In heavily Democratic New York City, the toughest part of political elections typically takes place in the primaries, long before the general election. Indeed, after Rep. José Serrano, a longtime congressman representing the southern Bronx, captured the Democratic nomination for New York's 15th Congressional District in 2018, he went on to beat his Republican opponent with 96 percent of the vote; Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both won the district with over 90 percent of the vote.
But Serrano is retiring, and when New York Democrats go to polls in the June 2020 primary for the 15th Congressional District, they will have the choice of two of the best-known and most dissimilar New York City Council members: Ritchie Torres and Ruben Diaz Sr.
Torres, 31, is the youngest member of the New York City Council and one of its five openly gay members. Torres said he’s throwing his hat in the ring for Congress because federal office is the best venue for pursuing his legislative 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,” Torres said, “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.”
Torres speaks with the confidence of someone who has already overcome much to be where he is. As the youngest member of the New York City Council and its only openly LGBTQ Afro-Latino member, he said he had to overcome homophobia in the Bronx to win his first election — and he blames fellow council member and current congressional opponent Ruben Diaz Sr.
Diaz, a 76-year-old Pentecostal minister, has made news outside his council district for a series of deeply homophobic remarks he has made over decades.
“I remember when I first ran,” Torres said. “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 LGBT candidate because of the homophobic culture that people like Ruben Diaz Sr. created in the Bronx.”
“It’s personal,” Diaz added. “He made the experience of running for public office more terrifying for me.”
But Torres won and became the youngest member of the council, where he sits in the Democratic caucus alongside both Ruben Diaz Sr. 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.”
The Diaz family is one of New York City’s political dynasties; Ruben Diaz Jr. is currently the Bronx Borough President and one of the city’s most popular elected officials. Ruben Diaz Sr.’s career spans the New York City Council and the New York State Senate — and were he to win the generally low-turnout Democratic primary next year, he would stand a solid chance of being elected to Congress as a Democrat running in a solidly Democratic district.
“My issue with him is that there’s a party for people like him: It’s the Republican Party,” Torres said. “He should be running in a Republican primary. He is a Trump Republican masquerading as a Democrat.”
“He had the temerity to bring Ted Cruz to the South Bronx,” Torres said, also noting Diaz’s vote against New York’s 2011 same-sex marriage bill. “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.”
NBC News asked Ruben Diaz Sr. to respond to Torres’ assertions that he is a homophobic supporter of Donald Trump. Diaz responded with the following in an email: “While some people like to do the talk. I concentrate on the walk. This is what I do for the community,” Diaz wrote, and included a link to a press release about a charity event where he, along with the NYPD and a Catholic charity, gave free backpacks and school supplies to kids.
'Champion of the urban poor'
Making history by being elected the country's first Afro-Latino LGBTQ congressperson and one of the country's youngest legislators, along with becoming the face of one of the nation's poorest congressional districts, seems to be a role Torres would relish. He has made expanding access to affordable housing one of his main political fights.
“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,” he said. The district he is running to represent, NY-15, is the nation’s poorest in terms of median income.
“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 explained.
Torres, who grew up in public housing, said to be a proper champion of the urban poor requires, in part, “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,” Torres explained. He also said he’s in favor of using federal funding “to mandate land-use reforms, even if it means rethinking single family zoning,” a growing political movement on the left known as “upzoning” that seeks to increase residential density, reduce carbon emissions and increase affordable housing by banning the type of land-use regulations that ban apartment buildings and require homes to be separated by land.
The AOC Effect
Since the winner of the Bronx Democratic primary is expected to be the winner of the general election, Torres' path to Washington could be similar to his newly elected Congressional neighbor, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents NY-14.
Ocasio-Cortez also ran an insurgent campaign to defeat a more entrenched, older politician, and won, taking advantage of low-turnout Democratic primary votes and relying on a strong ground organization to deliver voters to the polls on primary day.
“In the end, I’m confident that Bronx voters are going to want an established fighter, and this is a change moment,” Torres said. Even so, “if the race were held today, he would win,” Torres said of Diaz.
That’s in part, he said, because of the paradoxical nature of NY-15. Torres has to win the primary in order to win the election, and Diaz is in some ways an establishment candidate — at least in terms of name recognition. Even so, Torres said, Ruben Diaz Sr. “is a homophobe and he has a long documented record of homophobia.”
“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,” Torres said.
But unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Torres has money, if not yet a machine: He’s been fundraising since April and said he has raised more than “all combined by two-fold,” referring to his primary opponents' hauls thus far.
“So the reverend has the name, but I have the record — and the resources,” Torres said.
Correction: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both captured over 90 percent of the vote in New York's 15th Congressional District, not in New York City, as a previous version of this article incorrectly stated.