Words by ‘LLERO Editors
“It’s not personal – it’s business”. An oft repeated line from the classic film The Godfather. You’ve surely heard this phrase when someone tries to excuse less than integrable behavior. Don’t utter it to Ritchie Torres though. The Bronx native has made a career out of taking things personal.
“I was raised by a single mother who had to raise three children on minimum wage, and I lived in conditions of mold and vermin, lead and leaks,” said Torres. Those conditions were born from New York City’s decades-long neglect of the Throggs Neck Houses, a public housing project where Torres grew up. These same conditions resulted in frequent hospitalizations for asthma attacks. Adding insult to injury, during Torres’s childhood a $269 million Trump Golf Links was literally constructed across from where he lived. The golf course was partly subsidized by New York City, the same city that could have allocated those funds to improve housing for struggling New Yorkers. So, if ever a person had reason to take it personal, it is Torres. These experiences served as a catalyst for Torres and inspired him to fight for the urban poor.
That battle began at an early age. In high school Torres completed a leadership program that helped him land internships with the New York City Mayor and the Attorney General. He soon enrolled at NYU but struggled. Torres suffered from depression, in part due to hiding his sexuality. But, if you are in a fight, you know that when you get knocked down, you’ve got to get back up. Torres would bounce back landing a job with a local city councilman as a housing director.
The job was tailor made for his passionate purpose. It entailed implementing housing reform, which saw him conducting building and housing site inspections and ensuring problems were quickly fixed.
At a mere 25 years-old Torres ran for, and won, a council seat himself representing the Bronx. The victory made Ritchie Torres the first openly gay, Afro Latino councilman in history. Remaining true to his vow, Torres requested the chairmanship of the Council’s Committee on Public Housing–a role tasked with overseeing the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). He made “the living conditions of the city’s most underserved residents a signature priority” securing millions in funding to repair, restore and renovate numerous cooperatives in his district, as well as providing free legal services for residents facing eviction. However, Torres was just getting started.
When longtime incumbent Congressman Jose Serrano announced he would not seek re-election Torres announced his bid for the seat. Why leave behind the hands on work he was doing? Torres explained that, “if you are on a mission to fight racially concentrated poverty… then you have to be a policymaker on the national stage.” His main opponent was Ruben Diaz Sr., a conservative Democrat diametrically opposed to all that Torres stands for.
In June of 2020 Torres defeated Diaz, Sr. in the Democratic primary. Given the overwhelming Democratic make-up of the district, the win all but assured him a victory in the general election in November.
In November of 2020, Torres once again made history. Torres overwhelmingly defeated Republican Patrick Delices in the district and won the US House of Representatives race to represent the South Bronx. Simultaneously he become the first openly gay, Afro-Latino member of Congress.
For all the advocacy, reform, history making elections, nothing quite sums up Mr. Torres, more than his own Twitter tagline: “Born & bred in the Bronx. Product of public housing. Fighting for ppl whose struggles were my own.”