Ritchie Torres may have been the youngest Council member (26) when he officially took office on Jan. 1. But he was even younger after winning the competitive September primary . That’s the day he considered the beginning of his term. Though he obviously didn’t have any Council staffers, he sent volunteers to community meetings of all kinds in District 15 (Belmont; east and west Tremont; Fordham north and south; west Tremont, Pelham Parkway North and Van Nest).
And that’s still a top focus. He learned it from his former boss, Council Member Jimmy Vacca , who took on Torres as an intern when he attended Lehman High School in the east Bronx. In terms of political philosophy and specific issue stances, they’re different kinds of Democrats. “I am to his left on ideology,” Torres said. “But to be honest with you, my emphasis on constituent service and community organizations is shaped by my experience in Jimmy’s office.”
And perhaps because he represents a poorer part of the Bronx with greater needs, Torres urges staffers to be sheer activists. “I want them to be organizers, knocking on doors, proactively reaching out to constituents,” Torres said. “I have a vision of my staff as part of an organizing infrastructure. I want to partner with groups like the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and NIDC [Neighborhood Initiatives Development Corporation]. I think housing organizing is going to be one of my highest priorities, given my background and given the needs of the district.”
And Torres assigns himself to meeting with leaders of groups, “all big and small,” he says. “You want to partner with these organizations that increase the quality of life in the community,” Torres says. “I’m only as strong, and as good, as the partnerships that I build and I see all these leaders as partners in public service.”
And now, Torres has been given a key role to focus on policy priorities that a 26-year-old Council newbie could never have imagined. He was the only Bronx council member-elect who strongly supported Melissa Mark-Viverito for speaker from the beginning.
“The Bronx has a tradition of allegiance to the County organization, so for a new member like me to assert his independence and side with the progressive caucus did cause some resentment,” Torres said.
It was a highly successful tradeoff. The speaker appointed Torres to chair the Committee on Public Housing (he grew up as a NYCHA tenant) and to the Council leadership team.
Since the city “doesn’t invest as much in housing organizing as it once did,” Torres wants the Big Apple to get back to “engag[ing] tenant leaders in the process of enforcing the housing code,” and to push for an “increase in civil penalties for code violations and an increase in the interest rate on emergency repairs.” And because there’s a sunset in a law addressing liens, he said, “we should ensure that HPD continues to have the ability to impose a lien to landlords that fail to make payments.” When landlords don’t pay the city what they owe it for, say, water bills or property taxes, those charges can be sold to private entities that vigorously go after the dough. Most landlords would never want to face that.
Like de Blasio and Mark-Viverito, Torres sees expanding paid sick leave as an “immediate priority.”
“I’m hopeful that we’re going to have an opportunity to focus on expanding living wage and to create more affordable housing through mandatory inclusionary zoning,” he said.
His living wage focus already got him arrested— for the first time — with eight of his Council colleagues (and among 30 people total, all organized by SEIU and 32BJ unions) near LaGuardia Airport. The protest was aimed at making sure all security guards and cleaners get sick days, vacation time and better pay. And it being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Mark-Viverito and other leaders said they wanted that day to be a paid holiday for all airport workers.
“I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate MLK Day than to get arrested on behalf of workers [seeking] a better life for themselves and their families,” Torres said.
Locally, he points to large, successful corporate nonprofits — like the Bronx Zoo, New York Botanical Garden, Fordham University — and even Belmont, the borough’s popular Little Italy. He wants them all to focus on local hiring. “Businesses here should make a point of hiring folks locally,” Torres said. “That should be a starting point.”
And he echoes the mayor: “When you see the contrast between those [organizations] and neighborhoods, that’s the tale of two cities,” Torres says.
In terms of economic development projects, he likes what he sees just beyond his district. “I’m looking to Kingsbridge Armory as a model,” he said. “It should be a standard for every economic development project in the city.”
Torres and his staff of seven currently occupy the office of former councilman Joel Rivera on Southern Boulevard. But Torres plans to move his staff to a new office near the intersection of Fordham Road and Hoffman Avenue. It just needs some renovations and is “going smoothly,” he said.
This is the first in a series of profiles Bronx Bureau will run of new Council members from the borough.