NEW YORK — In January, as Congress swore in a record 10 openly LGBTQ members, Ritchie J. Torres, a 31-year-old Bronx councilman, recalled how the moment filled him with admiration, but also a sense that the accomplishment was still incomplete.
Torres, who is the first openly gay person to hold elected office in the borough, noted that not one of the 10 was black or Latino. He now hopes to be the first.
Torres on Monday will officially announce his candidacy for the Bronx seat soon to be vacated by Rep. José E. Serrano, the longest serving Hispanic congressman in the country, who is retiring because he has Parkinson’s disease.
The race to replace Serrano, who has served since 1990, is shaping up to be a referendum on whether the Bronx is ready to elect a younger progressive politician.
But the Democratic primary may also be defined by another dynamic: Rubén Díaz Sr., Torres’ colleague on the City Council and a Pentecostal minister with a decadeslong history of making homophobic remarks, is also seeking the seat.
“Someone like Rubén Díaz winning that seat would be a minus,” said Sean Meloy, senior political director at the Victory Fund, a political action committee that supports LGBTQ candidates, and has endorsed Torres. “It would be like losing a seat for equality.”
Díaz, 76, has made it clear over the decades how he feels about homosexuality. In 1994, he said that the Gay Games coming to New York would help spread AIDS and teach young people that “homosexuality is OK, that it is not immoral or sinful behavior.”
As a state senator, he vocally opposed same-sex marriage, once holding a rally against the legislation to authorize it as his gay granddaughter held a counter protest across the street.
In February, Díaz, who was elected to the City Council in 2017, sparked calls for his resignation when he said the “homosexual community” controlled the City Council.
Torres called for Díaz to apologize and to be removed from the chairmanship of the Committee on For-Hire Vehicles. Torres gave a speech from the floor of the council chambers condemning Díaz, before the committee was dissolved, and talked of how he had thoughts of suicide related to depression and the struggle with his identity as a young man.
Afterward, he and Carlos Menchaca, an openly gay councilman from Brooklyn, hugged.
“To have an elected official attack the quality and dignity of LGBT people sends a message to young people who are thinking of taking their own life as they struggle with their identity,” Torres said.
Díaz said his views on homosexuality are based on his religion, and that voters in the 15th Congressional District, one of the poorest in the country and predominantly Hispanic and black, accept that. Díaz calls himself a “conservative Democrat” and recently referred to himself as the “opposite” of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the popular democratic socialist.
“My family is full of gays,” he said. “I don't believe in same-sex marriage but that doesn’t mean I hate people.”
Those are the sort of comments that make this congressional race urgent, according to the Equality PAC, which supports LGBTQ candidates running for federal office and has endorsed Torres.
“What makes this race so important is that it’s shaping up to be a contest between Ritchie Torres and Rubén Díaz, someone who has demonized the LGBTQ community throughout his career and shown a profound lack of respect,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., co-chairman of Equality PAC, said in an interview.
The outside attention is already paying dividends. Torres estimates that he has raised more than $500,000. In a fundraising email last week, Díaz said he had raised $80,000.
Several other candidates have declared or are exploring a run for Serrano’s seat.
Torres said the race is not just about keeping Díaz out of Congress. His goal is to be a “national champion for the urban poor,” a group whose ranks included him and his family while growing up.
Torres was raised in public housing in the Bronx where his single-parent mother worked minimum wage jobs to support him and his siblings. He thought he might be gay starting in junior high school but kept it to himself out of fear.
“I was concerned that if I came out of the closet, that at best, I would face ostracism, and at worst, face violence,” he said.
As a student at Herbert H. Lehman High School, Torres recalled first coming out to a teacher who he believed was gay because of his posts on social media; he then told a wider audience during a debate about same-sex marriage. He announced he was gay while arguing in favor of same-sex marriage.
In 2014 he became the youngest elected official in New York City, and was named to the City Council’s leadership team and became chairman of the Committee on Public Housing.
As chairman, he spotlighted the same decrepit living conditions — lead and mold — that he grew up in., holding his first hearing as chairman of the committee in public housing.
“We’ve had a couple of years of NYCHA being in a visible crisis but at the beginning of Ritchie’s term it was a much less visible crisis,” said Brad Lander, a councilman from Brooklyn who is endorsing Torres, using the acronym for the New York City Housing Authority.
Gil Simmons, 54, tenant president of Monterey Houses in the Bronx, said Torres has brought resources to help make life better at the complex.
“He has an understanding of what we go through on a daily basis because he went through it,” Simmons said.
After an unsuccessful run for speaker, Torres was named as chairman of the newly created Committee on Oversight and Investigations, where he helped expose more problems at NYCHA. He recently proposed a law to ban retailers from going cashless.
Torres’ announcement video shows him speaking with residents in public housing, including his mother who still lives there with his brother. The video shows the contrast between the Throggs Neck Houses, where he grew up, and the publicly financed golf course operated by President Donald Trump across the street.
He said his time on the City Council — he is prohibited by the City Charter from running for a third consecutive term — has shown him how federal policies have a profound effect on people’s lives, citing the disinvestment from public housing.
“The rules are set in Washington, D.C.,” Torres said. But the June 2020 Democratic primary “is truly a struggle for the soul of the Bronx.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.