Ritchie Torres, Another Young Bronx Progressive, Launches a Run for Congress
The morning after Donald Trump tweeted, in a clear reference to four U.S. congresswomen of color, that they should “go back” to where they came from, Ritchie Torres, a member of the New York City Council, announced that he will run for Congress. The timing was coincidental, but Torres, who is gay and Afro-Latino, could relate to Trump’s targets. “The same could be said of me,” he says. “My father was born in Puerto Rico.” In February, after one of his colleagues on the City Council, Rubén Díaz, Sr., made a homophobic remark, Torres called for Díaz to be removed as the chair of the one committee he led. Shortly before that committee was disbanded, Torres said, “Today we will let it be known that when an elected official uses the power of his office to stoke the fires of bigotry, there will be consequences—and those consequences will be severe and swift.”
Now Torres, who is thirty-one, is campaigning to represent the Bronx in the U.S. House of Representatives. Several candidates have entered the race, but the toughest one for him to beat may be the same city councilman he denounced. Díaz, a seventy-six-year-old Pentecostal minister whose trademark is a cowboy hat, is very well known in the Bronx, where he has held elected office for nearly eighteen years. He also has a long record of taking anti-gay stances. (In 2011, when he was in the state senate, he was the only Democrat to vote against legalizing same-sex marriage.) The Democratic primary will be held next June, but the contest is already drawing attention, particularly in the gay press. As a headline in The Advocate put it, “Out NYC Councilman Challenging Homophobe for Congressional Seat.”
Torres grew up in the Bronx, and he seems to subscribe to the belief often expressed by Representative Ayanna Pressley that “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” Torres’s mother raised him, his twin brother, and his sister in a public-housing project, paying the rent with minimum-wage jobs. In middle school, Torres realized that he was gay, but he was terrified to tell anyone, although he came out when he was in the tenth grade, at Lehman High School. He attended New York University but dropped out during his sophomore year, suffering from severe depression. He got a job working for a city councilman, and eventually decided to run for a Council seat himself. In 2013, at the age of twenty-five, he became New York City’s youngest elected official and the first openly L.G.B.T. person elected in the Bronx.
I first met Torres that November, three weeks after his election, in a restaurant in his district, off Arthur Avenue. He was very slim—five feet ten and just a hundred and forty pounds—and seemed unimposing. When he spoke, however, he gave a different impression. “I’m not content to be one among many Council members,” he said. “I want to be an exceptional Council member.” Over the next four years, Torres focussed on what he calls the “humanitarian crisis” in the city’s public-housing projects, which are home to more than four hundred thousand people. As chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Housing, he held hearings investigating building conditions, including broken boilers and leaky roofs, and played a crucial role in exposing the city’s failures to address lead-paint contamination.
He became known for his aggressive interrogations of city officials, and after he won reëlection, in 2017, he was made the chair of the new Committee on Oversight and Investigations. Last month, he grilled the head of the Taxi and Limousine Commission about the crisis in the city’s taxi-medallion industry. (“Commissioner, you don’t answer whatever question you want to answer. You respond to the questions that I ask.”) He has also helped to open the first homeless shelter for young L.G.B.T. people in the Bronx and to secure funding for L.G.B.T. senior centers in each of the city’s five boroughs. Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side in the City Council, told me, “I think he’s very effective, absolutely.” She described Torres as someone “who absorbed his very unique childhood”—a “gay guy in the projects who got beat up” and “has a deep love and admiration for his mother who put food on the table for all the kids”—and “he internalized all of that and is using that as his driving passion as a legislator, as a policymaker.”
When Torres announced his House candidacy, he posted a three-minute video on Twitter, with a tweet that read, “My story is the story of the Bronx, a story of overcoming. 12 years ago: I stood on the verge of suicide. 6 years ago: I overcame the odds to become the youngest elected in NYC.” When he first ran for office, in 2013, he spoke about being gay, but not about his battle with depression. In recent years, however, he has become more open about the subject and the fact that he takes an antidepressant. “I want to break the stigma, the silence and shame that often surrounds mental illness,” he told me. His public disclosures have taught him that “there is something universal about the struggle with mental illness,” which “even the whitest, most privileged people” can identify with. “There are people who have nothing else in common with me who have approached me and said, ‘Thank you for telling your story, because I’ve had the same struggles.’ ”
Last week, I met Torres at a restaurant near City Hall. He wore a dark-gray suit with a pale-yellow tie. He is not quite as slim as he was when I first met him, but he carries himself with considerably more confidence. Term limits will push him out of the City Council next year, and he tied his decision to run for Congress to lessons learned about the limits on what a city elected official can accomplish. “If you are on a mission to confront racially concentrated poverty, if you’re on a mission to lift working people in the poorest parts of our country, you have to be a policymaker on a national stage, because Washington, D.C., is where the rules are set,” he said. He points to public housing as an example: “The decline of public housing is a story of federal divestment.”
Torres is running to represent New York’s Fifteenth Congressional District, which encompasses the South Bronx and part of the central Bronx. The district has a higher percentage of Latino residents—sixty-six per cent—than any other district in the city; the rest of the population is largely African-American. Nearly eight hundred thousand people live in the Fifteenth, more than in Seattle or Washington, D.C. It is often referred to as the nation’s poorest congressional district: the median household income is twenty-eight thousand dollars a year; thirty-six per cent of the residents live below the poverty line. Torres’s campaign is focussed on jobs, housing, education, and health care; he talks often about how the life expectancy is a decade longer for people living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side than for those in the South Bronx. The usual voter turnout in the Fifteenth District is exceptionally low; the last congressional primary drew just ten thousand voters. Turnout, however, may increase next year—a Presidential-election year in which the district will see its first congressional primary without an incumbent in three decades. (Representative José Serrano, who is seventy-five, has represented the area since 1990, and is not seeking another term.)
The Fifteenth District shares a border with the Fourteenth, which is represented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In some ways, the two politicians are similar: he is the youngest member of the City Council; she is the youngest member of the city’s congressional delegation; both are of Puerto Rican descent; both call themselves progressive. They also take a similar approach to hearings. “She’s one of the best questioners I’ve ever seen,” Torres said, “and I appreciate elected officials who ask real questions rather than speechify.” But there are differences between them. Ocasio-Cortez ran with no establishment support, while Torres has just been endorsed by one of the city’s most influential unions, the Hotel Trades Council. She does not take campaign contributions from corporate donors, while he is so far not restricting the types of donations he will accept. Between April 1st and June 30th, he raised more than half a million dollars in contributions. He likes to refer to himself as an “independent progressive,” and recently told Errol Louis, on NY1, that if he were elected to Congress he wouldn’t want to get drawn into the ongoing dispute within the Democratic Party, saying, “I could care less about the turf battles.”
There are also significant differences between the two districts. The Fourteenth, which includes parts of the East Bronx and neighborhoods in northwest Queens, has a larger white population and a higher median household income (fifty-eight thousand dollars). Ocasio-Cortez was elected with strong support from the Democratic Socialists of America—with volunteers knocking on thousands of doors for her—but the D.S.A. does not have the same track record in the Fifteenth District.
Torres has so far raised more than six times as much money for his campaign as Díaz has for his, but Torres still calls himself the “underdog” because, he says, Díaz “has the most powerful name in the Bronx.” Torres’s council district overlaps with the congressional district that he hopes to represent, but, because the congressional district is so much larger, many of its residents may not know him. Meanwhile, Díaz has held elected office in the borough since 2002, and his son, Rubén Díaz, Jr., has been the Bronx borough president for the past decade. The son does not share his father’s socially conservative views, but, when voters go to the polls, will some of them confuse the two men? “We will make the distinction for them,” Torres says.
His conversation over lunch feels like a preview of what voters will hear on the campaign trail. “Rubén Díaz, Sr., is the Donald Trump of the Bronx,” Torres said, describing his opponent as “temperamentally and ideologically indistinguishable” from the President. “He thrives on pushing the envelope; he thrives on being mischievous.” Díaz filed a lawsuit in 2003 to try to stop the Harvey Milk High School, a public school for gay students, from expanding; he held a rally in the Bronx condemning same-sex marriage, in 2004; and he brought Senator Ted Cruz to the Bronx, in 2016. (Díaz did not respond to requests for comment.) The Fifteenth District has been called the most Democratic congressional district in the country; Barack Obama won ninety-seven per cent of the vote there in 2012. Díaz, Torres said, “should be running in a Republican primary.”
The race is likely to continue to draw considerable media attention in the months ahead, but Torres resists easy characterizations of his campaign. “I’m not that classic American Dream story. I didn’t grow up in poverty, then go to Harvard and become a Rhodes Scholar,” he said. “But I have been able to overcome real challenges in life through extraordinary willpower.” The next eleven months will show whether that willpower will be enough to propel Torres into Congress.
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