September 9, 2020 at 12:10 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Ritchie Torres, set to be first out Afro-Latino in Congress, seeks big changes amid COVID
Ritchie Torres is set to be the first openly gay Afro-Latino in Congress. (Photo via Twitter)

The coronavirus pandemic has instigated civil unrest, an economic downturn and a public health crisis, but Ritchie Torres sees an opportunity for bold leadership to improve the nation.

Torres, who’s set to make history as the first openly gay Afro-Latino in Congress, said in an interview Sept. 3 with the Washington Blade the pandemic is “not only a challenge, but a historic opportunity to govern as boldly in the 21st century as FDR did in the 20th century.”

“We have a once in a century opportunity to make a massive investment in the United States, on the scale of the New Deal,” Torres said. “We have a once in a century opportunity to fight catastrophic climate change, create the next generation of jobs, enable our economy and society to recover from COVID-19 and build a comprehensive safety net that catches all of us when we fall and fight systemic racism, which has been centuries old. We are living in the makings of an FDR moment.”

Torres is already ruffling feathers in seeking change. After calling for an investigation into the New York Police Department’s apparent slowdown of policing, the Sergeants Benevolent Association colorfully called him a “first class whore,” tweeting out an unrelated 2017 photo of Torres being arrested while participating in a rally against the Trump administration’s cuts to public housing. Torres shot back, calling the attack and choice of language homophobic.

Having defeated Ruben Diaz Sr., one of the few remaining anti-LGBTQ Democrats, in his June primary, Torres will almost assuredly become the next member of Congress representing New York’s 15th congressional district, which is one of the most “blue” in the nation.

Torres will represent three marginalized communities — Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, and Latinos — upon taking office in January, becoming the first person with that distinction. (Another congressional candidate, Mondaire Jones, will likely share the distinction with Jones of being the first Black openly gay member of Congress.) Torres has already called for a change in rules to allow him to join both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Acknowledging the significance of tricolour identity as a forthcoming member of Congress, Torres said he “instinctively know[s] that legal equality is only part of the broader struggle for social equality.”

“I want to see to it that LGBTQ communities of color get their fair share of resources from the federal government, that we create housing and provide services that specifically are tailored toward the needs of LGBTQ elders and LGBTQ youth,” Torres said.

Torres said LGBTQ youth face disproportionately higher rates of homelessness than the rest of the population (an estimated 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ), so housing needs to be made available to them, and LGBTQ elders disproportionately have higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation, so they need access to mental health resources.

“A wise person once that if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re probably going to be on the menu,” Torres said. “And when you have LGBTQ people of color in the room where decisions are made, then communities like mine have a fighting chance of securing its fair share of federal budget.”

Torres, who before winning his primary had represented the Bronx on the New York City Council since 2014, pointed to the defeat on his anti-LGBTQ opponent — which was a reversal from initial polls showing a victory for Diaz, but turned around when LGBTQ and progressive groups sprang into action — when asked if he learned anything in his campaign to help him make the transition to congressman.

“The conventional wisdom among the political establishment [was Diaz] could not be beat because he’s been a larger than life political figure longer than I’ve been alive, and that I as a gay man had no chance of winning in the South Bronx, where the median voter is a church-going senior citizen,” Torres said. “The thinking was the South Bronx was too conservative to elect an LGBTQ person…Not only did I win, but I won so decisively that it sent Ruben Diaz Sr. into retirement, which is exactly where he belongs.”

Another priority, Torres said, would be addressing housing affordability, citing a statistic — even before the coronavirus — that more than half of the residents of the South Bronx were spending more than half their income on rent.

“We have to establish that housing is a human right because without stable housing, you have no fighting chance at a decent life,” Torres said.

Torres said he’d work to expand housing vouchers so that Americans need to pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

In terms of LGBTQ issues, Torres said legislation to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination was needed in the form of the Equality Act, which he said was still necessary despite rulings from the Supreme Court advancing LGBTQ rights that have radically changed the legal landscape.

“I worry that in a post-Obergefell world, we have to be careful not to prematurely declare mission accomplished,” Torres said. “We have to be as committed to equality with the standard sense of urgency before the decision of marriage equality. In most states, it remains illegal to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community in matters of housing, public accommodation, and all the rest. So what we need is the Equality Act, which would amend the iconic Civil Rights Act to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination in matters of employment, housing, public accommodation and every sense.”

Brian Romero, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, said via email to the Blade the election of Torres in the primary and his likely seating in the U.S. House “is a historic victory for LGBTQ communities, particularly Black and Brown queer people who have witnessed a rainbow wave sweep through the nation in the last few years.”

“A champion of working-class New Yorkers, public housing, and LGBTQ runaway and homeless youth, Ritchie represents a younger electorate that has been organizing to see themselves reflected in our legislative bodies,” Romero said. “His election was also an important message that homophobia and misogyny will not be tolerated in the Democratic Party nor in the Bronx. We look forward to his ongoing work toward equity for all Americans in the halls of Congress and stand proudly beside him.”

But Torres isn’t the only voice calling for change. Waves of civic unrest are gripping the country amid ongoing incidents of police brutality and anger over structural racism, most notably in Kenosha, Wis., and Portland, Ore.

Torres placed the blame for the unrest squarely on Trump, saying “his management of COVID-19 and his inflammatory rhetoric is destabilizing the country,” and the first step in ending the strife is defeating him in the presidential election.

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes because Donald Trump is a singular threat to social cohesion, the social contract, our planet and our democracy: Everything is at stake,” Torres said. “He’s a uniquely odious figure in American politics.”

But asked whether Trump’s defeat is all that is needed to end the unrest, Torres conceded that will simply “begin the process of healing.”

“The goal is not to return to the status quo before Trump,” Torres said. “The goal is to create a society that treats everyone equally, and that gives everyone, including the most vulnerable members of our society, a fighting chance to succeed.”

Trump has made Torres — or at least the primary in which he won the Democratic nomination — the target for his vitriol for another reason: Mail-in voting. Trump has pointed to the New York primary as evidence in his crusade against vote by mail, which critics have said is without merit.

An unprecedented two-thirds of all ballots in the New York primary were cast via absentee ballots, which took the New York State Board of Elections a full month to tabulate and declare a winner in the 15th congressional district. In New York’s 12th congressional district, where incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) narrowly held on to the Democratic nomination, the Board of Elections wasn’t able to declare a winner until August, and her progressive challenger Suraj Patel has yet to yield.

Torres, however, said Trump’s attack on mail-in voting is about something else: A way for him to delegitimize and challenge the results of the presidential election in case he loses.

“It is in Donald Trump’s interest to delegitimize vote by mail in order to rationalize his likely defeat in November,” Torres said. “He has to believe that he’s only going to be defeated by [a rigged election], when in fact, the truth is, he is likely to be defeated because his presidency has been a catastrophic failure and he has presided over the deaths of over 150,000 Americans.”

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has begun an attempt at LGBTQ outreach, despite representing an incumbent president who has built an anti-LGBTQ record, in an attempt to court suburban votes in the election — an effort Torres called “every bit as fraudulent as the man himself.”

“He has spent most of his presidency undermining the rights of LGBTQ people, but no one is fooled by his empty gestures,” Torres said. “We in the LGBTQ community see Donald Trump as the same failed president that he is.”

In news closer to home for Torres, New York is about open public schools for the fall, despite concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic it could further spread the disease — a move Torres expressed concerns about when asked by the Blade whether it was a good idea.

“A wise person once said, ‘Those who fail to plan, plan to fail — and New York City is planning to fail,’” Torres said. “The most important question is the following: Is there going to be a new wave of the coronavirus? The 1917 flu began in the spring, proceeded into summer and then returned with a vengeance…so is the coronavirus going to follow the same trajectory as the Spanish flu? No one knows for sure.”

Torres concluded: “I would prefer that the city err on the side of caution and delay the reopening until October to see if there are any signs of a new outbreak.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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