Democrats on track to elect first openly gay Black lawmakers to Congress

Voters could send a record number of LGBTQ lawmakers to Congress.

June 24, 2020, 6:21 PM

Ritchie Torres said that fourteen years ago he was a teenager struggling with depression and his sexual identity.

"I felt as if the world around me had collapsed," he said. "There were moments when I even thought of taking my own life."

Years later, after becoming the youngest member of the New York City Council, he's on the verge of possibly representing the South Bronx in Washington, DC.

"The lesson learned from my life is that even in the moment of greatest darkness, never lose hope," he said.

Torres and attorney Mondaire Jones are leading crowded fields in primaries to replace retiring Reps. Jose Serrano and Nita Lowey. While neither race has been called by the Associated Press or ABC News, as absentee ballots have yet to be counted, both, should they win, could become the first openly gay Black members of Congress.

“With these two candidates, we are on the cusp of achieving history,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, told ABC News. “

Jones, an attorney who worked in the Justice Department under President Obama and the Westchester County Law Department, received endorsements from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

He leads an eight-candidate field in a district that includes portions of New York’s Westchester and Rockland Counties in New York City’s northern suburbs.

“This is a huge victory for the progressive movement and for the working people of New York’s 17th Congressional District,” Jones told ABC News. “Government has never worked for everyone, it’s only ever worked for a subset of the American people, and I’m running to change that.”

PHOTO: In this, March 19, 2018, file photo, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres addresses a news conference in New York. | Mondaire Jones is shown in Nyack, N.Y., June 16, 2020.
In this, March 19, 2018, file photo, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres addresses a news conference in New York. | Mondaire Jones is shown in Nyack, N.Y., June 16, 2020.
Richard Drew/AP, FILE | Al J. Thompson/The New York Times via Redux

Torres, who could potentially be the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress, is ahead in a 12-candidate contest that includes City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister and social conservative with a history of anti-gay and homophobic remarks.

While some progressive activists worried that a splintered primary field would give Diaz Sr. a path to victory, he trails Torres and state assemblyman Michael Blake, after a number of outside groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, poured money into the race and ran ads against him.

“Groups lined up and said, ‘We hope you support our candidate, but don’t support Ruben Diaz Sr,’” said Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston who serves as president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which supports LGBTQ candidates for political office. “We can’t have that attitude and those beliefs in Congress, and I think that had an impact.”

"What better way to celebrate Pride than to defeat the politics of hate, the politics of homophobia," Torres told ABC News, calling his lead in the race "poetic justice."

The number of LGBTQ members of Congress reached double digits for the first time in 2019, and could hit a record high of eleven, should both candidates win their primaries, and the sitting lawmakers win reelection.

In interviews with ABC News, Jones and Torres discussed the need to further diversify representation in Congress as the nation grapples with racial inequality following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis and the coronavirus continues to disproportionally impact communities of color.

“This country is facing a reckoning when it comes to racial justice issues,” the Human Rights Campaign’s David told ABC News. “Voters are speaking up loudly about the path forward and how that path has to include people of color.”

Torres wants to "focus like a laser on affordable housing" when he arrives in Washington. Jones, who said he was raised by a single mother with the help of food assistance and subsidized housing, has called for monthly stimulus checks to Americans - $2,000 per adult and $1,000 per child – to help families weather the coronavirus-induced recession, and has also endorsed Medicare-for-All.

He said he’s excited to “bring my experiences to bear as we formulate policy at the federal level,” and also serve as the role model to Americans that he never had.

“It is a [responsibility] I take very seriously, it is one that I know would have directly improved my life if I had that kind of representation growing up,” he said.