Two New Yorkers vie to be first openly gay Black men in Congress

Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones, both Democrats, are leading in their primary races in New York’s 15th and 17th Congressional districts, respectively.
By Tim Fitzsimons

New York, home of the first LGBTQ Pride march, may soon send the first two openly gay Black men to Congress.

In an appearance Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, candidates for the Democratic nomination in New York’s 17th and 15th Congressional districts, respectively, spoke about their historic runs for office.

Those races — and many others across New York state — remain officially uncalled because many absentee ballots have not yet been counted.

Torres, who at 32 is currently the youngest member of the New York City Council, said he owes much to his mother, who raised him and his two siblings on a $4.25 minimum wage job in South Bronx public housing. On the council, Torres, who is Afro-Latino, made a name for himself by holding hearings inside crumbling public housing projects to draw attention to their neglect.

“I would not be where I am today without her,” he told MSNBC. “My mother is my motivation and my desire to represent the South Bronx.”

In a campaign appearance, Jones said growing up in New York’s Rockland County, he “never imagined that someone like me could run for Congress.”

“Had I been able to look to someone quite like myself,” Jones, 33, said, “it would have been direct evidence of the fact that things indeed do get better later in life.”

Both candidates said the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on their counties, which were heavily affected by the first coronavirus outbreak in the spring.

In Rockland and Westchester counties, where the cost of living is relatively high, Jones said his constituents need expanded pandemic cash assistance.

“This idea of a one-time, $1,200 check for a subset of the American people is a slap in the face of the folks in my district,” Jones said.

Torres said the pandemic “has shown the South Bronx to be the essential Congressional district.'"

“It’s home of the essential workers who sustain our city and our country,” he said. “The thought of representing the mothers and the essential workers and the incredible people of the South Bronx, in my home, the Bronx — that’s the realization of a personal dream for me.”

During their MSNBC appearance, the two candidates shared their views of how to address police misconduct.

Jones called for national policing standards.

“If you are a local law enforcement agency receiving federal dollars, you should be required to identify yourself, you should be required to practice de-escalation tactics, and of course we also need to pass a law that eliminates qualified immunity,” he said. The doctrine of qualified immunity, established by a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, protects government officials “from liability for civil damages" as long as their conduct doesn't "violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights" that a "reasonable person would have known.” Jones said it allows officers to “evade liability or responsibility” even when they violate the constitutional rights of civilians.

Torres said “accountability” must be central to any reform, adding that, “If officers are never held accountable for misconduct, there’s never going to be an end to police brutality.”

He also called for independent oversight of police agencies.

“Police departments across the country cannot be trusted to police themselves,” Torres said. “There has to be an independent system for investigating, punishing and, if necessary, prosecuting police misconduct, and I also think we need to rethink the notion that calling 911 is the answer to every problem.”

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