“My life is something of a metaphor, because I grew up in a public housing project, right across the street from the Trump Links at Ferry Point golf course,” says Ritchie Torres. “And as the golf course was undergoing construction, it unleashed a skunk infestation on the public housing development. So I jokingly told people that I’ve been smelling the stench of Donald Trump well before he became president.”
Growing up in the shadow of Trump’s golf course — which received more than $127 million in taxpayer dollars from the city — had a significant influence on Torres’ life, prompting him to become a housing organizer, and then housing director for a Bronx Councilmember.
“I remember thinking to myself at the time: What does it say about our society? What does it say about our values and our priorities that we’re willing to invest more in a golf course than in the homes and lives of Black and Brown Americans?” he says.
In 2013, Torres became one of the youngest people elected to a seat on the New York City Council — a feat nothing short of stunning in the Bronx, where political machines had a history of overwhelming insurgent candidates.
“I was 25 years old, openly LGBTQ in a comparatively conservative county,” he says. “I had no ties to the dynasties of Bronx politics, no ties to the party machine. But I knocked on thousands of doors, went into people’s homes, and heard their stories. And I won my first campaign on the strength of door-to-door, face-to-face campaigning. And I became the first openly LGBTQ elected official in the borough of the Bronx.”
For six years, Torres amassed a fairly progressive record on the City Council before deciding to run for Congress, after 30-year incumbent Jose Serrano announced he would not run for re-election to New York’s 15th Congressional District seat. His chief opponent was longtime Bronx politico Ruben Diaz, Sr., a fellow member of the City Council and a former state senator with a history of inflammatory, anti-LGBTQ statements and actions.
Yet even though polling showed Torres to be one of the stronger candidates against Diaz — who actually refused to commit to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden over President Donald Trump — he received criticism from progressives for accepting campaign donations from real estate developers, even though he was endorsed by End Citizens United and did not take corporate PAC money. And despite having served as a delegate for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, he didn’t earn the endorsement of Sanders or the senator’s top surrogate, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who represents a neighboring district. He bristles at charges that he is insufficiently progressive, pointing to his support of several progressive policies, including the two biggest issues associated with the progressive movement: the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
“You can say anything about anyone, without regard to the truth,” Torres says in response to his critics. “What I find is the criticism primarily comes from white gentrifiers who feel the need to lecture me on systemic racism and progressivism. And I refuse to be lectured.
“I spent most of my life as a poor kid of color who had nothing handed to him. I had to fight for everything that I have in my life. And I ran for public office to become a leader in my community. I have roots in my community, and I refuse to be lectured by white gentrifiers on what it means to be progressive. Screw them.”
In early August, after weeks of delays in counting mail-in ballots from the Democratic primary, Torres was officially named the Democratic nominee for New York’s 15th Congressional District. He’s favored to win in the November general election, due to the 15th District’s status as the most Democratic-leaning congressional district in the nation. As he looks forward to likely becoming the district’s next member of Congress, Torres speaks hopefully of the things he’d like to do to make the lives of working people, like his family members and his neighbors, better.
He also hopes his election will provide some hope and inspiration for LGBTQ youth of color. “As LGBTQ youth increasingly can see themselves in their own government, at the highest levels of American politics, that’s progress,” he says. “That’s reason to hope. There’s a whole host of us — candidates like Mondaire Jones, Gina Ortiz Jones, and myself — who have broken barriers. The ‘rainbow wave’ that has swept politics, from Mayor Pete downward in recent years, is reason to hope. And the rainbow wave sends a powerful message that we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going anywhere.”
METRO WEEKLY: Apart from living opposite Trump’s golf course, what was your childhood like?
RITCHIE TORRES: Well, the Bronx has always been my home. Always has been and always will be. I spent most of my time in poverty, raised by a single mother, who had to raise three children on minimum wage, which in the 1990s was $4.25 an hour. I have a twin brother who’s five minutes older, and a sister. We grew up in public housing in conditions of mold and mildew, leaks and lead, without consistent heat or hot water in the winter. And so when I think about all the struggles affecting the poorest parts of our country, whether it be poverty or inequality, food insecurity or housing, these are not only abstractions that I studied intensely as a policy, these are struggles that I’ve lived in my own life. For me, policy is personal.
MW: Was your family religious?
TORRES: I was born into a Catholic family. My family was more culturally than doctrinally Catholic. But in Latino culture, there’s an emphasis on machismo. There is homophobia institutionalized in every culture, but including Latino culture. And so I felt inhibited by the absence of LGBTQ visibility in my own upbringing, and that deterred me from coming out.
MW: When did you officially come out?
TORRES: It was more of a process than a single moment. Back when I was in high school, I stumbled across the MySpace profile of a teacher. And came to discover that he was gay. And so I approached him. And when I did, I spontaneously came out. He was the first openly LGBTQ person I had ever met. I grew up in a sheltered upbringing in the Bronx, where there were no visible models of openly LGBTQ people. I had no conception of a world beyond the immediate boundaries of the public housing development in which I lived. For me to meet someone in my life who is openly LGBTQ was an inspiring experience.
And then when I was a housing director on the city council, I came out to a few of my colleagues, and when I chose to run for public office, that was the definitive moment of coming out. When I ran for public office, I concluded that I had to be out to everyone, because coming out was a matter of authenticity and integrity. And I owed it to the public to be honest about this. So there’s a sense in which my first campaign for the city council was the culmination of my coming out process.
What’s remarkable is that seven years before, I was at the lowest point in my life. I was struggling with depression, abusing substances, I dropped out of college. There were moments of suicidal ideation. I felt as if the world around me had collapsed. And then seven years later, I became the youngest elected official in the largest city in America.
MW: You said you felt like the world around you had collapsed. What was fueling it?
TORRES: Depression runs in my family. So part of it is genetic. But part of it is just personal traumas in my life: the death of my grandparents, sexual identity crisis, certainly the struggle to come to grips with my own sexual identity and the fear of rejection.
MW: When you were first running for office as an out gay man, did you receive any pushback on the campaign trail, or were you advised to keep your sexuality secret?
TORRES: I had consultants warn me about the risk of coming out. But I felt internally compelled to be who I was, and to run as the person that I am. I have the belief that integrity and authenticity are not only good morals, but are also good politics. That voters can smell a lack of authenticity from a mile away. So I thought it was important to be who I was, that it would make me a better public servant and a better person.
MW: In your congressional primary, you beat Ruben Diaz, Sr., who has been an institution in Bronx politics for quite some time. He obviously has a connected family, with his son being the borough president. Was there ever a point where you doubted yourself or thought that maybe it was too much to take on that machine, so to speak?
TORRES: I was cautiously hopeful that I could win. The race for New York-15 was the most fiercely contested congressional primary in New York City. There were eleven candidates, including five elected officials. The frontrunner was said to be Ruben Diaz, Sr., who is known to be the most homophobic elected official in New York state politics. In the 1990s, he said that the Gay Olympics would lead to the spread of AIDS. In 2011, he was the only Democratic state senator to vote against marriage equality. And a year ago, he said that the city council is controlled by a homosexual cabal, to which I jokingly replied, “That’s the most accurate thing you’ve ever said.” He has compared abortion to the Holocaust and has described sexual harassment as a compliment.
MW: And got a sort of nod from President Trump.
TORRES: Right. He was the Donald Trump of the Bronx. Conventional wisdom among political observers held that Ruben Diaz, Sr. could not be beaten because he’s been an institution longer than I’ve been alive, and that I, as a young gay man, had no clear path to victory in the South Bronx, where the median voters are traditional and senior citizen. It was thought that the median voter in the South Bronx would naturally gravitate toward Ruben Diaz, Sr. But against all odds, on the strength of the grassroots campaign, I not only won, but I defeated Diaz so decisively, that I drove him to retirement, which is precisely where he belongs.
MW: You two both have both served on the City Council at the same time. What was your working relationship with him like?
TORRES: We had no working relationship, especially after his comments about homosexuals controlling the city council. After those comments especially, he became persona non grata, so I essentially had no working relationship with him.
MW: Did you ever interact with him?
TORRES: I mean, we’ve been in meetings together, and there were moments of cordiality, but there were moments of contention as well.
MW: When you won your primary victory, there were a number of other closely watched races in the New York area. Mondaire Jones won in a Westchester-based district. You had Jamaal Bowman, who upset Eliot Engel. You had AOC unseat Joe Crowley last cycle, and this year she defended her seat. You had Carolyn Maloney pull out a narrow victory against Suraj Patel, who, in some circles, is described as a progressive. What’s going on in New York that is leading to these insurgent campaigns?
TORRES: Incumbency is no longer an insurance policy in an age of anti-establishment fervor. And there is both a progressive wave and a rainbow wave sweeping American politics. And I think what we’ve seen increasingly is the emergence of congressional leaders who are every bit as diverse as America itself. American representative democracy in the United States is becoming genuinely representative. If elected, I’m set to become the first LGBTQ member of the New York City congressional delegation and the first out Afro-Latino member of the United States Congress. It’s one thing to have an openly LGBTQ member of Congress in the Gayborhoods: Hell’s Kitchen or the Village. It’s something else to have an LGBTQ member of Congress from the South Bronx, in the place where you least expect it. That is a distinctive kind of breakthrough in LGBTQ representation and politics. And the triumph of an openly LGBTQ congressional candidate over the leading homophobe in New York state politics is a powerful testament to how far we’ve come.
MW: You have received criticism from the left that you are not progressive enough. How do you define the term progressive, and do you feel you match that term?
TORRES: At the heart of progressivism is a belief in progress, a belief that the government can and should play a role in improving people’s lives. And as a progressive Democrat, I see COVID-19 not only as a challenge, but as an opportunity. If the Democrats win control of the presidency and the Senate, we will have the makings of an FDR moment. We will have a once in a century opportunity to fundamentally reinvest in America on the scale of the 21st Century New Deal. A massive reinvestment would enable us to recover from COVID-19, fight catastrophic climate change, create the next generation of green jobs, create a comprehensive social safety net that establishes both health and housing as human rights. And begin to address the root causes of systemic racism which was powerfully laid bare by the 1619 Project. So the pursuit of all those goals is deeply progressive.
MW: During this pandemic, there are a number of people who say they’re hurting and that this is a time for sweeping, direct action that gets money to people who need it most, and back into an economy that is suffering from the shutdowns. How are you going to prioritize the economic well-being of your constituents?
TORRES: The highest priority is to put people back to work and to put money in the pockets of working people and families. That is the highest priority, as well as providing federal funding for state and local governments that are providing vital public services. Our state and local governments, especially New York City, are teetering on the brink. COVID-19 has revealed to the nation the vulnerabilities of the social safety net.
MW: We’ve heard similar promises before from other politicians. But it seems that once they come to Washington, there’s a point at which good intentions stop. Obviously we can’t control who rules the Senate. But many of those candidates end up deferring to longer-serving members or playing by the rules, which can frustrate voters when change is slow and incremental.
TORRES: No one has ever accused me of deference, and no one has ever accused me of playing by the rules. This is not a theoretical question. Take a look at the record that I built on the City Council. I’ve been an independent, pragmatic, effective public servant willing to cause good trouble. Who’s been willing to speak truth to power. Who’s been willing to fight for the causes that matter most to him. And that’s the same fighting spirit that I would bring to Washington, D.C. — I’m not going to D.C. to “kiss the ring.” I’m going to D.C. to deliver for my district. I’m going to represent the poorest congressional district in America, living in deep suffering, and I feel a deep sense of urgency around delivering for my constituents in the immediate term.
MW: Should you be elected to Congress, there are caucuses that you would have a chance to join. Have you thought of any that appeal?
TORRES: I would join the Progressive Caucus. And for the record, I support the Green New Deal and Medicare for all, despite misrepresentations of my record.
MW: You can also join the CHC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus or the Congressional Black Caucus. But there is a rule that you cannot join both.
TORRES: I’m well aware of it. I wrote an op-ed on it.
MW: As an Afro-Latino, how much does it offend you that you cannot join both caucuses?
TORRES: A tradition that prohibits membership in both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is a form of erasure. Under the traditions of Congress, you can either be Latino or Black, but you cannot be both. But in the real world, you can be both. In the real world, Afro-Latinos like me do exist. And we should never be forced to choose between two identities that are equally important to us. In the real world, identity is intersectional rather than binary.
MW: I know that one of your other opponents was endorsed by the CBC and you were endorsed by the CHC. Were you offended by the CBC’s decision not to endorse you?
TORRES: I take none of it personally. Individuals and institutions make endorsements for a whole host of reasons, and I don’t take any of it personally. What I do take personally is the tradition that prohibits membership in both the CBC and CHC, because that affects my ability to govern. When you’re at an institution like Congress it’s important to be in the room where decisions are made. And both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are among the most important rooms of decision-making in Congress.
MW: Since you wrote your op-ed, has anybody from either caucus reached out to you? Have there been discussions about this?
TORRES: There have been discussions. I will keep those discussions confidential. All I can tell you is that I intend to try and vote to the extent that I can. And my position remains the same. I feel it is a matter of deep conviction that I have a right to join both, as an Afro-Latino.
MW: What other issues do you see Congress not taking action on that need to be addressed?
TORRES: We have to address the affordability crisis. The crushing costs of housing and health care and higher education is crippling American families, crippling American businesses. In the South Bronx, more than half of the residents spend more than half their income on rent. And that’s before you factor in the cost of food and transportation and utilities and prescription drugs. And so I’m in favor of housing vouchers for all, so that families in need pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward their rent. I’m in favor of expanding the child tax credit, so that families struggling during COVID-19 can receive up to $3,500 per child every year. And I’m in favor of really massive investments in our social, human, technical, digital infrastructure.
COVID-19 has held up a mirror to the deeper inequalities of American life. And one of the inequalities that weighs most heavily upon families in the South Bronx is the digital divide in New York City. There are 900,000 households that have no broadband internet connection — 900,000 households, 2.2 million New Yorkers, 29% of all the city’s households. In an age of remote learning, without Wi-Fi access, there’s no means of accessing an education. So in an age of remote learning, we’ve seen the transformation of education from a public good to a private luxury, reserved for those who can afford it. That, to me, is a betrayal of public education as both a public good and a human right.
MW: You were recently involved in a political dispute with Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, who called you a “first-class whore” after you questioned whether there was a slowdown in solving gun crimes in New York City. How did that attack make you feel?
TORRES: I held the police union’s feet to the fire, and instead of responding to me respectfully with an opposing argument, and facts and statistics, the Sergeants Benevolent Association chose to denigrate me, calling me a “first-class whore.” Now keep in mind that Ed Mullins, of the SBA, has a long pattern of denigrating people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. He’s a first-class bigot. He has referred to an African-American NFL linebacker as a wild animal. He referred to the Latina health commissioner as a bitch. He promoted, among his members, a racist video that portrays people of color as Section Eight scam artists and welfare queens. He appeared on Fox News with a coffee mug bearing the logo of QAnon, which is a far-right conspiracy movement that traffics in anti-semitism. He has threatened violence against the mayor and has illegally invaded the primacy of the mayor’s daughter. So there’s a long record of hate and harassment that ought to disqualify Ed Mullins from serving in any position of public responsibility.
A man of his history and volatility cannot be trusted to police communities like mine, to treat us with the respect we deserve, the respect that the NYPD promises. The motto of the NYPD is “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect” and what we’ve seen from Ed Mullins is nothing but a lack of professionalism and disrespect squarely directed at people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community. My attitude is: enough is enough. Ed Mullins should resign.
MW: Why do you think he has received so little pushback from police officers in response to his offensive comments?
TORRES: The crisis is deeper than a few bad apples. There’s a culture of impunity, a blue wall of silence, that enables police misconduct. The role of the police unions is to defend police misconduct, no matter how egregious. The doctrine of qualified immunity is essentially a license to brutalize black and brown lives. And the blue wall of silence encourages even good officers to turn a blind eye to the brutality of fellow officers.
MW: Had you been in Congress, would you have supported the Booker-Harris bill, the Justice in Policing Act?
TORRES: Yes. And I favor the abolition of qualified immunity.
MW: When people take to the streets to protest or to demonstrate, that tends to be an indicator of failed policies or a broken political system. What is your advice to people who want to bring about change?
TORRES: Keep protesting. Keep agitating. Change does not happen in a vacuum. The political system is responsive to activism and agitation. So my advice to protesters on the streets is to keep protesting. It works. It has an impact. We’ve seen police reforms enacted or pursued at every level of government, and those efforts did not start in a vacuum. Those efforts took hold following mass demonstrations around the murder of George Floyd. Change requires an inside game and an outside game, and the elected officials often play the inside game. But the burden lies on the activists to play the outside game. It’s the interplay between the two that drives social change.
MW: We know that the Equality Act has stalled in the Senate. Obviously, there is some hope that with a Democratic Senate, it would be brought up for a vote. But regardless of what happens with this year’s elections, what actions do you feel need to be taken to improve the lives of LGBTQ people and specifically LGBTQ people of color?
TORRES: There has to be recognition that the Equality Act is a guarantee of legal equality. But legal equality is only one piece of social equality and we have to ensure that vulnerable communities within the LGBTQ family get their fair share of federal resources. We have to ensure that we have mental health services specifically oriented towards the needs of LGBTQ residents. We need to ensure we have housing, specifcally oriented toward the needs of LGBTQ youth. We have to be mindful of the need for services as we are of the need for legal equality.
Housing is my passion. LGBTQ youth have disproportionally higher rates of homelessness and disproportionately higher rates of suicide. Those two facts are not coincidental. Those two facts are closely connected. Health and housing are closely connected. When you have no access to stable housing, you are much more vulnerable to mental illness and substance abuse, to overcriminalization and sex trafficking. So the lack of housing is destabilizing every aspect of your life. And we see that dynamic play out tragically in the lives of LGBTQ youth, who continue to be displaced from their own homes at the hands of their own parents. And those LGBTQ youth tend to look a lot like me.
MW: We’ve recently seen courts start to move in the direction of agreeing, once and for all, that LGBTQ people are covered by various federal laws. But the other day we had President Trump issue a list of potential Supreme Court nominees containing the names of a number of anti-LGBTQ figures. How much of a risk does a second Trump term pose to the LGBTQ community?
TORRES: The greatest threat to LGBTQ equality is the Supreme Court. We have to win the Senate. We have to abolish the filibuster. And we have to appoint progressives to the Supreme Court. My greatest concern is what I call the “weaponization of the First Amendment,” the weaponization of religious liberty. There has been a concerted effort by the conservative movement to radically reinterpret religious liberty as a license to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. And if that conception of religious liberty were to be adopted by the Supreme Court, it would have the effect of desecrating LGBTQ protections at every level of government, including the Equality Act. That is the greatest threat to LGBTQ equality.
MW: On the other hand, we’ve also seen some members of the LGBTQ community try to defend this administration’s record on LGBTQ rights, trying to convince us that our own perceptions are mistaken or wrong. What would you say to those individuals?
TORRES: It’s not my place to tell anyone in the LGBTQ community what their political preferences should be. What I will tell you is that there is no defending the indefensible. And Donald Trump’s record on the LGBTQ community is indefensible. To his LGBTQ defenders, I would tell them you’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. The fact is, Donald Trump has been consistently hostile toward the equality of LGBTQ people. There’s a whole host of regulations that he has put in place or attempted to put in place that have conspired against our community. And no amount of gaslighting is going to change that fact.
MW: How worried are you about voter apathy or disengagement this cycle?
TORRES: Well, I have a constant concern about a lack of voter engagement. But it seems to me the energy’s on the left. The energy’s on the Democratic side of the aisle. Biden raised over $340 million in the span of a single month, which is as definitive a sign of energy as any I’ve ever seen in national politics. I think most Democrats realize that Donald Trump is an existential threat to everything that we value as a party: he’s an existential threat to the social safety net, to our democracy, to our planet. And that four more years of Donald Trump is too horrifying to imagine.
MW: I know that a topic close to your heart is curbing gun violence. But gun reform legislation has been stymied in Congress. What do you see as solutions to gun violence that Congress can or should take?
TORRES: We often speak of American exceptionalism. And the worst form of American exceptionalism is with the epidemic of gun violence. Among the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States is alone — it uniquely has an epidemic of mass shootings and gun violence. And we have more gun violence simply because we have more guns. We have to limit the number of guns on our streets and limit access to those guns. So we need gun safety legislation at the federal level. There’s no substitute for federal gun safety.
MW: Would you back an assault weapons ban?
TORRES: Yes. Universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, a ban on high capacity magazines.
MW: If you ask most voters, they generally don’t have positive opinions about either major political party. As a Democrat, how do you communicate to Americans why you believe the Democratic Party’s positions are better for them?
TORRES: There is a staffer of a U.S. Senator [Thom Tillis, R-N.C.] who told a woman with cancer, “You’re out of luck.” The Republican response to working people who have suffering in their lives is you’re out of luck, whereas Democrats recognize that there are some public goods that are so essential that the government is obligated to guarantee it. We all can guarantee universal health care, affordable housing, access to a quality education. We are the party that believes in investing in America that believes in investing in everyone, so that all of us can have a fighting chance at a decent life.
For more information on Ritchie Torres’s campaign for Congress, visit www.torres.nyc.
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