Interviews & Profiles

The evolution of Ritchie Torres

“I didn’t leave the progressive movement; the progressive movement left me.”

Rep. Ritchie Torres is embracing Israel as some Democrats turn away from it.

Rep. Ritchie Torres is embracing Israel as some Democrats turn away from it. Sean Pressley

Always eager to find a mic, Rep. Ritchie Torres strode up the stairs to a landing at Walter Gladwin Park in his Bronx congressional district to deliver a message to former President Donald Trump hours before a rare Republican rally at the reliably blue borough: the Bronx doesn’t want you.

As rain poured down, Torres stood alongside community leaders huddled underneath a tent pounding away at Trump.

“Donald Trump’s presidency was a catastrophe for the Bronx,” he said. “His gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic left a death toll of more than 7,000 fatalities here in our borough.”

He also blamed Trump for the dismal weather: “I think the biblical level of flooding is a sign of divine disapproval of Donald Trump.”

Few Democrats have crafted this brand of politicking as successfully as Torres, a political prizefighter known for his methodical verbal takedowns. It’s that type of ferocity that made Torres a progressive darling 10 years ago, when he first entered public life as the then-youngest member elected to the New York City Council. Torres was the poster child for progressivism in a city that was veering further to the left. And he embraced it.

He sparred with the New York City Housing Authority and the New York City Police Department on behalf of marginalized people. He advocated for the opening of an LGBTQ+ senior center. He went after firebrands such as former Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins or his former City Council colleague Rubén Díaz Sr.

Progressives found an ally they could count on. And so did voters, who in 2020 elected him to the 15th Congressional District. Since his time in office, some $3 billion in federal funds have arrived to his district that touches Mott Haven in the South Bronx and extends up to Riverdale.

These days, his relationship with progressives has strained. While rifts date back as far as 2017, a massive chasm has formed following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, a conflict that, more broadly, drove a wedge into the Democratic Party.

While progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have cast Israel as the oppressor for leveling the Gaza Strip, Torres has taken unabashed swings at anyone criticizing the country’s response. He calls the response, which has left Gaza in ruins, a form of self-defense. For Torres, there is no nuance: Israel is the victim; Hamas is the aggressor. He wants a ceasefire, only with conditions. His positions have made him a polarizing figure these days. He has been called a shill, a mouthpiece and the N-word. He has also received death threats.

His battleground is usually social media, where – sandwiched between posts on legislative accomplishments for the district – he lobs merciless missives at critics of Israel. He has reserved his sharpest adjectives for the DSA, calling them “despicable, detestable, disgraceful, and disgraced.” He has also directed his ire at colleges and universities, which he deems to be a breeding ground for antisemitism.“Garbage in, garbage out,” read one of Torres’ posts condemning a pro-Palestinian supporter at Columbia University.

He has made that clear on his personal X account, with half of his posts, retweets or interactions since Oct. 7 being about Israel. His position as one of the nation’s foremost pro-Israel Democrats has earned him six-figure contributions from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel group that has spent significant amounts of money to elect candidates in both parties that support the country.

“If an organization like AIPAC were to close its operations tomorrow, it would have no bearing on where I stood on the issue because I’ve been pro-Israel long before entering Congress; long before I even heard of an organization like AIPAC,” Torres said in a nearly 90-minute interview with City & State. “I am a committed Zionist to the core. It is a belief that I hold deeply and I’ve held consistently for about a decade.”

To anyone closely paying attention, Torres has long established he’s not a lockstep progressive. But the Israel-Hamas war has made Torres’ stance appear new, or at least the issue he has been the most public on since going after disgraced former Rep. George Santos. Torres, who rattled off his receipts displaying his progressive pedigree, was blunt in his assessment of the progressive movement these days: It’s not what it used to be.

“I didn’t leave the progressive movement; the progressive movement left me,” Torres said. How did this happen?

Ritchie Torres in 2014, his first year in the New York City Council. / William Alatriste for the New York City Council

Council mentor

Torres’ personal story is woven into his public persona: a gay Puerto Rican kid growing up in Throggs Neck Houses with his single mother, sister and fraternal twin brother on the second floor of a building known for unreliable elevators, inconsistent heat and hot water and the omnipresence of vermin.

His nascent fighting spirit could be found on the playground performing wrestling shows and on the debate stage at Lehman High School. His involvement in the latter drew the attention of James Vacca, then a district manager for Bronx Community Board 10. 

Vacca organized a yearly event at his office – district manager for the day – an opportunity for young, civically engaged students to learn about city government. He asked Robert Leder, then the school’s principal, to send him someone who fit that mold. Leder picked Torres.

“I was floored when I first met Ritchie,” Vacca recalled of Torres, then 16.

The two kept in touch, and he eventually joined Vacca’s council campaign for the Bronx’s 13th Council District seat. Torres took the work seriously, Vacca remembered. At one point, Vacca advised Torres to “understand the audience” by limiting his use of fancy words, a Torres signature trait.

After Vacca won the race, Torres attended New York University, but dropped out after a bout with depression so severe, he said, that he was hospitalized at Columbia-Presbyterian’s psychiatric unit for two weeks.

He found himself back in Vacca’s employment as the district’s first housing director, advising Vacca on conditions in “every nook and cranny” of buildings in the district. 

“He’s thorough, and when he puts his teeth into something, he’s a pit bull,” Vacca said. “He stands up for what he believes is right.”

If understanding the audience was a key tenet to Torres’ education under Vacca, going against the grain for the sake of the big picture seemed to have been another. The 13th Council District is among the more conservative sections in the Bronx, with NIMBYism being the norm. So when a backup 911 call center was proposed for Pelham Parkway, Vacca voted in favor of the megasite that exists today. While Vacca’s decision went against his constituents, he viewed the center as essential in responding to a terrorist attack. That line of thinking – not always being bound by popular opinion – seemed to have been planted in Torres.

“The reality is that Ritchie Torres does not go in lockstep with anyone or anything. He’s not a lockstep person and I’m proud of that,” Vacca said.

In 2013, Torres told Vacca he wanted to run for the neighboring 15th Council District, home to some of the poorest Bronxites. Torres entered the race even as Vacca bluntly told him he had no experience in that district.

“He was not backed by the county. We kind of ran a campaign on our own,” Vacca said. “And I still thought that Ritchie could win if he worked hard enough. And he certainly worked hard enough.”

On the night of the September 2013 primary, Torres – before an intimate group of supporters – was the first to tell Vacca he won.

Rise and fall of the progressive 

During the interview with Torres, there was a framed newspaper article from the Bronx-based Norwood News on his council victory on a display shelf. The headline from the front-page 2013 article read, “Torres, the Freshest of New Faces in Bronx Politics.”

The article captured the tenor of the moment: Torres won the seat at a time when progressivism was chic. Bill de Blasio, who ran on a progressive platform, had just been elected New York City mayor. Melissa Mark-Viverito had been elected council speaker, steering the 51-member body further to the left. She appointed Torres to her leadership team.

“The progressive movement that I knew back in 2013 had an exciting vision for lifting up communities like mine,” Torres recalled. “I was drawn to a movement that was intent on cultivating the next generation of leadership.”

Torres knew his marquee issue would be the New York City Housing Authority, charged with operating and maintaining some 335 public housing developments predominantly home to marginalized Black and brown New Yorkers. At 25, Torres was chairing the Committee on Public Housing, an oversight panel he requested to lead.

He’s thorough, and when he puts his teeth into something, he’s a pit bull.
James Vacca former district manager for Bronx Community Board 10

After Superstorm Sandy ravaged public housing in parts of the city, Torres connected with Mark Treyger, then a council member representing Brooklyn, to discuss how to get NYCHA the attention it needed. In a decision that made for good PR, Torres held a joint hearing with Treyger at the beleaguered Coney Island Houses.

“His questions were so on point and so piercing that I can tell you the administration did not look forward to coming to hearings chaired or co-chaired by Ritchie Torres,” Treyger said.

The upshot was a $3 billion federal earmark for NYCHA repairs from U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and an early win for Torres. He considered that the highlight of his career.

Torres also helped champion other improved conditions at NYCHA, including exposing lead conditions at some complexes.

“He’s focused on getting the job done,” said Michael Stanley, an organizer with Metro IAF, a community organizing group. “I’ve never observed him dictated by any kind of ideological agenda other than to improve the lives of public housing tenants.”

Torres’ progressive pedigree went national in 2016 when he drew the attention of then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, taking him on a tour of public housing. The day of the New York presidential primary, Torres endorsed Sanders, calling him a “special phenomenon in progressive politics.” (Torres eventually endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the general election.)

But the following year, something changed.

Having stayed true to his progressive roots, it came as a shock to supporters when he agreed to water down the Right To Know Act, which would have forced officers to provide a business card in every encounter with the public. Such a bill was seen as a great leap toward police transparency following the abusive years of stop and frisk, a tactic that dramatically decreased during the de Blasio years.

Then things took an unexpected turn: Torres compromised, agreeing to omit more stringent components of the bill – such as providing a business card during traffic stops – following closed-door talks with the de Blasio administration and the NYPD.

“I stand by what I have chosen to do, even if it means standing alone,” Torres said ahead of the vote in December 2017. “Even if it means I am no longer beloved in progressive circles.”

Looking back, Torres said compromise was the best route, particularly when the mayor, speaker and NYPD opposed the bill.

“There are activists who have trouble understanding the concept of compromise. I was not the dictator of New York. I could not impose 100% of the Right to Know Act,” Torres said. “I came to conclude that some progress is better than none at all.”

His decision angered progressive groups like Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, which had been pushing for the original bill. They believed he would be in their corner. Torres, after all, took part in rallies in support of the bill, standing alongside Linda Sarsour, then executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and ardent Israel critic. Torres would “never be caught in a space with her” today, said Sophie Ellman-Golan, a member of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice.

“Instead of following through on what he’d promised of always being in touch with the families and always keeping these directly impacted people in the loop, he did not make any effort to try to update these families,” Ellman-Golan said of the Right to Know Act changes. “And then instead of being open to hearing that feedback and being able to have this honest conversation, he lashed out, which I think is a common thread we’ve seen him do now.”

Torres’ decision seemed to signal his departure from all-or-nothing progressive politics, falling out with a group whose approach did not match his own. Pragmatism, Torres noted, was his preferred way of legislating.

Among those voting against the Right to Know Act was then-Council Member Carlos Menchaca, a progressive who partnered with Torres on numerous issues. Yet Menchaca didn’t fault Torres – he is able to separate Torres the legislator from Torres the friend.

“From Ritchie’s eyes he did the best he could and he was able to stand alone and be OK about it,” Menchaca said. “But on the side of the activists, he was a complete failure. And I think that turned off something in Ritchie.”

His distancing with progressives came on the cusp of being named chair of the Oversight and Investigations Committee, a more muscular panel that came with the rare ability to subpoena witnesses. He worked on reforms to the Third Party Transfer Program and went after Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of then-President Donald Trump.

Torres saw the council had its limits despite the powerful post. After passing some 40 pieces of legislation – including a ban on cashless businesses, reforms on civil forfeitures and predatory equity – Torres saw Congress as an institution that can effect change, even if progress moved at a snail’s pace.

Varied work in Congress

Torres has found pluses and minuses in Congress. But the upside, according to Torres, is the ability to weigh in on local, national and international issues.

“One moment I might be receiving a complaint about a pothole on Fordham Road, the next moment of receiving a classified briefing about a possible war in the Taiwan Strait between the United States and China,” Torres said.

But the poorest congressional district isn’t short of issues that need immediate addressing. The Bronx is burning days are long gone, but in a district long considered impoverished, unhealthy and unsafe, the remnants of a borough nearly abandoned by the country abound. It kept Torres busy in his first term.

At one point in the interview, almost as if to infer he’s not a one-trick pony, Torres spent two minutes ticking off legislative items on his to-do list – a $100 million commitment to redevelop Hunts Point, persuading Fordham University to apply and ultimately win a $50 million environmental grant – even throwing in a citation he received from the University of Virginia for ranking him the most productive first-term legislator.

“I have been the lead sponsor of multiple pieces of legislation, particularly in the field of fire safety, and there is no county that has a greater stake in fire safety than the Bronx,” Torres said. “Four of the deadliest fires in New York City’s history have all been in the Bronx, including Twin Parks North in January 2022.

Environmental justice was also on his agenda, with Torres volunteering to mention his work to bring $2 million to reimagine the Cross Bronx Expressway. Politically, Torres has made efforts to increase the number of LGBTQ+ members in Congress through co-chairing Equality PAC.

All this was Torres’ way of saying it’s not all about Israel.

A lot of it is about Israel 

Torres was in Puerto Rico for meetings with legislative leaders when Hamas launched an all-out assault on Israel on Oct. 7, resulting in around 1,200 Israeli deaths. Torres was asleep when he got a phone call from a friend. 

“She said that Israel had been invaded by Hamas; that there were mass casualties, mass atrocities. And I was in a state of shock,” Torres recalled.

His position has become something of a head-scratcher for politicians. He’s not Jewish, so why is he so vocal about Israel? Some have pointed to the swell of funding he has received from AIPAC. Torres’ campaign was among the top recipients for AIPAC contributions, collecting nearly $600,000, according to a review of his campaign filings.

“By towing the AIPAC line, especially as the party continues to move, he increasingly, I think, is finding himself to the right of more of the Democratic Party on this issue and certainly to the right of where a large subset of the Jewish community is,” Ellman-Golan said.

Some point to the fact he represents Riverdale, an area of the Bronx that’s home to a large Jewish population, making it a no-brainer. Torres’ counterpoint is that his affinity for Israel dates back a decade ago, following what he characterized as a “transformative” trip to Israel in 2014. While there, Torres told The Times of Israel in April that learning about children traumatized by rockets and the “insecurity and volatility” of the country struck a chord.

In 2016, he voted to back a council resolution to oppose the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel. Supporters of BDS saw the resolution as suppressing free speech. Torres saw otherwise.

The free speech argument has since resurfaced when defending Israel, an opinion he says he’s entitled to as an American. It’s a position he took when he mocked a dissertation from a Columbia University student sympathetic to pro-Palestinian protesters.

“If you’re a random student, I have no interest in commenting,” Torres said. “If you choose to enter the arena of politics and become a public figure, then you become fair game for scrutiny and commentary.”

The same can be said of Torres. After posting the comment on X, Torres was vilified and labeled an online bully.

“Are you seriously bullying a college student? This is unbecoming of your position,” read one response.

Torres cast himself as the victim, saying his stances have made him a frequent target of the DSA.

“But there’s nothing new about the beliefs that I’m holding, I’m expressing,” Torres said. “So to call that bullying is bullshit.”

Beyond social media, Torres has also partnered with Republican Rep. Mike Lawler to craft legislation to monitor antisemitic speech on college campuses. The bill was named the COLUMBIA Act, a nod to pro-Palestinian protests on the Columbia University campus. 

“What we’re seeing is there’s a lot of show ponies here and very few workhorses,” Lawler said. “And he’s a workhorse. He knows what you have to do to get things done.”

Litmus test

And that’s what brings us here. The Israel-Hamas war colliding with progressive values. To some, progressivism might mean supporting the BDS movement or defunding the police. Torres favors none of the tenets made popular by the Democratic Socialists of America.

“What has become of the progressive movement is far more radicalized than what I knew back in 2013,” Torres said. “The movement that I knew was far more pragmatic. The progressive movement of today is indistinguishable from the Democratic Socialists of America.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that Torres’ politics are completely misaligned from progressives. He favors creating more affordable housing and utilizing community land trusts. He doesn’t want local police working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to round up undocumented immigrants. But that’s about it.

Torres has also lost the support of another key group, LGBTQ+ political clubs.

The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club in Manhattan, which is the home club for Ocasio-Cortez, endorsed Torres for Congress in 2020 and 2022. But this year, he wasn’t endorsed by the club.

Allen Roskoff, the club’s founder and once a strong Torres ally, said, “Ritchie has veered away from the values of the Jim Owles Club. He does not support progressive candidates and has embraced extreme foreign policy positions not shared by our organization.”

Lawler talked about what he sees as an increasingly strict litmus test on the left.

“I think we’ve gotten into this place in politics where we want absolutism, we want everybody to agree with us 100% of the time, rather than understanding not just the need for robust debate but for compromise, to actually get things done,” Lawler said. “And Ritchie understands that.”

But progressivism involves “coordination” to be effective, according to Ellman-Golan. 

“Being a lone person is maybe good for your career in terms of headlines and media attention,” Ellman-Golan said. “Governance is a team sport. You need a team of people to whom you are accountable and you need a team of people with whom you’re in coordination in order to effectively legislate and govern and make things happen. And so, that kind of thing – again, me, me, me focus – is revealing.”

Whether that will be his political albatross remains to be seen. Torres is up for reelection in November, and no significant challenger has emerged. He’s keeping any future runs quiet for now, though a recent New York Post story suggested he’s mulling a gubernatorial run in the future.

For now, Torres jokingly says he is looking for a higher calling.

“One of my constituents asked me, ‘Are you moving up? Do you hope to move up?’” Torres recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes. I hope to go to heaven. Can you put in a good word?’”