Afro-Latino Ritchie Torres Wants to Be the Future of Congress, Where Old Fashioned Rules

After vanquishing an openly homophobic Democrat in his race for New York's 15th congressional district, Ritchie Torres is ready to usher in the new. He wants the House of Representatives to change the way it views race and ethnicity and he wants to be a new progressive, all as the first LGBTQ Afro-Latino and black gay man to join Congress.

While ballots are still being counted, the 32-year-old from the Bronx who grew up in public housing told Newsweek he's ready to get to Washington, but even before being sworn-in, Torres has a bone to pick—one that has more relevance as the country is roiled by examinations of race and inclusion, and the choices of long-standing institutions are scrutinized more closely. He said as an Afro-Latino, he will formally seek membership in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and lambasted a rule prohibiting him from joining the Congressional Black Caucus at the same time.

"It's an antiquated notion that you can be Black or Latino, but you can't be both," he said, noting that his mother is Puerto Rican and his father is black and Puerto Rican.

The Congressional Black Caucus did not respond to a Newsweek request for comment, but a source close to the Hispanic caucus who was not authorized to speak publicly said the traditional rule allowing someone to only be a member of one group comes from the black caucus side. In 2017, when Representative Adriano Espaillat of New York tried—unsuccessfully—to join both, Representative G.K. Butterfield explained the complication. "Even though our agendas are typically parallel, occasionally they are not," the former CBC chairman told POLITICO at the time. "So it may be problematic if someone wants to belong to two ethnic caucuses."

But Torres said that he resents the idea and refuses to choose between being Black and Latino."It's so far removed from the lived experience of Afro-Latinos like myself," he said.

Torres also said his election is a breakthrough for LGBTQ representation in politics.

"Even though New York City has been the birthplace of Stonewall, the city has never had an openly LGBTQ member of Congress," he said. "It would be one thing to have representation from the traditional neighborhoods of the Village and Chelsea, but it's another thing to have it be from the South Bronx."

Torres will be one of the first two gay black men to join Congress. The other is Mondaire Jones, also from New York City.

But all of this was nearly erased during an uncertain and scary time for Torres—when the coronavirus pandemic hit and his candidacy was written off.

He contracted the coronavirus in March, had to deal with symptoms while worrying about his own high-risk mother's health during the pandemic, and disappeared from the campaign trail for a month.

"I never imagined running a campaign in the very epicenter of an infectious disease outbreak," Torres said. "I was concerned because of my history of asthma, I had asthma most of my life growing up in public housing, and feared for my mother who has hypertension and is high risk. It was a demoralizing and terrifying time for me and my family."

When he emerged from that haze, Torres then found that pundits were writing his political obituary as the election frenzy focused on his opponent, Ruben Diaz Sr., a reverend with a Bronx political base who has a long history of anti-gay and anti-abortion comments. Torres told Newsweek in May that he was on a "personal mission" to defeat Diaz Sr. because he represented the homophobia Torres faced as an openly gay politician making his name for himself in the New York City council.

That mission, so far, has been accomplished. As of Wednesday, the election results stood at 30.5 percent for Torres, Michael Blake at 19.4 percent, and Diaz Sr. third at 14.8 percent.

"Defeating him so decisively, I avenged the LGBTQ community and defeated the politics of hate and fear he represented for decades," Torres said.

With November a formality in his deeply blue district, Torres will head to Congress, where a long line of high-flying, local political stars like fellow Bronx Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went starry-eyed only to find the big leagues is a different beast altogether. He told Newsweek he feels confident his learning curve will not be as steep as it has been for others because of his experience for seven years in the NYC council.

That experience includes having been chair of the NYC council committee with oversight of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which he calls "the largest landlord" in the United States. Torres wants to carve out a policy focus targeting the "affordability crisis" facing not only his district but the country, naming health care, housing, and higher education as aspects of it.

He said he takes issue with the Trump administration budget seeking to cut $549 million from capital projects to improve public housing in New York City, a price tag reaching $40 billion for the improvements NYCHA has said are needed to bring its 174,000 apartments up to code. Those apartments house a population greater than the city of Boston, he said.

"In the South Bronx more than half of residents pay more than half their income for rent and that's before you factor in bear necessities like healthcare and transportation," Torres said.

While 2020 has been a tale of two crises regarding the virus and race, his district exists at the intersection of both. The Bronx had the most per capita infections and deaths in New York City as the outbreak raged in New York, and the 97 percent minority district is also the poorest in the country. He said the people he represents form the core of his political identity.

"I identify as a progressive but for me the central value of progressivism is progress," he said. "I'm focused on real-world outcomes rather than self-aggrandizing labels because the South Bronx needs real-world results."

Ritchie torres
New York City councilman Ritchie Torres holds an event centered on police reform. Torres is poised to become the first LGBTQ Afro-Latino and one of two Black gay men entering Congress representing New York's 15th Congressional District. Courtesy Ritchie Torres office