A poll of a Bronx congressional primary circulating in New York political circles has the city’s progressive community scrambling, with fears rising that split progressive votes could allow for the election of a man who would quickly become the most retrograde, reactionary Democrat in Congress.
The poll, conducted in May by the New York-based group Data for Progress, found Rubén Díaz Sr., a fixture of New York politics for decades, atop a crowded field with 22 percent of the vote.
Much of New York’s public-facing progressive infrastructure has lined up behind Samelys López, who has a compelling life story and the backing of the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and neighboring Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But López’s campaign has failed to gain significant traction, with the poll finding her pulling just 2 percent. That’s the difference between Díaz and City Council Member Ritchie Torres, who sits at 20 percent — meaning that votes cast for López could conceivably end up electing Díaz over the far more progressive Torres.
Sean McElwee, the head of Data for Progress, said that given the poll results, it’s irresponsible for progressives not to consolidate behind Torres, who he said in 2019 was, along with Tomas Ramos, “expected to run as AOC-style progressive outsider.” The possibility of López’s backers pushing her to do that, however, grew more remote Tuesday. That morning, both the New York Times and The American Prospect highlighted the possibility that a divided field could leave Díaz on top. By the afternoon, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had announced his endorsement of López, urging his supporters to contribute to her campaign.
López said the circulation of the poll was aimed at undermining her campaign. “It seems like this poll was released by a Torres supporter and ally to send a specific message to scare people away from our campaign,” she said, noting McElwee’s professed affinity for Torres. She also questioned its methodology, arguing that the poll was text-to-internet in a district where many voters are not online. “He’s blurring the lines between data and punditry in a really irresponsible way.”
López, if the poll is accurate, is drawing fewer votes than other Democrats in the race away from whomever has the best chance to beat Díaz. Melissa Mark-Viverito, Michael Blake, and Ydanis Rodriguez were each polling at 6 percent. Collectively they would have far more ability to put Torres over the top.
López, as of the most recent filing, had raised just over $200,000, enough to mount a credible campaign but not enough to raise her name recognition high enough by the time of the survey to compete in such a crowded field against veteran politicos. López’s campaign spokesperson Jonathan Soto said $35,000 came in on Tuesday after the Sanders endorsement, bringing the total up to $260,000 for the campaign. More than 100 new volunteers came into the campaign on Tuesday and signed up for shifts, he said, bringing its ranks of active supporters to 1,023.
In the survey, 70 percent of district voters hadn’t heard of López. Though Ocasio-Cortez has helped López fundraise, the representative relies on what’s known as a leadership political action committee, which limits how much she can spend on behalf of another candidate to just $5,000. The PAC, called Courage to Change, could legally spend more through an independent expenditure, but Ocasio-Cortez has yet to do so and is facing millions in spending against her in her own primary. Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment for this story.
McElwee defended his work, saying that a text-to-web approach, combined with a web panel, has the deepest penetration of any method. “Data for Progress was the most accurate pollster in the 2020 Democratic primary,” he said. “We understand that candidates will find any way to unskew results they dislike. We look forward to retaining that reputation on the 23rd.”
The crowded field — eight candidates were polled by Data for Progress — is the result of a rare open seat in the New York area, created when Jose Serrano stepped down from the 15th District seat, which covers much of the Bronx. Similarly, in the 17th District, the retirement of Nita Lowey has led to a packed field there, for the shot at becoming effectively a congressperson-for-life.
Yet Díaz, if he wins the June 23 primary, is unlikely to hold on to a congressional seat for very long. After the 2020 census, New York is expected to lose a congressional seat thanks to relative population decline. Given how radioactive he is — Díaz won’t rule out the possibility that he’ll vote for Donald Trump for reelection and hasn’t softened any of his homophobic and sexist rhetoric or policy positions — it’s near certain that Díaz’s seat would be eliminated for the 2022 cycle, meaning that his election would be a catastrophe of limited duration for the district. (If he wanted to remain in Congress, he’d likely have to challenge Ocasio-Cortez in the new district, presuming she doesn’t run against Sen. Chuck Schumer in 2022, as has been speculated.) Yet the area has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and two years of federal neglect couldn’t come at a worse time.
The lack of ranked-choice or runoff voting has put would-be López, Blake, Mark-Viverito, and Rodriguez supporters in a difficult position. Voting their consciences might just elect their favored candidate — or it might elect Díaz. Also boding well for Díaz is that his son, Rubén Díaz Jr., is the well-liked and relatively progressive Bronx borough president. The elder Díaz’s name will simply appear as “Rubén Díaz” on the congressional ballot, and his opponents worry that thousands of New Yorkers will confuse him for his son and vote for him. The two are often seen together. In the now-viral moment when embattled Rep. Eliot Engel pleaded with the younger Díaz to be allowed to speak at a local event — “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he repeated twice — Díaz Sr., in his trademark cowboy hat, can be seen between the two of them. In the district, according to the Data for Progress survey, Díaz Sr. is more well known that Ocasio-Cortez.
Ritchie Torres, now considered the most serious challenger to Rubén Díaz Sr., grew up in the district, raised by a single mother working minimum wage jobs. At 25, without a college degree, he became the city’s youngest council member and the first openly gay elected official from the Bronx, winning his first election in 2013. That same year, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor and longtime progressive Melissa Mark-Viverito bucked party bosses to be the first Latina speaker of the council, ushering in hopes of a liberal revival after decades of rule by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg. Torres was the only elected official in the Bronx to buck the machine bosses and support Mark-Viverito’s campaign for speaker, just one example of his willingness to defy the local machine, which has never supported him, said New York City Council Member Brad Lander.
Launching his career with the support of the Working Families Party, Torres was considered a great progressive hope, part of this new wave. The dimming of those hopes is reflected in the Working Families Party’s decision to endorse López over both Torres and Mark-Viverito.
One of the first disappointments of Torres’s early career came in his first year, when he endorsed state Sen. Jeff Klein, a key architect of the turncoat Independent Democratic Conference, for reelection in 2014, amid a pledge that the IDC would stop caucusing with Republicans and return to the Democratic fold. It was a ruse, and when Klein was challenged again in 2018, the IDC again promised to mend its wandering ways. In the wake of Trump’s election, there was much less patience locally for Democrats who formed a coalition with Republicans in Albany, and Torres was under intense pressure in both directions: from the machine to endorse and from local activists to turn on him. He split the difference, declining to endorse, but publicly appeared at a fundraiser for Klein. (Alessandra Biaggi knocked off Klein in the primary, and the IDC was destroyed. Biaggi recently made news by rescinding her endorsement of Engel, who beat her grandfather Mario Biaggi to win the seat in 1988. She is supporting Jamaal Bowman instead.)
A second disappointment came on the legislative front in the fight over the Right to Know Act. It was initially a four-part piece of legislation, produced by community groups and ushered by Lander and Council Member Jumaane Williams. Two of the four pieces became law before de Blasio’s election, and following de Blasio and Mark-Viverto’s ascension to power. The next two pieces were expected to pass in the next legislative session.
Torres, a rising Democratic star, was tasked with shepherding a remaining piece of it, but when it came to policing, de Blasio and Mark-Viverto did not usher in the expected era of reform. Under intense pressure from both the mayor and city council speaker, Torres caved on the legislation, reaching a compromise without conferring with the coalition of community groups who had initially launched the reform effort.
The bill would have mandated that officers provide their ID in all interactions with the public, which would ease the ability of residents to file complaints against cops who had acted inappropriately. Torres’s compromise weakened it to exclude the most common low-level encounters between cops and the community, an important policy difference. But what Torres drew even more heat for was his decision to keep the groups in the dark about their own legislation.
When Torres buckled to the mayor and council speaker, his about-face stunned his erstwhile community allies. “The police already killed our children,” said Iris Baez, whose son Anthony was killed by the New York Police Department in 1994 and was involved in the effort, in a statement to The Intercept. “Then Ritchie Torres stabbed us in the back. We — the families — were fighting for the Right to Know Act to protect our youth and make our communities safer, but he gutted the bill. If Torres had done the right thing, it would have helped reduce police violence and we might not be in the position we’re in now.”
At the time of the bill’s passage, Torres justified his decision by saying that the NYPD would have refused to cooperate. “We all have memories of 2014 when an open revolt in the police department broke out,” he said. Torres, referring to the community organizations, said, “No advocate should have veto power over the legislative agenda of NYC.” If the legislation had passed as is, Torres warned, the NYPD may have gone into “open revolt.”
“Even if it means I am no longer beloved in progressive circles, even if I have no future in progressive politics, I am at peace with the path I have chosen,” Torres said at the end of his speech.
Lander, one of the original sponsors of the Right to Know Act, clashed with Torres over the compromise. “We had a hard time after the Right to Know Act. That damaged our friendship,” Lander said, arguing that whatever the policy argument, reaching a deal behind closed doors without the involvement of the families and groups who inspired the legislation was inappropriate. Yet, Lander said, taken as a whole, Torres is a broadly progressive legislator with a towering intellect worthy of support.
“He doesn’t hold himself out as an AOC-style progressive. … He’s not running a Jamaal Bowman campaign. That’s a fair criticism.” said Lander, who has endorsed both Torres and Bowman. He likened Torres to Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal, saying that Torres could act as a bridge between the so-called Squad and the broader progressive world.
“There are different kinds of progressive at this moment in time, and his body of work is fighting for the people of his district in a pretty real way,” Lander said. Torres is hard to put in a box, he said, and people who saw him as a great progressive hope may have been projecting their own desires on to him.
“It’s not the case that he was a leftist who sold out and went moderate. It is the case that he’s a really fascinating, progressive, genuine, and complicated person, and that has been true from the beginning and it remains true now,” Lander said. “And if people saw something they wanted to stereotype in a certain way, I think it’s honestly more on them than on him.”
Despite Torres acquiescing to the NYPD’s demands on the Right to Know bill, mass protests over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor appear to have shifted his views. On Tuesday, Torres referred to the vitriolic NYPD sergeants’ union as “a hate group masquerading as a labor union” and demanded that the union be investigated for doxxing de Blasio’s daughter. Torres’s campaign manager said in a statement that he remained the strongest opponent of Díaz:
This race is a contest between a Trump-supporting conservative, who’s been, endorsed by the Police Benevolent Association, and Ritchie Torres — an Afro-Latino LGBTQ former Bernie delegate who passed the Right to Know Act despite opposition from every police union in the city and has been endorsed by Right-to-Know Act co-sponsor Council Member Antonio Reynoso. As shown in recent polling by Data for Progress, Ritchie is the only candidate who can beat Diaz, and ensure that the bluest congressional seat in the nation never falls into the homophobic hands of a PBA-backed Trump Republican.
Indeed, Díaz has been endorsed by the Police Benevolent Association, and police unions opposed even the compromise version of Torres’s bill. Much of Díaz’s campaign funds appear to come from fellow evangelical ministers, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The other knock on Torres is his funding from luxury real estate developers, a power center in the city and key driver of gentrification. Lander, who refuses real estate money, said he wouldn’t defend Torres’s acceptance of money from that sector, but understood that a council race, which has an 8-to-1 public financing match, is a different beast than a congressional race, and that beating Díaz will take serious amounts of money. That was a point Torres made to the New York Times. “He’s supposed to let a surrogate say this in the Times article, but he’s not wrong. To beat Reverend Díaz is going to take a candidate with a lot of money,” Lander said.
Despite those relationships, Torres, who chairs the committee on public housing, has had a strong record on housing — particularly in opposition to predatory landlords — Lander said, acknowledging the weakness of that argument. “I don’t typically love that defense,” Lander said. “I appreciate the point of view that says it’s a dangerous road to go down because the trappings of those relationships can have long term consequences. That is real.”
Torres has also accepted $11,200 in campaign contributions from hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and his wife Margaret. Loeb was until 2018 a longtime trustee of the Manhattan Institute, which created and propagated the “broken windows” theory that emphasized violent policing practices in impoverished communities at the expense of solving serious crimes. Loeb, a close ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo but also a major GOP donor, has also been criticized for using racist language when talking about New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
Torres also counts among his donors Bradley Tusk, an NYPD union lobbyist and Bloomberg adviser who also was behind Uber’s introduction to New York City. In Torres’s campaign for city council, he received $6,750 in campaign contributions from law enforcement unions, including $2,500 from the Police Benevolent Association.
McElwee, of Data for Progress, has argued that Torres has the best chance of stopping Díaz, and his advocacy has strained an already tense relationship with Democratic Socialists for America, which is backing López. In the Times, Torres took his own shot at DSA. “If you go to a black church in the South Bronx, you are unlikely to come across an assemblage of democratic socialist revolutionaries,” said Torres. “It’s a fact that the D.S.A. has the most robust membership in wealthier, whiter gentrified neighborhoods.”
López said that Torres’s dismissal of democratic socialism in the district betrayed the legacy of retiring Rep. Jose Serrano, one of the most progressive legislators in Congress, whom López previously worked for. “A lot of these corporate Democrats are running on middle-of-the-road policies but Congressman Serrano is one of the left-most members of Congress. Democratic Socialists of America and Jose Serrano are very much aligned politically,” she said. “We need representation that respects Serrano’s legacy and takes it to the next level.”
Serrano and his son, state Sen. Jose M. Serrano, have remained neutral in the race.
Torres’s independence and intellectual strength can be both a blessing and a curse, Lander said. “He can think himself out of problems, but he can also think himself into problems,” he said. The same impulse to buck the party establishment likely contributed to his bucking of his own allies in the police reform fight. “He’s uncomfortable with a sort of received wisdom, or the way you’re supposed to do something,” Lander said.
“And that’s not a bad trait. It doesn’t always make you a good movement actor.”