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Gay candidate’s congressional campaign faces new challenge after COVID-19 diagnosis

Ritchie Torres, Candidate for Congress in NYC's 15th District
Ritchie Torres, Candidate for Congress in NYC's 15th District Photo: John McCarten

Congressional candidate and New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, the first out LGBTQ elected official from the Bronx, announced on Twitter last week that he tested positive for COVID-19.

After quarantining and directing members of his staff to do the same, Torres has spent his time in isolation speaking to news outlets and posting on social media to communicate a crucial message: Sick or not, stay home.

Related: Coronavirus is drowning Trump’s re-election chances. Is he about to sink?

“Social distancing has become the highest moral and civic duty of every American,” he told LGBTQ Nation, “especially in New York, which has become the epicenter of this outbreak.”

No matter your age, no matter how you feel, and whether or not you are immunocompromised, Torres stipulated, just stay home. “You could be carrying and spreading the virus without even knowing it,” he emphasized.

This crisis, he said, is an “economic and social catastrophe of our own making,” one that could have been prevented with swifter action. He hopes in the future we will be more prepared, but for now, he has a clear and blunt message for his city and the nation:

“We’re confronting a simple, stark choice: either act aggressively to slow the spread of the virus or else the sheer number of coronavirus cases will crush the health care system,” he said. “Every hospital is struggling with a shortage of critical medical supplies, especially ventilators. So the city is making the best of what is a catastrophic crisis, but here’s the problem as I see it: the United States did too little too late.”

“South Korea has 51 million people. It’s nearly 6-7 times larger a population than New York City, but it has had far fewer deaths. By contrast, the US did too little too late. We delayed testing until it was too late. We delayed social distancing until it was too late. And the lesson learned is the longer you wait, the longer you delay social distancing, the longer you delay mass testing, the less effective and the more destructive your actions will become.”

Torres continued, “So New York City is paying a heavy price because of a lack of pandemic preparedness at every level, but especially at the federal level.”

Despite the isolation, Torres’ campaign to represent New York City’s 15th district must continue. The district encompasses the South Bronx and has long been considered the poorest district in the country – and Torres has simply had enough.

“If I have the fortune of serving as a congressman in Washington DC,” he said, “I would commit myself wholeheartedly to breaking the cycle of poverty that has devastated the South Bronx.”

Torres, 31, who grew up in public housing, is dedicated first and foremost to fighting for affordable housing.

“Housing is not simply brick and mortar,” he said, “It’s the foundation on which you build a better life for you and your family. Think of the message from policymakers in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak—stay home. But the message implies you have a home.”

Torres, who is currently serving his second term on the New York City Council, spent his first term as Chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Housing,  overseeing the New York City Housing Authority. He proved to be extremely effective.

In 2014, for example, he successfully pressured the federal government to provide long-delayed funding for public housing developments that had been devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

After he held the first-ever City Council hearing inside a public housing development, he secured over $100 million within months. A few years later, FEMA granted $3 billion to fix all public housing developments in New York City affected by Sandy.

It is these kinds of tangible results that make Torres confident he is fit for Congress.

“I represent a rare combination of change and experience,” he said. “I’m young enough, I’m energetic enough to be an agent for change, to represent the next generation of leadership in the South Bronx, but at the same time, I have real experience governing.”

Torres also believes an out LGBTQ representative from the South Bronx would be historic.

“It’s one thing to have a representative in the gayborhoods of New York City and the United States. It’s another thing to have an LGBTQ representative in the places you might least expect it.”

Torres’ identity is especially significant because one of his biggest opponents in the Democratic primary race, Ruben Diaz Sr., has a long history of homophobia. Torres describes him as “a Trump Republican masquerading as a Democrat.”

Diaz Sr. serves on the city council with Torres and is also a Pentecostal minister. In 1994, he said the New York City-hosted Gay Games would lead to the spread of AIDS. In 2011, he held a rally opposing same-sex marriage and was the only Democrat in the state senate to vote against marriage equality.

In 2019, he said that the city council is “controlled by the homosexual community.” He has also compared abortion to the Holocaust.

A victory for Diaz Sr., Torres said, would be disastrous not only for the district, but for the country, and not only for the LGBTQ community, but for the Democratic Party.

“To have a right-wing Republican in disguise representing the bluest district in America would constitute a profound embarrassment. So we all have a vested interest in defeating him.”

Torres is building a strong coalition to do just that. He has raised the most money (a million dollars as of December) and earned the most endorsements of any other candidate in the race.

Torres has long been considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. At 24, he became the youngest elected official in New York City when elected for his first City Council term.

His effectiveness and energy have garnered national attention, earning him recognition in The New Yorker, Newsweek, and more. Netflix even did a documentary, Dirty Money, on Torres’ investigation into the corrupt practices of Jared Kushner’s real estate company. According to his 2015 Newsweek feature, some even believe he is headed toward the presidency.

For now, though, Torres is focused on fighting as hard as he can for the South Bronx.

“I’m a fighter,” he said. “Nothing has been handed to me on a silver platter…No one is going to fight harder for the voters in the South Bronx because fighting is who I am. It’s what I do.”

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