Come November, Rubén Díaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister with a long history of homophobia and transphobia, could be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the most Democratic district in the nation — but gay candidate Ritchie Torres is out to see that doesn’t happen.
Díaz is well known in New York politics; he was a state senator for years, and he’s now a member of the New York City Council. In the Senate, he voted against marriage equality, and he has said the City Council “is controlled by the homosexual community.” He considers abortion murder, and he praises Donald Trump. Yet he’s running as a Democrat, as he has for years, although he’s the epitome of a Democrat in name only.
He’s one of a dozen candidates running in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary to succeed Jose Serrano, a 30-year veteran who is not seeking reelection, as U.S. representative from New York’s 15th Congressional District. Located in the South Bronx, it’s so heavily Democratic that the primary winner is assured of a victory in November. Besides being the most Democratic district in the nation, it’s the poorest, according to The New York Times. The population is largely Latinx and Black.
In the effort to stop Díaz, some influential supporters, including the Times, are coalescing around Torres, currently also a City Council member. If Torres, a 32-year-old Afro-Latino, emerges victorious, he would be the first out gay Black person in either chamber of Congress (if a candidate from a neighboring district, Mondaire Jones, is successful as well, he and Torres would be the first two).
Torres, in an interview with The Advocate, describes the 15th District race as “the craziest possible race at the craziest possible moment.” That’s not only because of the coronavirus pandemic and heightened outcry against racism, but also because of, well, Díaz.
“The 800-pound gorilla is Rubén Díaz Sr., the most prominent homophobe in New York City politics,” Torres says. He doesn’t consider Díaz a Democrat. “There’s a real risk that a Trump Republican could represent the most Democratic district in America,” he says. Torres entered the race before Díaz did, and he says, “I think part of the reason he ran was to derail me.”
But Torres is determined not to be derailed, and he has demonstrated that determination throughout his career. One of three children of a single mother who worked minimum-wage jobs, he grew up in public housing, amid “mold and mildew, leaks and lead,” he says, adding, “I’ve seen the impact of corporate welfare and government neglect.”
He went into politics early, working on housing issues for City Council member Jimmy Vacca, then winning a seat on the council at age 25 in 2013. That made him the city’s youngest elected official at the time and the first member of the LGBTQ+ community elected in the Bronx. He was reelected in 2017.
On the council, he has fought for affordable housing and criminal justice reform, and has helped improve conditions in public housing, efforts he hopes to continue in Congress. Only the federal government has the tools to address such major problems as poverty, racism, and all forms of inequality, he says: “That’s where the future of the country is largely determined.”
He wants to establish a strong social safety net, with decent housing and health care as basic human rights, he says. On the latter, he says he would sponsor a “Medicare for All” bill, which would establish universal, government-run health insurance, but he’d also sponsor a public option under the Affordable Care Act as a path to universal coverage. “The goal is more important than the path,” he explains. And unsurprisingly, he supports the Equality Act, a wide-ranging LGBTQ+ rights bill.
Criminal justice reform happens mostly at the state and local levels, but the federal government can influence it through funding and setting the tone, Torres notes. “The criminal justice system is broken,” he says. “It treats police officers as above the law and people of color as below the law.”
The cornerstone of reform has to be accountability for all, he says. Police misconduct must be prosecuted, he stresses: “A badge can never be a license to kill.” He would like to see independent prosecutors at the federal and state levels to investigate accusations of misdeeds by police, as local district attorneys have to work with police and may not be impartial.
Incidents of police brutality such as the killing of Minneapolis Black man George Floyd, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit Black and Latinx Americans particularly hard, “remind us that institutional racism is a ghost that continues to haunt the United States,” Torres adds.
On COVID-19, he says, the federal government’s response has been “abysmal.” He has made assistance to those who’ve lost jobs and income due to pandemic-related business closures part of his campaign. When they’re out in the district, he and his workers distribute food and personal protective equipment, and when calling residents, they ask what essential items they need.
To voters in his district, his sexual orientation has generally not been an issue, he says. If there’s any reaction, it’s simply interest, he notes; a few people who don’t know he’s gay have said, “You should date my daughter,” and then Torres has had to explain himself. But for the most part, residents are more interested in what he’s done and what he plans to do on housing, poverty, and other issues that affect their lives.
He knows that if he wins the congressional seat, though, it will be a breakthrough for LGBTQ+ equality. “I do believe my victory would represent a triumph,” he says.
As he seeks that triumph in the crowded field, where a recent poll showed him with the support of 20 percent of voters and Díaz with 22 percent, he’s picked up some significant endorsements. “Representing the country’s poorest district requires exceptional determination and commitment,” the Times wrote in its endorsement. “Ritchie Torres, 32, an ambitious and talented councilman, can provide that representation.” New York’s Daily News has endorsed him too, calling him “the clear standout, a ceaselessly energetic legislator, bridge-builder and nimble thinker.”
An earlier Times story noted that Díaz may be benefiting from name recognition, of not only his own, but that of his namesake son, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr., who is popular with constituents and a much more typical Democrat, supportive of LGBTQ+ people. The ballot in the congressional race does not specify Jr. or Sr.
Many Democrats are calling on the district to rally behind Torres. His endorsers also include several out members of Congress, such as David Cicilline, Mark Takano, and Sean Patrick Maloney; Christian Cooper, the gay Black man who filmed a racist incident in Central Park; Thomas Duane, New York’s first openly gay state senator; numerous City Council colleagues; labor unions; women’s rights groups; and LGBTQ+ groups such as the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Human Rights Campaign, Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, and Equality PAC.
“The safest Democratic congressional seat in the entire country is at serious risk of being held by a Trump-loving politician, and Ritchie is the only candidate who can stop him,” Elliot Imse, Victory Fund’s senior director of communications, tells The Advocate. “On June 23, voters will choose between electing the first LGBTQ Afro-Latinx member of Congress or a man who prides himself on attacking LGBTQ people and women with hate. Ritchie is focused on affordable housing and criminal justice reform — issues that truly impact his constituents — whereas Rubén Díaz Sr. only aims to divide the people of his district for his own political gain. It all comes down to this primary, and it is essential the unviable candidates in this race rally around Ritchie right now.”
Torres would be happy to win in any case, but for a gay man to defeat Díaz would be particularly sweet, he notes. “What he hopes will be an act of revenge, I hope will be poetic justice,” Torres says.