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

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

Shippens, a science teacher at East Community High School, began meeting with Walton regularly: demonstrations for a minimum wage of $ 15; protests for trade union rights; rallies of supporters for the legalization of cannabis; criminal justice reform …

“Time and time again I kept running with her in places and on issues that really mattered to me,” said Shippens. “We became friends, and then when I heard last fall that she was running for town hall, I said, ‘I’m on your team! You do not have a choice. I have skills.

Shippens had worked on small campaigns in recent years. She is a leader of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Teachers, of course, are good at organizing and motivating large and often diverse groups of people.

Walton agreed. She appointed Shippens the field director for the mayoral campaign. It meant recruiting, organizing and educating volunteers, reaching out to voters in town, essentially running the field game for the Walton campaign 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 (LR) say they were drawn to Walton and often see themselves in his downtrodden mind. (Jerry Sullivan / WIVB)

“I was also a former teenage mother 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 equal anything.’

“It’s almost like your life was over when you were a teenager because you had a baby. You’re gonna be a welfare queen, have one baby a year. People say these things to teenage moms! It’s horrible. Our young people in this situation need more support, no judgment, no criticism, not to be told that their life is over.

“Because you can do great things. “

You could even become the mayor of a major American city. Walton, a huge outsider and avowed socialist, defeated incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary in June in one of the great upheavals in local and state history.

The work just got harder. Now his supporters face the challenge of once again defeating Brown as a general election written candidate. That’s a lot more than they anticipated, and it’s hard to believe how far they’ve come in less than a year.

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

Wheeler, a hairdresser who studied journalism at Buffalo State, scoffed at the memory. Before the June primary, they had 400 volunteers. About 500 more signed after Walton’s victory. Now she estimates there are around 1,300. She can’t say that she was confident of winning when it all started.

“Last year when the campaign started, I just wanted to be part of a campaign that had values ​​that I was standing for,” Wheeler said. “It didn’t really matter to me that we won then. 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 of last Tuesday’s door-to-door event. Volunteers gathered in a parking lot on Fleming Street, on the city’s East Side.

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

Misuraca said volunteers are currently going door-to-door on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They will soon add the knockout on Thursday. They have about 20 volunteers who work in telephone banks on Sunday and Monday evenings.

On a recent Tuesday, about 45 volunteers showed up at the Fleming Street site, most dressed in yellow t-shirts with the inscription “India For Buffalo Mayor” on the back with the number 63, signifying she was the 63rd mayor. from the city.

The vast majority of volunteers were women. This reflects a national trend, with more and more women elected across the country, including black women mayors in Chicago, Washington, DC, Atlanta, St. Louis and San Francisco.

Women drive the progressive political agenda, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and the “Squad” in Congress. Women make up a record 27 percent of the US Congress. More than 30 percent of state legislatures are first-time women.

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

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

“I just had a grandchild,” Friedline said. “I have three children. We see what is happening in the country.

(Photo courtesy of the Walton Campaign)

Friedline, originally from North Buffalo, worked for 18 years in the Arizona municipal government. She holds a master’s degree in public administration. She knows how government works and how it doesn’t, and she’s sure Buffalo can do better.

“I met India about two and a half years ago when I first returned home through the defense of cannabis,” Friedline said. “We became friends thanks to the uprising. We spent a lot of time talking about what was going on, watching Brown do nothing.

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

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

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

A day or two before the recent Walton campaign canvassing event, Brown aired a TV commercial claiming Walton would fire 100 police officers, with the youngest going first. This was the main problem when volunteers were briefed before knocking on the door.

“This is where the politics get really dirty, where they start lying about you,” said Adam Bojak, lawyer and activist and campaign leader.

Lovejoy resident Ashley Brunner told volunteers it was important to let citizens know that Walton was planning to reallocate police funds. Avoid the phrase “fund the police” at all costs. Brunner said the residents of Lovejoy want cops to respond faster than they normally do.

“The India campaign is going to have to counter this announcement with facts and positivity,” said Brunner, a small business owner and mother of three. “It’s alarmist.”

Brunner said she was a supporter of Brown at first. She comes from a military family and thinks structure and responsibility are important. She didn’t like the idea of ​​funding the police. But she contacted Walton, set up a conversation, and was won over.

“It’s easy to support a mom who wants to clean things up,” Brunner said, “because that’s what mothers do. We are raising children. We make them go through all their bullshit. Whenever a man cannot accomplish something, there is always a powerful woman behind him, trying to clean up the mess.

In this case, she is a self-described “little black girl from the East Side” who rose above the streets and above her teenage struggles for. become a registered nurse and union leader, then a community organizer who negotiated a land trust in the Fruitbelt.

Walton called his campaign an “act of radical love”. It was a labor of love for her volunteers and for Shippens, who wasn’t quite sure what she was getting herself into when she told Walton that she had the skills to handle things in the field.

“On the night of the primary, when India won – actually, when we knew we were ahead – I couldn’t stop crying,” said Shippens. “I said to people, ‘Everyone said she would be nothing. Everyone said I would be nothing. And here we are, two nothings, two outsiders, two people that nobody thought they could equal anything.

“It means so much to me as a teacher. We have three girls in our school this year who came back pregnant with Covid. I want these girls to know the sky is the limit. I want to break glass ceilings, not just for women, for black women, but for all of us who have struggled and been through certain things.

“India is brave and smart, a trailblazer, it opens doors for so many other women, so many other people from poverty, so many black and brown people,” Shippens said.

“She is definitely still an underdog. We have people with power and money who work day and night – not a bunch of mothers with families and day jobs who do this all their overtime. How often do we still do laundry? When was the last time I cooked? “

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

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

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