Ritchie Torres stood in front of 50 hardcore union activists. Few of them had ever heard of Torres, an openly gay 25-year-old who lives in low-income housing. But as a rookie politician running for City Council, Torres desperately needed union support to stand out in a hotly contested race for the Bronx's 15th District. And there was no better place to win the backing of the labor movement than the "candidates' screening" held early in election season by the New York City Central Labor Council.
"Ritchie wasn't even invited because no one knew he was running," said Marco Carrion, political director of the influential union umbrella group. "But he called up a week before and asked if he could come."
Tall and thin, his face contoured by prominent cheekbones, Torres exuded confidence. He told union leaders about his own childhood growing up in public housing in the Bronx. He spoke of the need for a living wage, and his belief that the city should build more affordable housing using union labor and quality materials. Without unions, Torres said, there would be no middle class.
"Without any hyperbole, Ritchie was the star of the day," said Carrion. "He was the person everyone talked about."
Torres' performance on that night late in January earned him the group's coveted endorsement. It also won him a campaign manager, Juan Antigua, a 24-year-old political operative who had been close to supporting another candidate in the race.
"I got three calls from three different people who were at that screening," Antigua said. All bore the same news:
"This guy, Ritchie Torres, he's the guy who can change the Bronx."
So who is Ritchie Torres? And what can a fresh face really do to change New York's poorest borough? In light of Torres' campaign promises, it's worth looking at his background – and asking why a controversial real estate industry Super PAC, one with an agenda seemingly antithetical to Torres' own, would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of his candidacy.
A way out
The 15th District lies in the heart of the Bronx, encompassing Belmont and parts of Tremont, Fordham and several other neighborhoods, as well as landmarks like the Bronx Zoo, the Botanical Gardens, Little Italy and Fordham University. It has high levels of unemployment and poverty, and not enough affordable housing.
"You have all these world-class institutions," Torres said in an interview, "but beneath the gilded surface, you have profound levels of poverty."
Torres grew up very much beneath the gilded surface in the Throggs Neck Houses, a public housing project in another part of the Bronx.
His father was not a part of his life. His mother, Debra Bosolet, cycled through a series of low-wage jobs.
Sometimes life was easier: in the early 2000's, Bosolet worked as a clerical assistant at a law firm, Torres said. At other points, she delivered Domino's pizza, nervously fingering her cash as she ventured into dangerous neighborhoods carrying pepperoni and extra cheese pies.
The family's two-bedroom apartment was beset with vermin and a leaky roof. The bathroom walls oozed mold.
Christmas sometimes came and went without gifts. "I want to be careful not to say I had these complex thoughts as a child," said Torres, "but you experience it as a loss of innocence, right? You have to grow up much faster than everyone else."
Torres was an unusual child. He saw his teachers as role models. As a teenager he read Time and the New Yorker.
Rather than spend the little money he did have on fancy sneakers, he used it for an annual subscription to a magazine.
One of his admirers at Herbert S. Lehman High School was an English teacher named Wallace Bullock. Bullock never had Torres in class, but he watched as the promising student grew into a talented public speaker. Torres delivered Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at assemblies. He loved learning Hamlet's soliloquies. "Ritchie was an oratorical phenomenon," said Michael DeStefano, a social studies teacher at Lehman. "The best speaker we had ever seen."
Bullock remembers Torres as a brilliant, charismatic student. More often than was necessary, Torres showed up to class in a suit. "You didn't get a sense of the struggle he might have been having at home," said Bullock.
Torres came out during a speech he delivered at a school assembly for gay rights. "It was very difficult for Ritchie because he was a humble kid," said Robert Leder, Lehman's principal from 1979 to 2008. "But I think it was cathartic for him. It helped him move forward."
Torres also found success in "moot court," a competition that simulates the kind of heady cases that come before the Supreme Court. In 2004 and 2005, he led Lehman, better known for football prowess, to its first victories in citywide competitions. Gail Peters, a teacher and former assistant district attorney who coached Torres on the law team, said he had "the most natural intellectual ability of any kid I've ever taught."
In a teenager, that kind of intelligence can sometimes lead to arrogance. Peters said the gifted Torres wasn't always religious about attending class. "He wasn't the typical nerdy, go to class, do your homework, get 100 on every test kind of student," she remembered. "He had bigger things in mind." He also had to care for his ailing grandmother, Rose Bosolet, after moving in with her for his final two years of high school.
After graduating from Lehman in 2006, Torres saw a clear path to college and then law school. He enrolled at NYU, but the death of his grandmother – and the pressure of paying even partial tuition to an expensive private school – proved overwhelming. Torres completed his freshman year. Then he dropped out.
"I think Ritchie was probably not as prepared to go to NYU as some students who come from affluent communities," said his law coach Peters. "They're from a different world. They didn't grow up in a housing project."
Back in Throggs Neck, Torres still had options. In high school, Principal Leder had picked him to spend a day with James
Vacca, the long serving district manager of Community Board 10 in the Bronx.
Torres impressed Vacca. "His vocabulary and his articulateness really knocked me for a loop," Vacca told me. "I had met very few students at that age who had his critical-thinking skills." After Torres left NYU, Vacca, now a member of the City Council for District 13, offered him a part-time job. Torres eventually became the councilman's housing director, and an expert at organizing tenants.
Torres' political interests reflect his upbringing. Because his mother couldn't take time off to care for his grandmother, he supports paid sick days and a higher minimum wage. Because his family's bathroom was covered in mold, he thinks the fungus should be classified as an official hazard, like asbestos or lead.
And he has little tolerance for negligent landlords. Four years ago, the manager of an apartment complex in the Bronx's Van Nest neighborhood removed support beams from the building's basement during an unlicensed renovation. Five flights up, in the apartment of Helen Schuck and her husband Mickey Schmatz, cracks began to appear in the kitchen's smooth white walls.
"We could feel the vibration of the construction at night," Schuck recalled in a recent interview. Over several months, the wood of the living room floor rotted away. The toilet leaked. The heat stopped working. Schuck asked the building manager, Vinny Prelvukaj, to fix her disintegrating home, where she and Mickey had lived happily for more than three decades. He refused, Schuck said.
Other residents in the building were dealing with similar problems. They suspected Prelvukaj was gutting the basement to make room for illegal apartments. Schuck called Vacca's office. Vacca and Torres came to tenants' meetings. Soon, Torres was showing up at midnight with a camera to document the illegal construction. The city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development filed a lawsuit against Prelvukaj.
Reached by telephone last week, Prelvukaj expressed his fury at Torres. "He really did a f--king number on me, that guy," Prelvukaj said. "Don't get me wrong, the apartments were old, but this was a publicity stunt. They were trying to make an example of me."
City documents show that inspectors found numerous violations at the building. In the spring of 2012, a judge fined
Prelvukaj $56,000 on top of $43,000 he owed in other fines, and ordered him to conduct repairs, which he did.
"Some politicians promise you the world, but then you don't hear from them," said Mickey Schmatz. "Ritchie's not like that. If he says he's gonna do something, he will fight tooth-and-nail."
On the trail
Torres got into the City Council race in January, after several other candidates had already declared. His sexuality posed a risk. The Bronx, while overwhelmingly Democratic, has long been skeptical of gay rights. One of the borough's most powerful politicians, State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., led the fight against gay marriage in New York. And an ally of Diaz Sr., the socially conservative Rev. Joel Bauza, entered the 15th District race.
Torres calls the Bronx New York's "Bible Belt." But things are changing. Kevin Finnegan, political director of 1199 SEIU, a powerful healthcare workers union, said Torres' sexuality played into the union's endorsement of the promising young candidate. "It was going to piss off Diaz Sr., which in and of itself made me happy," joked Finnegan, who is also openly gay.
There were, however, other challenges. Eight other candidates were competing for the seat, including Albert Alvarez, the chief-of-staff for outgoing Councilman Joel Rivera, who endorsed his protégé; and a community activist also named Joel Rivera, who sent out campaign mailers and posters without his photograph.
After a barrage of criticism, Rivera, who neither lives nor keeps his campaign office in the 15th District, promised to start using his middle name in order to distinguish himself from the incumbent. He did not respond to e-mails or voice messages left at his campaign office.
Torres attracted his own share of controversy. A political action committee financed largely by the real estate industry spent $267,000 in support of Torres and $110,000 against his main rival, the candidate the PAC labeled "Fake" Joel Rivera. Indeed, the PAC's spending dwarfs the $170,000 spent by Torres.
By law, the PAC was not allowed to coordinate with Torres or donate directly to his campaign. But his opponents still accused him of being a lapdog for the real estate industry. In a press release, Cynthia Thompkins, another candidate in the race, claimed Torres was "taking the script" from real estate titans and the Tea Party while running a dishonest campaign.
Torres speaks angrily about that PAC, Jobs for New York, declaring that his beliefs are not for sale. "I never asked for their support, never wanted their support, never sought their support," explained Torres, who also attracted the endorsement of the Working Families Party and several major unions.
"I reject the notion that politics changes who are you," he continued. "It reveals who you are. And if you're entering politics with a moral core then no amount of independent expenditure is going to change what you will do in public office."
And Torres says the PAC didn't sway voters. Its support was limited to "generic mailings," in his words, blandly proclaiming his devotion to seniors and job creation. "Voter contact is what wins a hotly contested race," said Torres.
"Ritchie knocked on over 5,000 doors," added his campaign manager, Juan Antigua. "I was at subways in the morning," Torres explained. "I was at senior centers around noon. I was meeting parents after school."
While Torres hustled around his district, getting by on Ensure shakes and bananas, his opponent Joel Ray Rivera spent around $5,500 on food for his staff, most of it at just two restaurants, El Nuevo Valle and Little Caesar's Pizza.
Torres won the primary with 36 percent of the vote, beating Rivera, his closest challenger, by 15 points.
But the race isn't over. Even before the primary results came in, Rivera announced he would run against Torres in the general election – as a Republican. (Just 6.7 percent of Bronx voters belong to the GOP.) And Rev. Joel Bauza, who received 5 percent of the vote in the primary, has secured the Conservative party line for November's contest. If Torres beats his rivals again, as seems likely, he'll become the first openly gay candidate elected to high office in the Bronx.
So why did the PAC choose to support Torres, a former tenant organizer who calls himself a "bona-fide progressive" and promises to push for higher wage standards and more affordable housing?
The group's website says it believes in "keeping New York affordable and creating jobs" while fostering a healthy business climate. A memo by the group's communications strategist, obtained by the New York World, describes the PAC as a joint venture between the Real Estate Board of New York and several labor unions.
Critics remain skeptical of the group's goals. Jaron Benjamin of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenants' rights organization, called Jobs for New York "completely disingenuous." Its spending, he said, shows how "big money interests…will do whatever they can to try to buy elections." (The PAC declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.)
In past city elections, the real estate board backed pro-industry candidates, who usually lost to rivals endorsed by the pro-labor Working Families Party. But that was before the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, which allowed outside groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash, provided they did not coordinate campaign activities with candidates.
In 2013, Jobs for New York endorsed 23 candidates in city races, spending a total of $4.9 million. Many of those candidates were also supported by the progressive Working Families Party, a surprising shift in strategy for the real estate industry. But it seems to have worked, as 17 of the 23 won their races.
During the campaign, some City Council candidates, like Laurie Cumbo of Brooklyn, did criticize the PAC, even as her campaign benefited from its spending.
But Torres never publicly denounced Jobs for New York. He said it wouldn't have mattered. After Cumbo repudiated the PAC, it continued to spend money on her race, which she won by nine points.
Torres' supporters aren't worried he'll go back on his promises. Khan Sholeb, a spokesperson for the WFP, said progressive candidates like Torres wouldn't give up a "lifetime of advocacy" in exchange for someone "sending junk mail in their district." He called the PAC's activities "a sad way to spend $5 million."
And Kevin Finnegan of 1199 SEIU expressed doubts that the PAC was trying to buy access. "If you're an elected official, you need to talk" to the real estate industry anyway, Finnegan said.
Finnegan suspects Jobs for New York was created to make up for the industry's "bad track record" in previous elections. "I think they chose him and Laurie Cumbo in Brooklyn to demonstrate they can get some wins," Finnegan said. "Because whenever they opposed us [four years ago], we won. If they want to take the credit this time, that's fine."
In addition to independent expenditure on his behalf, Torres raised $112,000 in private funds, by far the most among candidates in the 15th District race. Around 75 percent of that money came from small donors who contributed less than $175. His biggest supporters, those who gave upwards of $1,000, included other progressive politicians, union groups, and executives in the real estate, contracting and restaurant businesses. He also received $133,000 in public funds.
As a rookie, Torres isn't likely to dominate City Council proceedings. Even so, he has big plans – and says he'll draw on a growing number of progressives in the Council to make them reality.
"I want to change the process of governing," Torres explains. "The role of the City Council is not only to pass laws, but also to oversee city agencies. Even though the Council has the power to subpoena members of the executive branch, we almost never do."
One agency he has in mind for more attention? The New York City Housing Authority, which manages public housing. While acknowledging its $14 billion budget shortfall, Torres called NYCHA "arguably the worst slumlord in the city." In an era of declining federal funding, he says the city should pay more to reduce the backlog of maintenance requests put in by residents of public housing. Many of them face the same problems he did as a child: mold, rats, and crumbling walls and ceilings.
And Torres says the City Council should use "all the powers of the state," including its oversight of subsidies, leases and zoning, to create more affordable housing. Developers who work with the city "need to set aside a larger share of their properties for affordable housing," he said. The ratio for city-subsidized projects is typically 80 percent market-rate, 20 percent affordable. Torres wants to see it at 70 to 30.
He also believes Mayor Bloomberg's focus on standardized testing has hurt city schools. "Just like pure profit has become the guiding motive in business, test scores are driving education," he argues. The mayor, Torres says, has taken resources away from "extracurricular programs and the arts – in other words the human element of learning." Torres would vote to restore that funding.
All these ideas cost money. Where will it come from? Torres thinks it's a question of misplaced priorities. "We hand out hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to developers," he said. "Why don't we use some of that money to create programs that will lift our citizens out of poverty and provide them a decent place to live?"
Above all, Torres wants to create a responsive government that will get New Yorkers involved in civic life. That calls for a brand of street-level, retail politics. But getting involved in voters' lives takes a toll. "You feel like a psychotherapist because you have all these constituents who are bringing a part of their lives to you," said Torres. "It's hard not to take some of their problems home with you."
Despite his charm, his popularity in school, and politician's knack for working the room, there's an air of loneliness about Torres. He describes himself as an introvert. He doesn't have a boyfriend. When asked what he does for fun, his campaign manager Antigua interjects: "More work!"
Torres says most of the people he knows like and respect him. But there's still a distance, a boundary that politics will surely test. "I mostly keep to myself," says Torres. "I have many friends, but few intimates."