Amy Walter: We're just about a month away from the start of the new Congress on January 3rd, and over the last few weeks I've had the opportunity to talk with a number of the incoming freshmen. It's a busy time for them as they staff up, network with their colleagues, do interviews, and, of course, attend new member orientation, much of it remotely. It's also a great time to get an unvarnished view from them of their expectations before they begin their new jobs. This week I caught up with--
Ritchie Torres: Ritchie Torres, I'm the congressman-elect for New York 15th, the South Bronx, and the I'm entering Congress after serving in the city council for seven years.
Amy: I started out by asking him to tell me a bit about his district and the people who live here.
Ritchie: New York 15th is the South Bronx, which is said to be the poorest congressional district in America. It's arguably ground zero for racially concentrated poverty. Even before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, when unemployment was at historic lows in New York City, around 4%, the unemployment rate in the South Bronx could be as high as 15.6%. That's before you factor in structural unemployment. More than half the residents in the South Bronx pay more than half their income toward their rent, and that's before you factor in the bare necessities of life like food and transportation, utilities and prescription drugs.
Even though it's known to be the poorest congressional district in America, I would argue that COVID-19 has shown the South Bronx to be the essential congressional district. It's the home of essential workers, who put their lives on the line so that most of us could safely shelter in place during the peak of the pandemic. Many in your audience will know that New York City, at one point, was the epicenter of the pandemic and the Bronx, in particular, the South Bronx, was the epicenter of the epicenter.
Amy: You grew up in this district?
Ritchie: My father is from Mott Haven. My mother is actually farther east in Pratt Stacks. I grew up in a public housing development in the East Bronx, right across the street from what eventually became Trump golf course.
Amy: Can you talk about that and its influence on you and your decision to be involved in public service? You're a pretty young person. You're in your early 30s, this isn't your first public office. You'd been in the New York City council. If you could talk about those times that you had growing up and how it brought you to this point?
Ritchie: It all began in the Bronx. I spent most of my life in poverty. I was raised by a single mother who had to raise three children on minimum wage, which in the 1990s was $4.25 an hour, and I grew up in public housing. Living in conditions of mold and mildew, leaks and lead, without consistent heat and hot water in the winter. I think my life is something of a metaphor because I grew up right across the street from Ferry Point Park, which is home to Trump Golf course.
As I saw the conditions in my own home get worse every day, the government had invested more than a hundred billion dollars in a golf course, ultimately, named after Donald Trump. I remember wondering to myself at the time, what does it say about our society that we're willing to invest more money in a golf course than in the homes of low-income Black and brown Americans? That experience of inequality in the shadow of Trump Golf course is what inspired me, first, to become a housing organizer.
Then, eventually, I took the leap of faith and I ran for public office. I was 24, openly LGBTQ at a borough that had no LGBTQ elected officials. I had no ties to the dynasties of Bronx politics, no ties to the political establishment, but I was young and energetic and I knocked on thousands of doors. I went into people's homes. I heard their stories and I won my first campaign, largely on the strength of door-to-door face-to-face campaigning. I became the first openly LGBTQ elected official from the Bronx.
What's remarkable is that seven years before then, I was at the lowest point in my life. I had dropped out of college. I found myself struggling with depression and abusing substances. I had lost my best friend to an opioid overdose. I was struggling with my sexual identity, and there were moments when I thought of taking my own life because the world around me had collapsed and I never thought, seven years later, I would become the youngest elected official in the largest city in America, and then seven years after that I would become a member of the United States Congress.
Amy: Talk about your decision to be as open as you are, not just your struggle with opioid addiction, as you pointed out, trying to reconcile your sexual identity, but sharing that, when you decide to go public office, obviously, you become a public figure, but there [inaudible 00:05:08] of your self you don't have to share and you chose to do that. Why?
Ritchie: I suspect that I've been shaped by the experience of coming out. I feel like the process of coming out as an LGBTQ person, the integrity it demands from you, teaches you an ethic of radical authenticity, teaches you how to be honest and open about who you are, and so that's an ethic that I've applied to every aspect of my life, both political and personal. I feel like, as a public figure, I want to inspire hope. I want to represent the hope that those struggling with depression with mental illness can overcome the odds and have a fighting chance at a decent life.
I feel I have an obligation to do my part in breaking the stigma and the shame that too often surrounds mental illness. I have no shame in admitting that I struggle with depression, that I take an antidepressant every day, and that I'm living proof that mental health care can enable you to lead a productive life, both as a person and as a professional. For me, healthcare is a human right, and that's especially true of mental health care.
Amy: You are not just the first openly gay member of Congress from the Bronx, you're the first openly gay Afro Latino member of Congress, ever. Earlier this summer, you had written an op-ed where you criticized the congressional Black caucus for not allowing you to be both a member of the CBC as well as a member of the Hispanic caucus. I know over the summer there was reporting that you and the chairwoman of the CBC were sitting down to talk about this. Have you resolved this, and are you going to be a member of both of those caucuses?
Ritchie: The issue's resolved and I intend to join both caucuses.
Amy: You'd be the first person to do this?
Ritchie: To my knowledge, I would be the first person.
Amy: To be a member of both? Yes. What do you think that's going to allow you to do?
Ritchie: It will allow me, first, to embrace the full diversity and intersectionality of who I am and to represent my constituents more effectively. It matters whether you're in the room and the congressional Black caucus and the congressional Hispanic caucus are among the most powerful rooms of decision-making in the United States Congress, and to be a member of both of those rooms is an enormous service to my constituents. It will only strengthen my ability to represent the people of the South Bronx.
Amy: You'll be a freshman member. Democrats still have the majority, a slimmer one than was expected, but a majority. The Democratic Party will be in a position of power, but it's not clear yet what's going on in the Senate. Talk about some of your expectations going forward, especially if Democrats don't have complete control of Washington and what things you think the Biden administration should be pushing for no matter what?
Ritchie: Well, my expectations depend on control of the Senate. If the Democrats win control of the Senate, then I would make a strong case that we need to build Democratic power as a precondition for bold progressive policy making. I would advocate immediately legislating statehood for both DC and Puerto Rico, which would likely yield for new democratic US senators and would counterbalance the structural bias that both the electoral college and the US Senate has against the Democratic Party.
That, to me, is a precondition for bold progressive governance in an age of divided government. I would argue that we should focus on just bread and butter issues. One issue about which I'm passionate is the child tax credit. The structure of the child tax credit is so regressive at the moment that it excludes a third of American families, the poorest families. The regressivity of the child tax credit is most egregious in the South Bronx, where two-thirds of families are excluded from the full benefit. If we were to extend the child tax credit to the poorest families in America, we would cut child poverty by 40%.
Amy: This seems like one of those issues, though, that whether Democrats are in charge of all of Washington, in other words, whether they have majority in the Senate or not, this seems like something that could get bipartisan support. Does it not?
Ritchie: Potentially. One can never underestimate the obstructionism of the Republican Party under Mitch McConnell, but there could conceivably be a bipartisan consensus for the child tax credit because it's a tool for strengthening American families.
Amy: What do you think of the pics that the president-elect has put forward thus far, in general, but also since we're on the issue of the economy, specifically on his picks for treasury secretary and other economic advisors?
Ritchie: I am supportive of president-elect Biden's administration picks. There's clearly a recognition on their part that the priority has to be to stimulate the economy, in a time of depression level unemployment. The main priority has to be to put people back to work, and to put pocket money in the pockets of working families and working people, and to ensure that our state and local governments have economic relief. I'm from New York and we've never had a moment in the history of our state where the state government and the local government and the public transit system were all caught in an ever deepening fiscal crisis. Without an infusion of federal funding, America's largest city, New York City, is in danger of becoming a shadow of its former self. I have full confidence that the Biden administration, the future Biden administration, recognizes the need to support our families, our small businesses and our state and local governments, as well as our public transit systems.
Amy: Did you want to see some members of that team who come from a more progressive background, come from outside of traditional Washington or establishment backgrounds?
Ritchie: I want a team that is both progressive and effective, and the team he's put together, president-elect Biden has put together, largely passes the test. This is a team that recognizes the need to sustain and strengthen the social safety net. I'm largely pleased with the team. Look, there's a mass mobilization in America in favor of a progressive agenda. There's no doubt in my mind that the Biden administration is going to be responsive to that movement.
Amy: As you probably know, there's a narrative that's been developing, especially post-election, that there is something of a rift or a battle for the soul of the party of the Democratic Party between the moderates and the more progressive members, it burst into view post-election with some moderate members criticizing liberal ones for pushing an agenda that they say lost them seats in the election. What do you make of all of this? How real is it?
Ritchie: There's certainly a divide within the party. I would argue that the central divide in the Democratic Party is not between moderates and progressives. It's more between what I call purist and pluralist. There are purists who are intent on ideologically purifying the party, or challenging incumbents who are thought to be too ideologically impure to effectuate the structural change the country needs. Then there are pluralists who recognize that the Democratic Party has no choice but to be a big 10 in order to remain competitive in purple districts and make majorities. I think purists tend to be movement progresses, but not all progressives are purists. There are plenty of progressives in Congress who operate within the system.
Amy: Do you put yourself in that category?
Ritchie: I do, I would identify myself as a progressive and a pluralist.
Amy: Have you been meeting with both-- I don't want to call it both sides, but you've been meeting with progressives, moderate, other members of the democratic caucus. I know within your class, it's-- You're a pretty small freshman class, but have you met folks beyond that and had conversations on your own with them?
Ritchie: We have. It's challenging in a world of COVID, but I've had conversations within my freshman class and across the ideological spectrum, largely within the Democratic Party. Washington is about relationships. You're only as strong as the relationships you have, and you have to build a broad cross section of relationships in order to be effective in Washington DC. It's been a priority of mine to build relationships with both moderates and progressives, pluralists and purists, Democrats of every elk.
Amy: Well, congressman-elect, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. Please stay safe. We'll see you here in Washington soon enough.
Ritchie: It was a pleasure, take care.
Amy: Ritchie Torres is the congressman-elect for New York's 15th congressional district.
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