After seven years as a City Council member, Ritchie Torres is headed to Washington, D.C. as the first openly gay Afro-Latino to be elected to Congress. He will be the first new representative of the 15th congressional district in the South Bronx in more than a generation, succeeding Congressman Jose Serrano who is retiring after 30 years in office.
Just ahead of Christmas, Gothamist/WNYC sat down with the 32-year-old for an “exit interview” about his time as city lawmaker, what he hopes to accomplish when he gets to Congress, his views on “the Squad,” and how he’s playing the “long-game” for his constituents in the South Bronx.
This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.
I was talking to a colleague of mine who remembered when you were working in Jimmy Vacca's City Council office and that, you know, you did everything, anything, you moved boxes. You were just very hands on. Did you ever at that point imagine you'd be going to Congress?
Never. In 2005, I was the captain of the Lehman High School Law team and my then-principal, Robert Leder, who at the time was the longest serving principal in the public school system, introduced me to then-district manager Jimmy Vacca. That was my introduction to politics. I never thought in my wildest dreams that that fateful encounter with Jimmy Vacca in high school would set me on a journey from the New York City Council to the United States Congress, from public housing in the Bronx to the People's House in Washington, D.C.. I never saw it coming.
When you were elected to the Council, you became the youngest member of that legislative body. When you think back on your time there, what are the accomplishments that you feel most proud of?
You know, I'm proud of the legislation I passed. I'm proud of the hearings I've held, but I'm particularly proud of the role I've had in shining a spotlight on the humanitarian crisis in public housing. You know, when I first became the Chair [of the Public Housing Committee] back in January of 2013, I partnered with [Council Member] Mark Treyger to hold the first-ever City Council hearing in a public housing development. We went to a public housing development in Brooklyn that had been devastated by Superstorm Sandy, that had no permanent boiler. And we gave a platform to tenants to tell their stories. We brought government directly to the people. The hearing had such an impact in publicizing the failure of FEMA to fund the recovery of public housing, that it paved the way for a $3 billion investment in public housing.
What are some of the initiatives you hope to see continue to move forward on the local level?
Well, I hope that public housing remains a priority, and I have no doubt that it will. [Council Member] Alicka Ampry-Samuel, like myself, is a product of public housing. Shee's deeply committed to advocating for the residents. So I know that public housing is going to remain a priority. And I'm looking forward to partnering with my colleagues from the United States Congress.
As you might know, I was appointed to the Committee on Financial Services, which has jurisdiction not only over finance, but also over housing. In Congress, there were four exclusive committees, Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce and Financial Services. And so far, I'm the only freshman to be appointed to Financial Services in the 117th Congress.
Wow, what does that mean to you in terms of what you can do and the responsibility you bear with that appointment?
Look, I'm hopeful that I'm positioning myself to be an effective policymaker in Washington, D.C.. You know, not only am I the only freshman on an exclusive committee, but I've been appointed to serve as the freshman representative in the Caucus Leadership meetings with the Speaker. Every week, the Speaker meets with the leaders of every caucus, whether it be the Congressional Black Caucus or the Congressional Hispanic Caucus or otherwise, and I'm the freshman rep in those meetings.
Or condolences, depending on how it plays out. But I feel like the luckiest man in the world. I went to freshman orientation for two weeks in Washington, D.C. It had the feeling of going back to school. And when I returned, I had dinner with my mother that evening and she said to me, “This is the first time I'm having dinner with a congressman.” And that put a smile on my face because, I owe everything to my mother because before I was Councilman Ritchie Torres and before I will be Congressman Ritchie Torres, I will always be first and foremost the son of Deborah Bosolet and I'm a product of her unconditional love and support.
You will be the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress. How does it feel?
It's an honor beyond words. There have only been approximately 160 Black members of the United States Congress in the history of the United States. There have only been 130 Latino members of Congress in the history of the United States. And none of them were LGBTQ until my election. It's a profound honor.
I see representation not as a burden, but as a blessing. You know, a wise person once said, if you don't have a seat at the table, then you're probably on the menu. And my election means that LGBTQ people of color will finally have a seat on one of the most powerful tables, the United States Congress.
This has been a year unlike any other. You ran a campaign amidst a pandemic and your constituents were among the hardest hit. You yourself had COVID-19. Can you talk about what that experience was like?
It was horrifying. COVID-19, It's been a catastrophe for our country, for the world, and the Bronx was the epicenter of COVID-19. The South Bronx had the highest rate of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality per capita. And just as destructive as COVID-19 were the deeper inequalities that are brought to light.
You know, for me, we not only need a vaccination for COVID-19, the infectious disease, we need a structural vaccination for the deeper inequalities that were brought to light, and I hope that is going to be the mission of the Biden administration for the next four years.
You just mentioned the vaccine. As we're seeing the rollout begin we're also hearing about concerns from people that don't trust it. What are you hearing from your constituents?
I’ve heard some concerns. And the vaccination is going to be a massive undertaking. We've never had to vaccinate so many people. And to do so in the face of so much distrust and disinformation. Donald Trump has cast a cloud over the whole process. But it's important for elected officials to be vaccinated visibly to send a message that it is the safe, right and responsible thing to do. That everyone has to be vaccinated not only for their own individual benefit but for the good of society so that we can return to some semblance of normality. Our city cannot survive the persistence of COVID-19.
Your neighbor and colleague, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was criticized for getting her vaccine and showing it publicly, doing that Instagram story. What do you make of that?
It's an absurd critique. She did exactly the right thing. She performed the public service in showing that it's safe and responsible and right to take the vaccination. And even if you're young, you can spread the virus. So in order for you to perform your duties as a public official, you have to take the vaccine and you have to send a message that it's safe to do so.
There's nothing like an elected official undergoing vaccination to normalize it. And she has the broadest possible platform, right? So if there's anyone who could send that message powerfully, it's Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez.
Have you found out any information about when you might have access to a vaccine?
It's available to me. So when I head to Washington, D.C., I'm going to be vaccinated.
Right now, the first story that pops up on Google for you is from [Israeli English-language newspaper] Haaretz about how you will not be joining AOC's "squad." What do you make of the “squad"?
I never announced that I was not joining the squad, just like I did not announce that I was not joining the New Dems. What I've said publicly is I intend to join the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Equality Caucus. Those are the caucuses that I intend to join. And, you know, I'm not anti-squad, I'm not pro-squad, I refuse to be defined in relation to someone else. I prefer to be defined on my own terms, based on my own story and my own record.
As one of the newest members of the delegation in the smallest district geographically, what do you make of reports that the state could lose two congressional seats?
Yeah, I expect that the state will lose up to two congressional seats and bluntly speaking, to the extent possible, those should be Republican seats so that we can hold on to the majority. We know that Republican legislatures are going to dissolve Democratic seats. So a Democratic legislature should dissolve Republican seats. Why engage in unilateral disarmament to be blunt, and as far as I can tell, most of the population loss is upstate.
In your most recent position as chair of the Council's Committee on Oversight and Investigations, the committee released a report on the conduct of an NYPD deputy inspector, James Kobel, who posted racist comments on an online forum. He was placed on modified duty pending an NYPD investigation. Do you know if there's been any updates there and his status?
So we held a hearing recently on the findings of the Kobel investigation. And I asked the NYPD. When are you going to fire James? And I received no clear answer. It is embarrassing that the NYPD commanding officer, the agency's point person on anti-discrimination was exposed to be a bigot with a long history of spewing anti-Semitic and racist and homophobic and misogynistic rhetoric online. And if and if a bigot like James Kobol cannot be held accountable, cannot be fired then, there's no reason to think that the NYPD is capable of holding anyone accountable. I mean, the facts are clear and we handed the facts to the NYPD on a silver platter. We presented as detailed an investigative report as you could put together. And the NYPD is dragging its feet. And the culture of impunity, the blue wall of silence runs deep in the NYPD.
Have you already endorsed a mayoral candidate?
No, but I will likely weigh in.
And you're leaning towards...
I will let you know. Whomever I decide to endorse, this is going to be the most consequential endorsement I could make as a first-term congressman. It's a decision that I'm going to make carefully. But for me, the mayor's race is the most consequential election. In the country.
Like the future of America's largest city depends on what happens in Washington, D.C., and it depends on what happens in the next mayor's race, the stakes are consequential to the point of existential. And so I'm going to be deliberate about whom I endorse in the next mayor's race.
In Congress on day one, what's your priority?
Affordable housing. Public housing has more than $40 billion worth of capital needs. There are thousands of children who have been poisoned by lead. There are senior citizens who are freezing their homes because of broken boilers. We need to secure billions of dollars so that we can repair the bricks and the roofs, the boilers and the elevators of public housing.
Every American, every New Yorker, every resident in the Bronx deserves safe, decent, affordable housing. And I'm a huge proponent of expanding the Section 8, program, housing vouchers for all, so that families in need pay no more than 30 percent of their income for their rent.
What's going to be the hardest thing for you about making this transition?
Congress is a long game. It takes a long time to wield influence in Washington, D.C. I've never been part of a bicameral legislature. I've never been part of a hierarchical institution that puts a premium on seniority. I was part of the City Council, where I became a committee chair on day one. Like on day one, I oversaw the largest provider of affordable housing in the country.
Congress is quite different. It's a long game and it requires patience and it requires greater collegiality. So that is both a challenge and an opportunity.
It sounds like you have an eye on the long game. You're certainly succeeding someone who served for a long time.
When Jose Serrano became a congressman, I was two years old.
Any reflections on him and taking the baton?
I would make two observations about Jose Serrano. First, he is a man of extraordinary integrity. And, you know, when others in the Bronx were running into trouble, Jose Serrano set the highest standard of professional integrity in public service. And that's something for which I have deep admiration like he never once embarrassed the Bronx.
He was always a good reflection on our borough, an honorable, decent person, and he has a tremendous legacy in the area of environmental justice. I mean, he had an instrumental role in securing funding for the cleanup of the Bronx River, to cite but one example. So he leaves behind a powerful legacy and I will do my best to honor his legacy and to live up to the high standard that he set.