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Young Gay Liberal Leads Homophobic Preacher In Heated New York U.S. House Race

Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres prevailed in the 12-way primary for New York's 15th Congressional

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres prevailed in the 12-way primary for New York’s 15th Congressional District.

Ritchie Torres has taken a comfortable lead in the crowded primary to replace Rep. José E. Serrano, who represented a heavily Latino, impoverished stretch of the South Bronx for three decades.

With over 96% of polling stations reporting, Torres ― who made history in 2013 as the first openly gay candidate to win a legislative seat in the Bronx borough of New York City, becoming the youngest member of the City Council ― received 30% of the in-person vote, well ahead of his 11 rivals.

A record number of New York City voters requested absentee ballots due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and those votes likely won’t be counted until next month. But Dave Wasserman, a polling expert at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, declared at 1:22 a.m.: “I’ve seen enough… [Torres] has won.”

“I’m not prepared to declare victory until every vote is counted, but even if I win the election, it’s governing that matters,” Torres said, choking back tears in an interview on NY1 on Tuesday night. “It would be the honor of my life to represent this borough. It’s my home.”

His campaign raked in nearly $1.4 million, Federal Election Commission filings show, more than any other candidate in the race. The vast majority of donations came from outside the district. Torres got major boosts from the city’s powerful real estate interests, who are seeking to transform one of the country’s poorest districts into what one developer pitched as “the next Williamsburg,” a reference to the hyper-gentrified neighborhood in northern Brooklyn.

Councilman @RitchieTorres says it's too early to declare victory in his congressional race, but he does have an early lead. He told @JuanMaBenitez it would be the honor of his life to represent the Bronx. "It's my home." #NY1Politicspic.twitter.com/grY8KfDref

— Spectrum News NY1 (@NY1) June 24, 2020

Torres also received strong backing from well-funded LGBTQ groups who were alarmed that his most serious opponent in the race appeared to be conservative Rev. Rubén Díaz Sr., a dynastic figure in the Bronx who has fought against policies to protect the civil rights of queer and transgender New Yorkers for most of his three-decade political career.

The crowded field seemed to give Díaz an advantage. When Serrano announced his retirement after 30 years in March 2019, he set off a mad rush into the race to replace him, drawing political heavyweights such as Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former council speaker; state Assemblyman Michael Blake; and Ydanis Rodríguez, a councilman nearly twice Torres’s age.

Although Torres had significant progressive support, including from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he did not win the backing of New York City’s increasingly influential socialist left. His support from real estate and finance magnates and his decision to water down a hotly debated police reform bill in 2017 were disqualifying in the eyes of many would-be allies on the left.

He openly spurned some of the groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America, that helped propel Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise 2018 upset in the neighboring congressional district. Those forces ultimately rallied behind Samelys López, a 40-year-old housing organizer whose story of childhood poverty and homelessness added heft to her unflinchingly socialist policy platform.

López won endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) but failed to garner more than 2% support in a poll conducted in May by the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress. (She is currently in fourth place with just over 13% of the in-person vote.)

City Councilmember Rubén Díaz Sr., a conservative who is anti-gay and anti-abortion, was...

Andrew Lichtenstein via Getty Images
City Councilmember Rubén Díaz Sr., a conservative who is anti-gay and anti-abortion, was favored to win the Democratic primary.

Buoyed by high-profile endorsements from Black leaders such as Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Blake, so far has held a firm second place, with just over 19% of in-person ballots. Yet throughout the campaign, Díaz ― presently a close third with nearly 15% of the votes ― emerged as Torres’s foremost rival. The 77-year-old Pentecostal preacher, who opposes abortion and was pressed to resign from the City Council last year over homophobic remarks he made, was favored to win in a district where he has deep roots.

While Torres and López drew national attention, Díaz worked a familiar church circuit and handed out turkeys and toys to voters. Often the subject of media gawking for his penchant for wearing cowboy hats and bolo ties, the Puerto Rico-born preacher built a vast patronage network in New York City’s northernmost borough. In the early 1990s, he parlayed his influence in churches into an appointment to the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, where he began his crusade to block LGBTQ safeguards.

In 2001, he won a seat on the City Council. After two decades as a senator in Albany, he returned to the city’s legislature in 2018. His son, Rubén Díaz Jr., is the widely loved Bronx borough president who had been considered a top contender in the mayoral election next year before he bowed out in January, stating the desire to exit public life. The elder Díaz, in a move widely seen as angling to benefit from his son’s popularity, dropped the suffix from his name on this year’s ballot.

The prospect of one of the most Democratic districts in the country sending an anti-gay figure like Díaz Sr. to Congress prompted a surge of independent spending from Democratic groups, like the Voter Protection Project, to stop him.

The Data for Progress poll showing Torres as the most viable alternative to Díaz also helped.

“He wasn’t my initial option but after looking at the numbers … I had to, in the end, prioritize going against Rubén Díaz Sr.,” said Marcel Bravo, a retail worker who voted for Torres at M.S. 301 Paul L. Dunbar in the South Bronx.

George Leal, a hospital worker voting at the same site, had been impressed with Torres after speaking to him. “He looks like a very sincere person,” Leal said. “He’s very friendly, unlike some other people that I don’t know what they’re about.”

Torres, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Black mother, grew up in a housing project in the Throggs Neck neighborhood of the East Bronx. He enrolled in New York University, but ― struggling with his sexuality and suffering from severe depression ― he dropped out during his sophomore year. He later began taking antidepressants and got involved housing advocacy. At 25, he ran for City Council and won.

In a 2016 profile in The New Yorker, Torres acknowledged the bigotry in a district he dubbed the “Bible Belt of New York City.” While phonebanking for his campaign, he said, his mother was told, “Your son is going to Hell!” Yet the Data for Progress survey of the district found that the vast majority of voters across demographics ― 71% of Latinos, 75% of Blacks and 73% of registered Democrats overall ― found “gay and lesbian relations” to be “morally acceptable.”

Still, the poll showed Díaz ahead of Torres by 2% with Democrats, 1% with Black voters and 4% with Latino voters. Roughly 30% of voters in each category were undecided at the time.

Unless thousands of absentee ballots fuel a last-minute surge for one of the underdog opponents, those voters appear to have decided on Torres.

Torres and his fellow New Yorker Mondaire Jones ― who is projected to win the Democratic primary in the state’s 17th District in the suburbs north of the Bronx ― would be the first openly gay Black men in Congress.

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