Ritchie Torres, a congressman from America’s poorest district — New York’s 15th, in the Bronx — quietly bristles at the A.O.C. comparison.
“There’s a sense in which the media narrative diminishes me,” he tells me over plates of pasta at a restaurant in the Bronx’s Little Italy when I raise the subject of his notorious fellow Democrat from an adjoining district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “I resist the temptation to fit into a preconceived narrative. My career in politics long predates the Squad.”
No need to explain who and what is meant by the Squad — the House members seen by some as the bright dawning of a new Democratic Party and by others as the Four Horsewomen of the Wokepocalypse. Not long after our lunch, A.O.C. once again became Topic A of national conversation for posturing politically while posing pictorially at the Met Gala.
The bigger mystery is why Torres (who was emphatically not at the gala) hasn’t yet become a household name in the United States. On the identity-and-background scorecard, he checks every progressive box. Afro-Latino, the son of a single mom who raised three children working as a mechanic’s assistant on a minimum-wage salary of $4.25 an hour, a product of public housing and public schools, a half brother of two former prison inmates, an N.Y.U. dropout, the Bronx’s first openly gay elected official when he won a seat on the City Council in 2013 at the age of 25 and the victor over a gay-bashing Christian minister when he won his House seat last year.
He’s dazzlingly smart. He sees himself “on a mission to radically reduce racially concentrated poverty in the Bronx and elsewhere in America.”
In other words, Torres is everything a modern-day progressive is supposed to look and be like, except in one respect: Unlike so much of the modern left (including A.O.C., who grew up as an architect’s daughter in the middle-class Westchester town of Yorktown Heights), he really is a child of the working class. He understands what working-class people want, as opposed to what so many of its self-appointed champions claim they want.
“I don’t hire ideologues or zealots,” he tells me on a walk through his district. “Most of the people in the South Bronx are practical rather than ideological. Their concerns are bread and butter, health and housing, schools and jobs.”
What this translates to is a 21st-century civil rights agenda based on pressing working-class needs for affordable housing, better schools, safer streets, good health care. The goals are progressive, but the solutions, for Torres, have to be pragmatic.
That emphatically includes giving children the option to attend “carefully regulated, not-for-profit” charter schools, which his district has in abundance, over fierce opposition from teachers’ unions. “If there are parents in my district who have concluded that the best option for their children is a charter school, then who am I to tell them otherwise?” he asks.
He is also consumed by the crisis of affordable housing, probably the single biggest challenge facing lower-income New Yorkers. One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s early drafts for solving the crisis, Torres recalls, involved building 75,000 units over 10 years. Yet the demand was closer to six times that number. “Even if we created 75,000 tomorrow instead of 10 years, we’d fall catastrophically short between bridging the gap between supply and demand.”
His answer is a classic triangulation between big-government interventionism and small-government common sense. He wants to greatly increase the Section 8 federal voucher program, turning it into a new federal entitlement — “housing vouchers for all,” he calls it — that would ensure that no American family would need to pay more than 30 percent of its income in rent. Doing so “would instantaneously make millions of units affordable for the lowest-income households.”
But he also understands the need to streamline the public-review process to increase the supply of housing stock. “One of the great ironies of our time is that some of the most progressive cities are among the most systemically racist in their housing policies,” he says, mentioning San Francisco’s policies of single-family zoning and other land-use practices that are the way in which liberals discriminate today.
Torres is also particularly alarmed by the phenomenon that the Russian American evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin calls “elite overproduction.”
“We produce far more college graduates than there are elite positions for those graduates to occupy,” Torres observes. When those graduates find themselves deep in debt, shut out of the kinds of jobs they were promised and crushed by the cost of housing, “it is bound to have a radicalizing effect.”
It’s a strong argument for more vocational schools. It’s also an F.D.R.-esque call to save capitalism from itself, lest the people Torres calls “the New Jacobins” gain further grip.
Speaking of F.D.R., there will be a New York governor’s race next year. Torres would be a formidable primary opponent to the new governor, Kathy Hochul. As perhaps the most singular political talent of his generation, he is one progressive who could, at last, do more to unite the nation than to further divide it.
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