In January, Congress swore in a record 10 openly LGBTQ members, including some firsts in Congress: Sharice Davids of Kansas, the first gay woman of color; Angie Craig of Minnesota, the first gay mother; Mark Takano, California, the first openly gay person of color; Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the first openly bisexual.
Now, Ritchie J. Torres, a 31-year-old Bronx councilman, the first openly gay person to hold elected office in the borough, noted that not one of the 10 was black or Latino. He hopes to be the first.
José Serrano, the longtime congressman representing the southern Bronx, captured the Democratic nomination for New York’s 15th Congressional District in 2018. He beat his Republican opponent with 96% of the vote; but Serrano is retiring, and Torres wants his spot.
Torres is the youngest member of the New York City Council and one of five openly gay members. Torres says that serving in Congress would be the best way of pursuing his passions of overhauling public housing and focusing on the issues of concentrated poverty.
I’m a legislator at heart; I’m a fighter at heart, and on the City Council, I chair the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, and I could easily imagine myself as an effective questioner or cross examiner in Washington, D.C.
He is the only openly LGBTQ Afro-Latino member of the NY City Council, and he had to overcome a lot of homophobia in the Bronx to win his first election. He blames fellow council member and his congressional opponent Ruben Diaz Sr., a 76-year-old city council member and Pentecostal minister, who has attracted notice for a series of deeply homophobic remarks he has made over decades.
I remember when I first ran. I had no ties to the party machine. I had no ties to a political dynasty. I was a 24-year-old, Afro-Latino, gay kid struggling to fully come to terms with his sexual identity, and terrified to run as an openly LGBTQ candidate because of the homophobic culture that people like Ruben Diaz Sr. created in the Bronx. He made the experience of running for public office more terrifying for me.
Torres sits in the Democratic caucus alongside both Diaz and speaker Corey Johnson, who is also gay. Earlier this year, Torres and Johnson worked together to strip Diaz of committee positions after he said that the New York City Council is “controlled by the homosexual community”.
My issue with him [Diaz] is that there’s a party for people like him: It’s the Republican Party. He should be running in a Republican primary. He is a Trump Republican masquerading as a Democrat. He even had the temerity to bring Ted Cruz to the South Bronx. He has been a supporter of the Trump administration, Donald Trump himself. The contrast between the reverend and me could not be more pronounced. It is a choice between making history and turning the clock back.
Torres would make history by being elected the country’s first Afro-Latino LGBTQ congressperson and one of the country’s youngest legislators, along with representing one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts.
I feel like if I’m going to be a congressman who represents the South Bronx, I have to be the most visible and vocal champion of the urban poor and of working people. Most of the policies affecting health and housing are federal in nature — think of housing, section 8 public housing, low income housing tax credits, tax-exempt bond financing — all of those are federal programs, so if you are on a mission to fight racially concentrated poverty, if you are on a mission to lift the lives of working people in the poorest parts of our country like the South Bronx, then you have to be a policymaker on the national stage, because Washington, D.C., is where the rules are set.
Torres grew up in public housing. He has stated that to be a proper champion of the urban poor requires:
… a commitment to what I would call ‘social housing’. Whether it’s public housing, or project-based Section 8, or mandatory inclusionary housing, or rent regulated housing, there should be a national strategy for maximizing the amount of social housing in the United States.
Since the winner of the Bronx Democratic primary is expected to be the winner of the general election, Torres’ path to Washington would be like his Congressional neighbor, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents New York’s 14th Congressional district. A real favorite of POTUS, Ocasio-Cortez also ran an insurgent campaign to defeat a more entrenched, older politician, and won.
First, Torres needs to win the primary in order to win the election, and Diaz is the establishment candidate. Torres:
I think a lesson learned from AOC’s win is that a charismatic messenger with a compelling message can matter more than money and machine.