Ritchie Torres on the verge of history in the south Bronx

If his lead holds, Ritchie Torres will almost certainly be trading in his spot at City Hall for a spot on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Matt Tracy)

Out gay City Councilmember Ritchie Torres jumped out to a promising, perhaps insurmountable lead over his competitors on election night — and Ruben Diaz, Sr., appears to be in big trouble — in the race to capture the Democratic nomination in the 15th Congressional District in the South Bronx.

Torres, aiming to become the first out gay Afro-Latinx member of Congress, is leading the pack with 29.44 percent of the 42,193 total votes counted so far as of the early morning of June 24, while Assemblymember Michael Blake has mounted a surprising showing with 18.74 percent of the vote. Diaz is in third place, yielding only 14.30 percent and drawing less than half of the total votes obtained by Torres. Community organizer Samelys López has 12.77 percent, followed by 11.02 percent for Manhattan Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez. Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, fresh off a disappointing showing in the race for public advocate, has drawn a paltry 3.74 percent of the vote.

Full results are not expected to be revealed for several more days because mail-in votes — which are much more important this election cycle due to the coronavirus pandemic — still must be counted. State law stipulates that absentee ballots must not be tallied until eight days after the election

Nonetheless, Torres, who was endorsed by Gay City News, is in a commanding position heading into the final count as he closes in on an historic victory that would also put him on track to become the first out LGBTQ member of the New York City congressional delegation. The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which helps elect queer candidates and focused heavily on bolstering Torres’ election effort, claimed victory for Torres on June 24. The Victory Fund also claimed victory for NY-17 candidate Mondaire Jones, who is running to become the first out gay Black member of Congress.

A digital ad promoting Ritchie Torres’ campaign on display in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx on June 20. (MATT TRACY)

While the 32-year-old Torres jumped out to an early fundraising advantage over his competition and maintained it throughout the campaign, he drilled the message from the very beginning that Diaz was favored to win the election. Diaz was equipped with a loyal base that he has galvanized time and again for rallies opposing same-sex marriage and he shares a name with his son, Ruben Diaz, Jr., who holds the influential role of Bronx borough president and is a longtime political figure in the Bronx in his own right.

But the elder Diaz, a Pentecostal minister and former state senator who has spent decades resisting LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights, appears to have watched the flame burn out on his brand of bigotry in the Bronx as he and his opponents await the results of the absentee ballots. Diaz has not helped his cause in recent years, making fresh headlines last year for making homophobic remarks about out gay Speaker Corey Johnson and the City Council in a major controversy that prompted his colleagues to punish him by dissolving his Committee on For-Hire Vehicles.

It looks like Ruben Diaz, Sr., could be staying right where he is at his City Council district office. (MATT TRACY)

While the numbers on election night show Torres in command and Blake trailing in second place, many had anticipated the race coming down to a tight finish between Torres and Diaz. By the final weeks of the campaign, progressive groups pushed Democratic candidates in the race to rally around Torres in the face of polling data that showed Diaz and Torres neck-and-neck while other candidates were still yielding up to six percent of the vote.

Candidates likes Mark-Viverito and Blake, however, remained in the race, but Mark-Viverito appeared to express a more conciliatory tone in a NY1 debate just days before the election when she deferred an opportunity to ask her opponents a question and instead underscored the danger of Diaz’s candidacy, saying he wanted to take away Torres’ right to love who he wants to love.

That was a far cry from the friction between Torres and Mark-Viverito much earlier in the race, when the two butted heads over issues like campaign finance purity and gentrification. When Torres was asked at a Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City endorsement meeting last October why he was raking in real estate cash, Torres targeted the former speaker, saying Mark-Viverito did not take a pledge against real estate donations when she led the city’s lawmaking body and that she oversaw years of rezoning he said arguably precipitated more gentrification in the city.

Torres’ candidacy builds on the trailblazing path he already paved seven years ago when he became the first out LGBTQ elected official in the history of the borough. Having already experienced homophobic forces in that campaign, he did not mince words in a sit-down interview with Gay City News last May when he previewed the congressional competition.

“[Diaz] is a creature of the right, I am a creature of the pragmatic progressive left,” Torres said at the time. “He’s a leading voice of opposition to LGBT equality, I am an LGBT trailblazer in the Bronx. So the race is about the future of the Bronx. Who we elect as our congressperson in the 15th district will speak powerfully about the values of the borough. It is by far the most consequential race in the Bronx in decades.”

In a district that is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the victor is expected to coast through the general election, it appears that future Torres speaks of indeed arriving in the South Bronx.

This story first appeared on gaycitynews.com.