The unconventional congressman

The unconventional congressman

Ritchie Torres is a gay, Afro-Latino, millennial college dropout who has become a rising progressive star, yet the freshman congressman from New York has arguably received a warmer welcome from some corners of the Right than from some of his own ideological compatriots. This fact only scratches the surface of the complexity of Torres’s political identity.

A cable news fixture, the South Bronx Democrat has become one of the most prominent freshmen on Capitol Hill but has eschewed the most reliable formula to get there. While Cori Bush on the Left and Marjorie Taylor Greene on the Right have gotten attention as ideological bomb-throwers just as willing to attack their party leaders as those on the other side of the aisle, Torres has occupied a far more unusual niche.

The result has left Torres occupying a unique position in the party. He is not only a staple of friendly cable news interviews on CNN and MSNBC but has been the recipient of positive coverage from the New York Post and hailed by center-right pundits such as Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens. In contrast, he is a frequent target of outlets on the hard Left and eggs on that tension, such as when he preemptively announced to the New York Post that he would not join “the Squad,” the group of left-wingers constellated around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a neighboring congressional district. He cited his strong support for Israel as a reason why. He left unmentioned, however, the fact that Ocasio-Cortez was actively campaigning in 2020 for one of his primary opponents, who was also backed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

Torres has become the progressive for people who don’t like progressives.

It’s not that he isn’t liberal. He’s a member of the Progressive Caucus and supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. But he also almost seems to go out of his way to denounce the shibboleths of the online Left. Torres is a stalwart defender of Israel at a time when criticism of the Jewish state has become a way for some on the Left to virtue-signal. He has denounced efforts to defund the police as “absurd” and has become an advocate for cryptocurrency, a cause more commonly associated with the libertarian Right.

Political allies praise the New York congressman, who alternately described himself as “a pragmatic progressive Democrat” and “a traditional liberal Democrat.” They see him as “clearly destined for stuff” and on the path to long-term success. Sean McElwee, a prominent progressive operative and a friend of Torres, noted that despite how idiosyncratic Torres appears, all of his political views seem logical. “You know exactly where he’s going to be on 95% of the issues, and everywhere he is, you can understand how he got there.” The difference, then, is a matter of emphasis. His views on Israel, for example, are relatively common among progressive Democrats; it’s simply that Torres expresses them more forcibly than many other members. The New York Democrat is one of the few congressmen who is extremely vocal on the topic on social media. “Calling Israel an apartheid state,” he tweeted after Amnesty International issued an anti-Israel report, “as @amnesty has done, is a lie. The hysterical demonization of Israel will do nothing to alleviate Palestinian suffering. It will only incite hatred for the world’s largest Jewish community amid violent Antisemitism.”

The result is that Torres is prone to Twitter pugilism not just against progressive Democrats’ familiar punching bags, such as Lauren Boebert and Joe Manchin, but also some on the Left when he thinks their swipes go beyond the pale. Most recently, he jabbed a senior official at the progressive group J Street whom he criticized for taking “a cheap shot” by implying that Torres’s concerns about a new deal with Iran reflected dual loyalty on the congressman’s part.

And yet, McElwee noted how little the Middle East was a factor in Torres’s everyday work. “The thing that 90% of what people know about him makes up 5% of the day-to-day.” He added of Torres, “He is incredibly serious about [legislating]. He does not stop working. Anyone who knows him knows he’s one of the hardest workers on the Hill. It shows up in the output, always coming up with new ideas and new plays.”

Speaking to the Washington Examiner, Torres insisted he’s simply focused on legislating. “If I were looking for attention, I’d be screaming ‘defund police.’ I mean, I tackle issues like cybersecurity, pandemic preparedness,” he said. “Those are hardly the kinds of issues that lend themselves to public attention. And if you see me at hearings and you see the craftsmanship of the questions, I ask it, I’m substantive and I’m prepared, and I treat my job so.”

His detractors see it differently. Gustavo Rivera, a state senator from the Bronx who has become a Torres critic, described the congressman as a “lightweight” who doesn’t know who he truly is. He compared Torres to Daniel Day-Lewis: “One of the most brilliant actors of his generation, who could only do a movie every now and then because it took so much out of him.” He thought anyone trying to be a public figure had to find an authentic version of him- or herself. Otherwise, eventually, they were doomed to crack. “I don’t know who he is,” said Rivera, “and I don’t think he knows who he is.” Instead, he saw Torres motivated by “a deep insecurity” and a dose of cynicism, driven to make himself “a unique creature.” After all, as Rivera noted, “this whole gay, pro-Israel progressive — nobody else occupies that space.”

In a February interview with the Washington Examiner in his office, occasionally punctuated by the loud alerts of an ongoing series of House votes, Torres showed elements of both critiques. In response to familiar topics, the New York Democrat seamlessly offered cogent critiques with the efficiency of a jukebox playing a requested record. At other times, he seemed less prone to introspection or to open-ended questions of any sort.

Torres grew up in public housing and had focused on that issue during his tenure on the New York City Council from 2014 to 2020, where he was first elected at the age of 25, only years after dropping out of college. He kept up that emphasis at the federal level. “A powerful case could be made that the federal government is the worst landlord in the United States,” he said when asked about his more day-to-day congressional responsibilities. “And the living conditions in public housing represent a humanitarian crisis that is unworthy of a country as wealthy as ours.” He also waxed eloquently on the intersection of race and class, particularly around issues of redlining, while still decrying what he saw as the increasingly Corbynized politics of the Left, styled after the hard-left former leader of the Labour Party from 2015 to 2019.

However, Torres stonewalled when asked about his past endorsements and his rather idiosyncratic status as one of the few politicians who both backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 and Andrew Yang for mayor in 2021. “I’d rather not revisit the mayor’s race, I’ll decline to revisit the mayor’s race,” he simply said. He offered a “no comment” to any follow-up. He declined to venture into other topics, including the massive shift in relative terms toward Donald Trump in his own majority-Hispanic congressional district in 2020 (the incumbent Republican’s share of the vote more than doubled, although he still only mustered a meager 13% overall in the South Bronx-based district).

His irritation eventually fully manifested itself in a question about Victor Rivera, a homeless shelter operator who was also an alleged sexual predator. In February, Rivera pleaded guilty to accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from contractors related to his status as a key shelter operator subsidized by city grants. As a City Council member, Torres directed funding to shelters owned by Rivera, and the housing boss hosted a campaign fundraiser on his behalf, according to a New York Times investigation into allegations of sexual assault against Rivera. Torres’s detractors on the Left have long carped on the connection even though there is no evidence that Torres ever did anything illegal as a councilman.

“I had reservations about this [interview] from day one, and I just feel like this is a total ambush,” Torres snapped in response to a question about Rivera.

He eventually went on to note: “I have enemies who despise me for the position that I take, and to repeat their lies or to repeat their smears as if it’s something like, what is relevant about Victor Rivera? Every elected official in the Bronx, every other elected official had a relationship with him because he had shelters everywhere in the Bronx.”

But, of course, Ritchie Torres is not every other elected official in the Bronx — in fact, he’s not quite like any other politician in the United States. He is a mixture of savvy and guarded in a way that is unusual for anyone, let alone a congressman.

For example, Torres has long spoken openly to reporters about his mental health challenges (he suffers from depression, which forced him to drop out of college at one point) and about his past need to fortify himself with a glass of wine before a public speech — even going so far as to tell Newsweek in 2015 about how he alienated his twin brother by coming out as gay and spent his youth getting his Pokemon cards stolen by other children in the public housing project where he lived.

He also has spent almost his entire adult life in elected office and has often navigated the treacherous world of New York politics with enough ease to receive laudatory praise from the New Yorker before the age of 30. Torres is an autodidact who one person described to me as a man who unwinds by reading everything from “back issues of the Economist to Kant.” He talked to the Washington Examiner about one potential upside of having left college:Given what’s unfolding on college campuses, there’s a reason I think if I had gone through college, I would be more ideological than I am now.” That unconventional view of the world has resulted in him endorsing candidates in a manner that no strategist would advise and landing upon such unorthodox political turf.

While detractors argue that his support of Israel is motivated by a desire to appeal to donors, sometimes in coded language that invokes tropes about powerful moneyed Jews, it’s, in fact, genuine. Torres sees Jews as a fellow minority and as another group that is viewed as “the other.” It’s a perspective that is, perhaps, reinforced by the way in which Israel has become a defining issue in some circles on the Left. Particularly in some factions of New York Democratic politics, being skeptical of the Jewish state is the surest way to establish a certain level of left-wing street cred. And in a world in which even Chuck Schumer is embracing every progressive priority, there needs to be some way to separate the Crown Heights Left from the Park Slope center-Left. At the moment, the Middle East fills that void, and it has become not just a way for the hard Left to distinguish itself from traditional liberals but for traditional liberals to distinguish themselves from the hard Left.

But Torres is not just distinguishing himself for kicks. In March, Torres tweeted out an image of a birthday cake a friend made for him; the picture on the cake was an image he’d tweeted out the previous month of him praying at the Western Wall. It’s clear he regards the issue with sincerity. And it’s of a piece with a career and life in which he has never quite fit in, the cause of both his popularity and isolation. He’s come up through Bronx Democratic politics without ever being a machine candidate or dyed-in-the-wool lefty. He’s the liberal who supports cryptocurrency, the ardent Zionist in the Progressive Caucus, and the media fixture sometimes unprepared for basic questions from a reporter. He’s unconventional. And he’s about to find out if there’s a future for such unconventional figures in the Democratic Party.

Ben Jacobs is a political reporter in Washington, D.C.

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