Ritchie Torres learned he had been elected to Congress while watching the election returns at a friend’s house with a few core members of his campaign. The moment, he said, proved to be intensely gratifying.
“I was raised by a single mother who raised children on minimum wage,” Torres, a member of the New York City Council, said. “I lived in public housing and had to struggle with depression and substance abuse. I never thought life would take me on a journey from the Bronx to Washington, D.C.”
After winning a crowded primary this summer, Torres sailed to a resounding victory Tuesday over his Republican opponent in New York’s 15th Congressional District, a Democratic stronghold centered in the Bronx. Torres, 32, will become one of the first Black, openly gay men to serve in the House, along with Mondaire Jones, the winner Tuesday in New York’s 17th District, to the north of Torres’ district.
Torres said his entry into politics was heavily influenced by his experience growing up in a public housing development that had mold, mildew, leaks, lead and lacked consistent heat or hot water during the winter months.
In 2015 the Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point opened near where he grew up. When it was reported that the course was subsidized by millions of dollars in government funds, Torres said he wondered, “What does it say about our society that we invest more in a golf course than the homes of Black and brown Americans?”
Torres became a community organizer focused on housing issues, leading to his 2013 bid for the City Council. At 24, he became the city’s youngest elected official and the first LGBTQ person to represent his borough. He was re-elected in 2017.
“The voters of the South Bronx are primarily concerned about bread-and-butter issues like health and housing, schools and jobs,” Torres said, adding that his empathetic approach to engaging constituents has fueled his campaign wins to date. He campaigned on policies to address the opioid crisis, support people with mental illnesses, expand job creation initiatives, and address segregation in public schools.
Torres said his greatest legacy as a councilmember will be his public housing advocacy, having worked to secure more investment with a $3 billion FEMA grant, the largest issued by the agency, after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the developments even further. He also played an influential role in opening the first shelter for LGBTQ young adults in the Bronx and has been an outspoken proponent of police accountability measures.
The congressman-elect, who is Black and Puerto Rican, will represent a district that is 64 percent Latino and 30 percent Black, according to Census data. He said he believes it’s important that people know he’s part of both communities because of the biases people with multiethnic identities face. Notably, in a July op-ed for The Washington Post, he urged the Congressional Black Caucus to allow Afro Latinos to join both that caucus and the Hispanic Caucus, despite some Congress members reportedly being told they could select only one caucus at a time.
“I feel a profound sense of obligation to be a part of Afro Latino visibility in American politics,” he said. “Historically, there’s been an attempt to erase Afro Latino identity, and impose a false binary that you can either be Black or Latino but you cannot be both. ... Afro Latinos not only experience racism in broader society, but also colorism from within the Latino community.”
Torres will enter Congress during a pandemic, and noted that the South Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in America, is among the hardest hit.
“I think the impact of Covid, as well as the mass demonstrations, have held up a mirror to systemic racism. It’s hardly an accident that” his area was disproportionately affected by the pandemic, he said. Torres added that it’s an urgent reminder of the need to address the many intersecting ways that systemic racism affects communities of color, including lack of access to health care, fresh food, affordable housing and digital infrastructure, among other disparities.
With his historic bid for the U.S. House, Torres said he hopes his story will encourage others from similarly marginalized backgrounds to enter the political arena.
“I hope that I can embody a simple truth, that who you are should never be a limit on how far you can go and how high you can rise in politics,” Torres said. “I hope I stand as an inspirational example of what’s possible in America.”