologetic about accepting the support of Republicans, who are outnumbered nearly two to one in Erie County.
Facing political oblivion, Mr. Brown has also mounted a much more aggressive stance in the general election campaign, hitting multiple polling stations last week, and rallying support from local leaders.
During the early voting period, which ended Sunday, the Brown campaign also set up “voter education stations” near polling locations to offer guidance on how to write in Mr. Brown’s name.
The vigor of Mr. Brown’s write-in campaign stands in stark contrast to his seemingly ambivalent primary bid, when he refused to debate Ms. Walton or truly acknowledge her challenge, apparently assuming that his name recognition and 16 years in office would carry the day.
He was wrong: Ms. Walton won handily, riding a surge of support in middle-class neighborhoods, as well as progressive enclaves where her message of racial and economic equity played well.
At a fractious debate last week, Mr. Brown blamed his poor performance in the primary on his being distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.
He also directly challenged Ms. Walton’s political bona fides, accusing her of wanting to implement ideas that would derail progress in Buffalo, which has seen a surprising increase in its population over the last decade.
“I don’t see Ms. Walton as a Democrat,” Mr. Brown said. “I think her ideas for the city of Buffalo are bad at best, and unworkable.”
Ms. Walton quickly countered, noting that she had the party line on the ballot. “I won the Democratic primary. Secondly, I am a self-avowed democratic socialist. The first word in that is ‘Democrat.’”
While the Buffalo race has garnered widespread attention in an off-year election, there is a very real possibility that Election Day will not result in a quick victory for either candidate.
Officials will not be able to declare a winner on Tuesday unless Ms. Walton wins a majority of votes, said Jeremy Zellner, the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party and a supporter of Ms. Walton who also serves as the Democratic commissioner of the Erie County Board of Elections.
If the majority of ballots — particularly a slim majority — are marked with write-in candidates instead, the election could quickly pivot from polling stations to courtrooms, he said, as lawyers begin to challenge whether such ballots were valid or marked with discernible names.
(Potentially complicating matters is a third candidate, Benjamin Carlisle, a former Democrat who is also running a write-in campaign.)
Also adding to the uncertainty are absentee ballots which will not be counted until at least mid-November, Mr. Zellner said. He added that minor misspellings on ballots would likely not be disqualifying, though he expected many could be carefully scrutinized.
“It basically has to do with the intent of the voter,” he said. “If someone writes ‘Gonzo Smith,’ that’s one thing. But if it is ‘B-I-R-O-N,’ most likely that will count” for Mr. Brown.
Ms. Walton has been making sure voters know her name as well, telling her personal story with its compelling arc. She had a child as a young teenager, and later earned a GED while pregnant with twins, before serving as a representative for SEIU 1199, the health care union.
Her platform in the primary leaned heavily on the notion that the city — which has had pockets of economic vitality under Mr. Brown — should share the wealth, and address its longtime problems with affordable housing, a subpar school system and income disparity, including more than a third of city’s children living in poverty.
She has also distanced herself from any suggestion that she wants to reduce funding to the police, something Mr. Brown has repeatedly accused her of.
In the debate, Ms. Walton seemed to be striving to present herself as an able and moderate successor to Mr. Brown, rather than a left-wing alternative, saying she wanted to offer “viable solutions for the profound challenges we face.”
“I am resilient,” she said. “Success is what you define it to be for yourself. I am a success. And I am ready.”