Ritchie Torres, a congressman from America’s poorest district – the 15th in New York City, in the Bronx – quietly bristles at the AOC comparison.
“There’s a sense in which the media narrative diminishes me,” he tells me over plates of pasta at a restaurant in Little Italy in the Bronx when I bring up the subject of his famous Democratic colleague from a nearby neighborhood, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “I resist the temptation to subscribe to a preconceived narrative. My career in politics predates the Squad.
No need to explain who and what is meant by Squad – members of the House considered by some to be the dawn of a new Democratic Party and by others as the Four Horsemen of the Wokepocalypse. Shortly after our lunch, AOC once again became the topic of the national conversation for his political posture while posing pictorially at the Met Gala.
The bigger mystery is why Torres (who was absolutely not at the gala) has yet to become a household name in the United States. On the identity and history sheet, he ticks each progressive box. Afro-Latino, the son of a single mother who raised three children working as a mechanic’s helper with a minimum wage of $ 4.25 an hour, a product of social housing and public schools, a half-brother of two former inmates, an abandoned NYU, the Bronx’s first openly gay elected official when he won a city council seat in 2013 at the age of 25 and the winner of a Christian minister who disparaged homosexuals when won its House seat last year.
He is dazzlingly intelligent. 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 progressive is supposed to look and be like and be, except in one respect: unlike much of the modern left (including AOC, who grew up as an architect’s daughter in the middle-class town of Westchester from Yorktown Heights), he’s truly a working-class child. He understands what working class people want, as opposed to what so many of his self-proclaimed champions claim to want.
“I am not hiring ideologues or fanatics,” he told me during a walk in his neighborhood. “Most people in the South Bronx are pragmatic rather than ideological. Their concerns are bread and butter, health and housing, schools and employment.
This translates into a 21st century civil rights agenda based on the pressing needs of the working class for affordable housing, better schools, safer streets and good health care. The goals are incremental, but the solutions, for Torres, must be pragmatic.
This categorically includes giving children the opportunity to attend “carefully regulated, not-for-profit” charter schools, which her district has in abundance, despite 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.
It’s also consumed by the affordable housing crisis, possibly the biggest challenge facing low-income New Yorkers. One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first plans to address the crisis, Torres recalls, involved building 75,000 units over 10 years. Still, demand was closer to six times that number. “Even if we were to create 75,000 tomorrow instead of 10 years, we would be devastating to close the gap between supply and demand.”
His answer is a classic triangulation between the interventionism of large governments and the common sense of small governments. He wants to dramatically increase the federal Section 8 voucher program, turning it into a new federal right – “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 to rent it. This would “instantly make millions of units affordable for the poorest households.”
But he also understands the need to streamline the public review process to increase housing supply. “One of the great ironies of our time is that some of the most progressive cities are among the most consistently racist in their housing policies,” he says, referring to San Francisco’s single-family zoning policies and other housing practices. use of land which is the way liberals discriminate today.
Torres is also particularly alarmed by the phenomenon that Russian-American evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin calls “elite overproduction.”
“We produce a lot more university graduates than there are elite positions for those graduates,” observes Torres. When these graduates find themselves in heavy debt, excluded from the types of jobs they were promised and crushed by the cost of housing, “it will inevitably have a radicalizing effect.”
This is a strong argument for more vocational schools. It is also a call for the RDF to save capitalism from itself, lest the people Torres calls “the new Jacobins” no longer hold sway.
Speaking of FDR, there will be a New York governor’s race next year. Torres would be a formidable main opponent of the new governor, Kathy Hochul. As perhaps the most singular political talent of his generation, he is a progressive who could, finally, do more to unite the nation than to divide it further.