Openly gay New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) officially launched his campaign for New York’s 15th Congressional District this week, casting himself as a change agent who will take on corporate interests to fight for working-class people.
Torres had been mulling a run even prior to New York Congressman Jose Serrano’s announcement in March that he would not seek re-election in 2020 due to a recent diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease. But with the incumbent Democrat out of the race, Torres can now position himself as a legitimate contender for the open seat.
Much of the action in the race will occur in the Democratic primary, scheduled for June 2020, as New York’s 15th is one of the most Democratic-leaning districts in the entire country. There, Torres will likely face off against fellow Councilman Ruben Diaz, Sr., a longtime Bronx politico with significant ties to the party machine.
The possibility of running against Diaz provides a contrast that seems like it comes straight from the script of a made-for-TV movie: Torres is 31, publicly endorsed Bernie Sanders during the 2016 campaign, a young upstart within the Democratic Party, and openly gay; Diaz is 76, an establishment Democrat whose son is the Bronx Borough President, has a long history of winning elective office, and is vehemently anti-LGBTQ.
Torres hit on these contrasts between himself and the elder Diaz in an ad posted on his Facebook page. In the 3-minute, 20-second spot, Torres explains how he grew up in a public housing development, and how, across the street from his home, the city spent over $100 million on a golf course for President Donald Trump.
In addition to highlighting the misplaced priorities of city lawmakers and bureaucrats, the episode inspired Torres to run for City Council and fight on behalf of ordinary people. He eventually became the youngest city official when he assumed office at age 25, simultaneously becoming the first openly gay public official in the Bronx.
Echoing arguments made by another prominent New Yorker — Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated longtime Congressman Joe Crowley in the neighboring 14th District just last year — Torres is running an unabashedly progressive campaign, focusing on the needs of working people and calling for solutions to combat income inequality, inadequate education, dilapidated public housing, and unemployment among low-income and minority communities.
“I’m running for Congress because the Bronx needs a fighter in Washington, D.C.,” Torres says in his campaign launch video. “The primary presents a stark choice: between a progressive new guard and a reactionary old guard. Between an LGBT trailblazer and a vicious homophobe. Between a new generation of leadership and more of the same.”
Torres is not shy about attacking Diaz, a Pentecostal minister who wears trademark cowboy hats and courts anti-gay Republicans, even inviting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to the Bronx to help the then-presidential candidate court votes from socially conservative, evangelical black and Latino voters — even though Cruz had recently derided “New York values.”
Moreover, Diaz’s resumé contains more than a few incidents where he’s attacked the LGBTQ community. He previously served as a state senator in Albany, where he, along with two other senators, infamously threatened to turn Democratic control of the New York State Senate over to the Republicans — unless certain conditions were met, including a promise not to bring up a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.
He voted twice against marriage equality, in 2009 and 2011, and had previously filed a lawsuit to stop the expansion of the Harvey Milk School, a school designed to be a “safe space” for openly LGBTQ students, claiming that the school’s existence was discriminatory against heterosexual students. After winning election to the City Council last year, Diaz found himself stripped of his committee positions after claiming that the New York City Council is “controlled by the homosexual community.”
Torres told NBC News that he feels his race against Diaz is “personal,” in part because he sees his opponent as fostering an anti-LGBTQ culture within the Bronx, which made Torres’ bid for City Council in 2013 “terrifying” as he fought to overcome anti-gay prejudice. More importantly, Torres sees Diaz as a Trump sycophant who’s out of step with the district ideologically but hides behind a party label to maintain a hold on power.
“My issue with [Diaz] is that there’s a party for people like him: It’s the Republican Party,” Torres told NBC News. “He should be running in a Republican primary. He is a Trump Republican masquerading as a Democrat.”
In response to Torres’ accusations, Diaz argued in an email to NBC News that he is focused on delivering for his community.
“While some people like to do the talk. I concentrate on the walk. This is what I do for the community,” he wrote, including a link to a press release about a charity event where he partnered with the New York Police Department and a Catholic charity to give free backpacks and school supplies to kids.
At this point, even given New York City’s liberal bent, Torres is considered the underdog, lacking Diaz’s high degree of name recognition and the ties to power brokers within the Democratic Party that Diaz has carefully nurtured over the years. Still, Torres says it’s important that voters look closely at Diaz’s ideology and his record before casting a vote for him.
“He has been a supporter of the Trump administration, Donald Trump himself,” Torres says. “The contrast between the reverend and me could not be more pronounced. It is a choice between making history and turning the clock back.”
Watch Torres’ first ad announcing his candidacy on YouTube below: