Within 15 minutes of arriving at P.S. 96 in the Bronx on a recent November morning, City Councilman Ritchie Torres asked his deputy chief of staff Juan Antigua to contact every public school in his district and find out if they had a music teacher.
Torres, who represents a swath of the central Bronx, was there at the invitation of Education Through Music, a nonprofit that runs programs in city schools. In his short time so far in office, Torres has made a point of getting out into the community and surveying things on a ground level.
That might seem like an obvious thing for a politician to do, but it isn’t always.
“It’s not every day that you have an elected official actually come see what we’re doing,” said Rachel Starr, development associate at Education Through Music, as she waited for Torres to arrive.
Torres insists that “people shouldn’t be surprised that elected officials are doing site visits,” and that close connection to the community he serves is key to understanding what drives a man who is not your everyday councilmember. At 27, he’s currently the youngest person to have a seat in the body, and is the first openly gay legislator elected in the Bronx.
Torres says he makes a point of combining an innate understanding of the issues that drive his district, which is born out of his own experience and passion for policy.
“When I was running, some people thought I was too cerebral,” he said. “But when I speak, I speak from personal experience.”
“That’s the type of colleague that I like to have, somebody that I can have those sort of intellectual conversations with, and who has an innate understanding of his constituency,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), who represents some of the same area as Torres.
Torres grew up in Throgs Neck in a building run by the New York City Housing Authority. Now, he is the chair of the Committee on Public Housing and is known for legislation to reform NYCHA’s operations, including provisions to keep the agency from allowing its properties to fall into disrepair. Torres attended Herbert H. Lehman High School, whose student body is 79% black and Hispanic. A 2010 UCLA study classified every school district in the Bronx as less than 10% white, and “green follows white,” the councilman says.
“Wherever you have whiter, wealthier students, you tend to have better resources, better teachers, a broader range of curricular and extracurricular enrichment,” he said.
So in the Council, he introduced a resolution, which passed, calling on the Department of Education to recognize the importance of school diversity. The hostility he faced as a gay man growing up in the Bronx led him to play a key role in the fight for funding in LGBT centers in the Bronx and around the city.
“The common theme with him is that he’s going to fight for the underdog, whether it’s through LGBT centers or public housing reform or a better education,” said Glennda Testone, executive director of the LGBT Community Center. Torres is a progressive, through and through, but he’s butted heads with the de Blasio administration on everything from policies dealing with mold in public housing, to the usage of empty Fordham library space and the proposed cap on Uber vehicles.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and others have denounced him for co-sponsoring and advocating for the Right to Know Act, which would require law enforcement officers to inform citizens they have the right to refuse searches.
Through it all, Torres maintains that his policies are rooted in two core beliefs: there are certain undeniable and problematic facts about the state of society, and government both can and should be used to address them.
“He isn’t just giving a voice to those who are currently voting for him, he’s actively working to build the community and the district that he wants to see in the future,” said Sarah Andes, national director of programming for Generation Citizen, a nonprofit aimed at increasing civic engagement by students.