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True Progressive Democrat Ritchie Torres

He Beat Great Odds—Up-and-Coming Democratic Congressmember Ritchie Torres     January 1, 2024

 

           As most of you who repeatedly follow my blogposts already know, I discuss the biographical backgrounds of our legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle. Although some of them have come from economically and politically privileged backgrounds, others have risen from humble and very impoverished beginnings. One of the present congressmembers who came from extremely poor origins, yet climbed the ladder of political success is New York Democratic Congressmember Ritchie Torres. He beat great economic and social odds and is presently an up-and-coming legislator for “Team Blue’s” next generation. Meet U.S. Representative Ritchie Torres.

 

        Second-term Congressmember Ritchie Torres currently represents New York’s 15th Congressional District (CD). The NY 15th CD is the only district entirely in NY City’s borough of the Bronx. The Empire State 15th contains most of the South Bronx as well as the southern portion of the West Bronx. Yankee Stadium, “the house built for New York Yankee baseball slugger Babe Ruth,” or really the “house Ruth built,” as well as the Bronx Zoo are included in the NY 15th. Supreme Court Associate Justice Puerto Rican-American Sonia Sotomayor was born in the South Bronx (wiki, Cohen & Cook 2022 Political Almanac). The NY 15th  is bounded by the Harlem River on the west. On the south, the 15th borders the East River.  On the east, this CD borders Westchester Creek, the Cross Bronx Expressway, and Bronx Park, home of the famous Bronx Zoo. The 15th goes just past Fordham Road on its north side. Further north, the 15th CD includes gentrifying Belmont, the industrial flatlands of Bruckner Boulevard, and Hunts Point. Hunts Point contains the meat and produce markets that supply New York City’s fancy restaurants. Some new housing is part of this area (Cohen & Cook 2022 Almanac).

 

           From 1900-1930, Ellis Island immigrants and their children, Italians, Jews, Irish, and others left the awfully poor Lower East Side and similar neighborhoods and “moved on up,” (apologies to “The Jeffersons” TV sitcom), to the Bronx. However, since the 1960’s, the South Bronx has become an area known for its extreme poverty, crime, and drug-dealing. Many of the previous immigrants and their families fled this area. The South Bronx 15th CD is now 64% Latino, peopled by immigrants who mainly came from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Ecuador, and parts of Central America. The 15th used to have the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans, but today, about 69% of the Hispanic population is no longer Puerto Rican. Blacks constitute 42% of the current 15th’s population (Cohen & Cook 2022). The 15th has the lowest median income in the U.S. Only 25.2% has had some college education and 60.2% are high school graduates or less (Cohen & Cook 2022).  The NY 15th is one “dripping Blue” District with a Cook Partisan Voting Index of D+35 (cookpolitical.com). In 2016, the NY 15th was the most Democratic district in the country, giving Hillary 94% of its vote. In 2020, Biden received 86% of the 15th’s vote (Cohen & Cook 2022 Almanac).

 

                Bronx, NY native Ritchie John Torres (35) has a background very similar to many of his 15th district’s constituents. Torres is of African-American and Latino descent. His African-American mother raised Torres and his two siblings on her minimum wage income. Torres’ Puerto Rican father never lived with them. Torres grew up in the East Bronx in the Throggs Neck housing project. This project had 36 buildings that overlooked Donald Trump’s Ferry Point golf course along the East River. As a child, Torres was often hospitalized with asthma because of the mold in his apartment (Cohen & Cook 2022 Almanac, Ross, W., newsweek.com, 12/22/16). Torres was very upset by the $269 million city-subsidized Trump Golf Links built across the street from his housing project, while he and his fellow struggling low-income New Yorkers received no economic aid. He promised to fight for his fellow residents’ well-being. Torres stated that he grew up in “slum conditions with mold, vermin, lead, and leaks (Brown, N., amny.com, 7/16/19).”

 

             In junior high, Torres realized that he was gay, but did not then ”come out”, because he feared homophobic violence (Mays, J., nytimes.com, 7/15/19). Torres graduated from the Bronx’s Herbert Lehman High School where he captained the school’s law team. He is one of the few Congressmembers who did not graduate college. He enrolled at NYU (New York University) but dropped out as a sophomore, because he was suffering from severe depression, due in part to difficulty coping with his sexual identity. He eventually controlled his depression with medication. He “came out” during a college forum on marriage equality (Cohen & Cook 2022, Lang, N., newnownext.com, 8/01/19).

 

        After recovering, Torres began to work with a Bronx community organizer who had become a city council member. At age 24, with his boss’ support, Torres successfully ran for a council seat in a neighboring district and became the first openly gay person elected in the Bronx. Torres chaired the Public Housing Committee. On that committee, he used his oversight powers to hold city officials accountable for deep-seated problems (Cohen & Cook 2022). On the council, Torres helped expand legal aid to tenants facing eviction. He worked to combat drug, gun, and gang violence, helped gig workers, and was instrumental in opening the first Bronx homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth (wiki).

 

       Eventually, Torres realized that the problems he was dealing with in NY City could only be handled in Washington. He stated that he was running for Congress because “the policies in housing and health care are largely set at the federal level.” He added, “My story is the story of the Bronx, a story of overcoming (Cohen & Cook 2022).” When the incumbent Democratic Congressmember retired, Torres ran in a 12-person Democratic primary. Labor unions, Hispanic groups, and gay organizations backed him and he spent $1.5 million dollars in the primary. In the end, despite facing this large field and some prominent opponents, Torres handily won his primary and went on to win the 2020 general election. Running for re-election in 2022, Torres took an overwhelming 83% of the vote (Cohen & Cook 2022, CQ 118th Congress At Your Fingertips).

 

         In the House, Torres currently serves on the powerhouse Financial Services Committee and on the Select Committee on China Competition. He previously served on the Homeland Security Committee where he became vice-chair (Cohen & Cook 2022, 118th Cong. At Your Fingertips). Torres is a member of both the Congressional Black and Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He is also a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and is co-chair of the Congressional LGBTQ +Equality Caucus (Cohen & Cook 2022, wiki).

 

              Cong. Torres stated that he is a loyal Democrat. He surely is. According to an analysis by “FiveThirtyEight,” Torres voted with President Biden 100% of the time in the 117th Congress and remains super-supportive of our President. In 8/2021, Cong. Torres introduced a bill which would insure that “any individual traveling on a flight that departs from or arrives to an airport inside the United States or a territory of the United States is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (Dowing, S., 8/15/21, mustreadalaska.com).” Torres has voiced support for a key progressive agenda, the Green New Deal. He has been endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters. Torres has suggested that public housing should be “a model for green and energy efficient buildings to help combat climate change while addressing its capital needs (grist.org/politics, 6/25/20).” Torres supports a plan to cover the Cross Bronx Expressway with green space (theguardian.com, 11/30/21).

 

               And Cong. Torres, a strong progressive, shows that group that you can still be a true progressive by backing Israel. Torres, a former Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic Convention, correctly understands that being a progressive while being pro-Israel is not at all contradictory to this ideology, despite the fact that too many progressives and their college followers falsely think that Israel is a reactionary “colonialist” state which it definitely is NOT.  Jews have lived in Israel for thousands of years and have always prayed to return to Israel from which most of them had been exiled for 2,000 years during its domination by the Romans. Jews were the ones, not colonial powers, who pushed the movement to return to Israel. Some of these powers were involved in perpetrating and/or downplaying the Nazi Holocaust that murdered six million Jews and made the necessity of an independent Jewish homeland in Israel quite clear to most Jews and non-Jews. Israel was created by the United Nations (UN) on 11/ 29/1947. At that same time, the UN also endorsed the idea of an independent Palestinian state.  Palestinians and Arab nations rejected that proposal. Israel defeated those groups in several major wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), and now has diplomatic relations with former belligerents Egypt and Jordan.

 

           Cong. Torres rightly calls himself “a pro-Israel progressive (jewishinsider.com, Kornbluh, J., 12/05/19).” Torres has proudly stated, “I am from the Bronx, I’m Afro-Latino, I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a millennial—but I’m also pro-Israel (jewishinsider.com, Kornbluh, 12/05/19).” After winning his first congressional election in 2020, Torres announced he would not join the “Squad” a very small but vocal group of leftist Democratic representatives because they supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel. BDS, Torres aptly noted, questions the legitimacy and existence of Israel as a Jewish state and “poisons whatever it touches with a deep rot of anti-Semitism at its core which has the potential to poison progressivism (jewishinsider.com).” Torres correctly noted that it is fine to criticize Israel’s or America’s foreign policy but when such criticism crosses the line to question Israel’s existence and/or right to defend itself that is anti-Semitism. So is the sickening and false chant far too many students yell, “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free.” Many of these  “educated” students don’t even know which river and sea they are screaming about. When given the true facts about Israel and Palestine, showing that this chant means the killing or expulsion of 7million Israeli Jews and 2 million Israeli Arabs, 75% of these students quickly changed their minds (See Hassner, 12/2023).  Cong. Torres supports the political and economic Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE (United Arab Emirates), not BDS as the “path to peace” and supports the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine (sapirjournal.org, Radosh, 5/25/2022, Samuels, Haaretz.com, 12/21/20). Torres said that his first visit to Israel in 2015 was a “life-changing experience (wiki).” Torres correctly noted that he is a strong supporter of Israel, “not despite my progressive values, but because of my progressive values (Kornbluh, 12/05/19).” Exactly. In 2015, way before the present Israel-Hamas war initiated by Hamas’ barbaric 10/07/2023 surprise attack on Israel, far-leftist activists protested against Torres outside NY’s City Hall. When Torres said he planned to visit Israel during that year, he became a target of more vitriolic protest. Torres came across an activist with a shirt that read “Queers for Palestine.”  Gay Torres told that individual that it was “utterly baffling that LGBTQ activists were doing the bidding of Hamas that executes LGBTQ people.” Torres believes that support for Israel’s security should remain “unconditional.” He added that Israel is more than a transactional ally. It is a friend (jewishinsider.com, Kornbluh, 12/05/19). Torres rightly calls the accusation of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza by the Israelis a “blood libel,” an anti-Semitic attack of the worst order (See nytimes.com, 11/11/23).

 

            Cong. Torres’ work in the House and his true progressivism must be supported by his constituents and the rest of us. His overcoming the horrible odds he faced in childhood and his strong work in Congress must be applauded by Democrats and Americans of all ideological backgrounds.    

 

                       

 

                   

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