"A Fighter for My Country"
An interview with Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York
Since its 2021 inception, The Liberal Patriot has focused on promoting American values of dignity and rights for all people, political pluralism, and the common good by offering original analyses on U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy in a digital newsletter. As part of its 2023 expansion of content and activities, The Liberal Patriot will offer an occasional feature profiling uncommon leaders who have worked in their own way to build coalitions that support America’s workers and families at home and back a steadier engagement for U.S. foreign policy in the world. This interview with U.S. Congressman Ritchie Torres, a Democrat representing New York’s 15th Congressional district in his second term, was conducted on May 5, 2023 and is the first in this new occasional series.
- Brian Katulis, editor-at-large
Brian Katulis: What inspired you to get involved in in public life and politics, what was the big spark?
Rep. Ritchie Torres: The experience that most inspired me to enter public life was the experience growing up in public housing in New York City. In New York City, the New York City Housing Authority, commonly known as NYCHA, manages a public housing stock that houses a population of about a half a million people—and if NYCHA were a city unto itself, it would be the largest city of black and brown low-income Americans in the United States. It's been so systematically starved of funding. It's got a capital need of about $40 billion in New York City alone. Tenants like me had to grow up in conditions of mold and mildew, leaks and lead, without reliable heat and hot water in the winter.
My life is something of a metaphor because I grew up in a public housing development right across the street from what ultimately became a Trump golf course, and as the golf course was undergoing construction it unleashed a skunk infestation—so I tell people I’ve been smelling the stench of Donald Trump well before he entered American politics.
As the conditions of my home were getting worse every day, the local government had invested about $100 million in a golf course ultimately named after Donald Trump. And I remember asking myself at the time, what does it say about our society that we’re willing to invest more in a golf course than in the homes of poor people of color and public housing in places like the Bronx. And so I essentially got my start in politics as a housing organizer, and then eventually at age 24 I took the leap of faith and ran for public office.
I was only 24, I had no deep pockets, no ties to the party machine, but I spent a whole year doing nothing but knocking on doors. I went into people's homes, I heard their stories, and I won my first campaign on the strength of door-to-door, face-to-face campaigning. I became the first openly LGBTQ elected official from the Bronx, which at the time had a tradition of socially conservative Democrats.
What’s remarkable is that seven years before then, I was nowhere near the United States Congress. I was at the lowest point of my life, struggling with depression. Dropped out of college, abusing substances, and there was even a moment when I thought of taking my own life because I felt as if the world around me had collapsed. I never thought in my wildest dreams that several years later I would become the youngest elected official in America’s largest city, and today that I’d be speaking with you as a member of the United States Congress.
Only America is my story possible. I'm living proof that America is the greatest country on earth, that people come from the places where you least expect success have a fighting chance of realizing the American dream.
Katulis: I admire your courage in talking about all the challenges that you’ve faced because it's a lot of the same challenges many Americans face and surfacing those challenges helps people connect with you and enhances your role and voice as a leader. When you think about the leadership role that you have in the community and what role you play on a national level, what are your long-term goals? What do you want to get done?
Torres: I see myself as a fighter for my county, the Bronx, for my city, New York, and for my country, the United States.
You know, I have the honor of representing the Bronx, which I call the essential county of America because during COVID we saw essential workers from places like the South Bronx put their lives at risk during the peak of the pandemic so that the rest of the city could safely shelter in place. I feel like as a society we are judged by how we treat not only most vulnerable but also the most essential among us, and I worry about the impact of the affordability crisis on the essential workforce on whom all of us depend.
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition came out with a report which found that there's not a single county in America where an essential worker earning minimum wage could afford a two-bedroom apartment. And out of 3,000 counties, there are only seven where such a worker earning minimum wage could afford a one-bedroom apartment. There's a real concern that America is becoming dangerously unaffordable to the most essential workers.
My big idea in housing is housing vouchers for all—every family struggling with housing insecurity or homelessness should have access to a housing voucher which ensures that you pay no more than 30 percent of your income towards your rent. Universalization of a program like Section 8 [the federal government's program for assisting low-income families, the disabled, and the elderly afford housing] for those who need it would radically reduce homelessness and housing insecurity in America. At the core of the affordability crisis is a gap between supply and demand—the demand for affordable housing far exceeds the supply, and so there’s a need for greater housing supply. There’s a need to create enough affordable housing to meet the demand, but there’s also a need for greater housing subsidy to ensure that the housing that we create is truly affordable to those in greatest need.
America’s Place in the World and Restoring Confidence in Elected Leaders
Katulis: When you think longer term, where do you want your contribution to the country to go? Do you have wider aspirations? Because that issue is particularly vital for your district and for many cities across the country, but when you think bigger picture, what would you like to say?
Torres: I see myself as a fighter for my country, and I hope to do my part in enabling America to be the best version of itself. We need to be more productive and innovative at home, and to be competitive abroad, so I think deeply about American leadership in the world.
You know, I am convinced that for all our imperfections, America is the greatest country on Earth. It is a multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual democracy the likes of which the world has never seen. The dominant form of government in human history has been empire, and the dominant form of democracy in human history has been small, homogeneous democracy. America’s multiracial democracy should be seen as a miracle in the grand sweep of history.
Since World War II, we’ve seen the emergence of a Pax Americana and an American-led liberal democratic, rules based international order. And since then, the world has gone more than seven decades without a catastrophe on the scale of World War I and World War II—that is not an accident, that is a testament to American leadership. American leadership, although far from perfect, has given us the most prosperous and productive world that we have ever known. So, I see it as my role to do what I can to sustain and strengthen American leadership for the next generation.
Katulis: Faith in our public institutions and Congress in particular are at an all-time low. What do you think when you look at the behavior and the actions of other elected leaders—what do you think the representatives of the people can do differently to restore the confidence and address the concerns of the American people?
Torres: The best hope for restoring public confidence in government is for government to deliver. In Congress, there are performers and policymakers, and I worry that the perverse incentive structure of American society or politics rewards performative politics. For a performer, you are more likely to have a greater following on Twitter, more likely to generate publicity on cable news and talk radio and elsewhere, more likely to generate strong fundraising online. There is a real incentive to be performative rather than substantive in an institution like the United States Congress.
There's no simple solution that will overcome the perverse incentives that are built into American politics. But we need to encourage people to be substantive—but Congress is not the only institution at fault. When the Supreme Court overturns a precedent dating back more than half a century, a precedent like Roe v. Wade upon which millions of women were reliant, that undercuts public confidence. When justices of the Supreme Court receive gifts without reporting them, that undermines public confidence.
I do worry that everything seems politicized—journalism, science, public health, medicine, law. Institutions that should strive to be apolitical have become dangerously politicized—and have become politicized in a manner that undermines public confidence in expertise. That will lead us to dangerous places.
Katulis: So, deliver results, be less performative.
Torres: And protect the integrity of your professions. Protect them from politics.
Inflation, Banking Panics, and the Economy
Katulis: How well do you think the Democratic Party and the Biden administration is doing in managing the economy, which seems in a delicate state? What are the strengths of what the Democratic Party is offering, and what are the opportunities that lie ahead?
Torres: Well, the economy is fundamentally strong—with the exception of inflation. The Achilles’ heel of the American economy is inflation, which I believe is largely a consequence of disrupted supply chains in the wake of COVID-19. I know it's a matter of debate, but it's no accident that inflation arose in the context of COVID.
Look, January 6 was my third day on the job, and after January 6 American politics entered a period of peak polarization and partisanship, and against that backdrop it was widely thought that nothing would get done in Washington, DC—especially with a split Senate. So it's something of a miracle that Joe Biden has built one of the most productive presidencies, and one of the most productively bipartisan presidencies, in the face of peak polarization and partisanship.
What one thinks about the particular merits of his policies—I’m supportive—but there's no denying that his presidency has been deeply substantive and transformative. I mean, he has produced a bipartisan gun safety bill, a bipartisan infrastructure bill, a bipartisan veteran health care bill, a bipartisan semiconductor and scientific research and development bill. He produced the Inflation Reduction Act, which represents the largest investments in clean energy in history of the world and in the history of the United States.
Joe Biden has had a prolific presidency that I would argue merits reelection, and all these investments that the Democratic Party has made are aimed at laying the groundwork for a clean energy transition and rebuilding American infrastructure, rebuilding American domestic capacity and domestic supply chains whose need came painfully to light during COVID, and modernizing infrastructure—all of which should be broadly appealing policy goals.
Katulis: One of the issues related to the economy are the recent concerns about the banking system and the health of the banking system. You've introduced several pieces of legislation in the wake of the collapse of the Signature Bank and Silicon Valley Bank, including the Social Media Bank Run Act, which would require federal regulators to consider the impact of social media and digital platforms on twenty-first century bank runs. As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, what are your thoughts on the state of the banks today and what should the government’s next response be to that?
Torres: Financial panic is like infectious disease: it must be contained before it spreads rapidly and widely throughout the system. The Biden administration has done the right thing and acting aggressively to contain the spread of financial panic, you know, the sheer speed the Silicon Valley Bank collapse is historically unprecedented. In 2008, Washington Mutual, which was the largest bank failure in history, saw the loss about $16 billion over the course of 10 days. By contrast, Silicon Valley Bank saw the loss of more than $42 billion in the span of a few hours. The difference between then and now is social media, and social media enables financial panic to spread on that pace, on the scale, and to an extent that we've never seen before.
I introduced legislation that would require banking regulators to think about social media risks. I worry about efforts by malicious adversaries to manufacture financial panic on social media platforms like Twitter that could destabilize the banking system. There's nothing ancient about bank runs; what is new is the amplification of bank runs on social media platforms, which creates a new risk for the banking system.
Katulis: Something that bridges the social media and tech spaces and also domestic and foreign policy is the rise of artificial intelligence—one of the most powerful technologies of our time. What opportunities do you see there, what are the risks of AI, and importantly how should the government respond?
Torres: You know, we are about to enter a world where we as humans are pervasively shaped and surrounded by artificial intelligences. I believe that AI represents a turning point that is on the scale of a revolution or a reformation or a renaissance. I received a series of briefings from executives at Google and Microsoft when I was in California a few weeks ago, and there was something that was said that lodged in the back of my mind: the executives said we are creating large language models that are engaging in emerging behaviors, which are behaviors that the creators of the models do not themselves understand. As these models become larger, these larger models will emerge with new behaviors, and there's no telling what those emergent behaviors will be, and where those emergent behaviors will lead us. There's a risk of becoming Dr. Frankenstein, there's a risk of creating a monster that we neither understand nor can safely control. So we need to think deep about regulation.
Advanced AI is both exciting and terrifying. It’s exciting because it will enable us to solve long standing problems like combating climate change and curing cancer, but it's terrifying because it has the potential to lead to mass disinformation, dislocation, and even mass destruction. Like nuclear weapons, just to bring it to an international context like nuclear weapons, advanced AI has the potential to be a weapon of mass destruction and therefore should be subject to a nonproliferation regime in the future.
The War in Ukraine and a New Foreign Policy Consensus
Katulis: What's your assessment of the war in Ukraine? In recent months we've heard some questions raised from different parts of both the Democratic and Republican parties about the American aid and involvement. What's your take on that right now?
Torres: I think the United States has no choice but to aid Ukraine, in my view. If Russia had been allowed to invade Ukraine with impunity, then China would have felt emboldened to do the same with respect to Taiwan. As the leader of the free world, we have no choice but to send a message of zero tolerance for an illegal invasion, whether it's against the sovereign nation-state like Ukraine or self-governing island like Taiwan. So we're reaffirming the belief in the American-led international order.
I also think it would be naive to think that if Russia were to overtake Ukraine that it would stop at Ukraine. It seems to me that Vladimir Putin is intent on rebuilding the Russian empire, that he would likely invade a NATO country, which would draw in the United States and Europe, creating something approximating a world war in Europe. It’s in our strategic interest to prevent a wider conflict and to aid the Ukrainian effort against Russian aggression.
I also think that we've seen in the war in Ukraine the emergence of a new synthesis. There's the thesis of neoconservative interventionism—we failed miserably in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s the antithesis of isolation, which would serve us poorly in long run. But there's now a new synthesis of helping freedom fighters fight for their own freedom, of helping Ukrainians help themselves—and that represents a new American approach to war in the twenty-first century.
Katulis: What's your take on the debate in Congress over Ukraine, and how do you read the American public’s view on the war? Do you do you see that there's a new consensus, or do you see it differently?
Torres: It's not clear to me that the majority of the American people have strongly held opinions about leadership in the world. But here's what I would say: never underestimate the power of the visual. The public saw the sheer brutality of the Russian invasion against Ukraine, it galvanized the world into action and it galvanized the American people into action. Sometimes it takes witnessing evil from the likes of Vladimir Putin to awaken the impulses, the internationalist impulses that I articulated earlier.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship
Katulis: You’ve been clear on your support for Israel and America's support for Israel. How do you view the current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and how do you see the dynamics inside of Israel impacting the relationship between the United States and Israel and also our role in the Middle East?
Torres: I’m a strong supporter of the state of Israel and I've been strong advocate for the American-Israeli relationship. I do have concerns about demagogues like [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir and [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich. I worry about the undermining of unity in Israel, which has been Israel's greatest strength. I'm worried a weakening of political unity could undermine deterrence, which only emboldens Iran and Iranian proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas. So there are national security implications to the political disunity that was previously unfolding in Israel.
Before I offer an opinion on judicial reforms, I want to make it crystal clear that my concerns about judicial reforms or particular judicial reforms are compartmentalized from my commitment to the American-Israeli relationship. There have been attempts by the usual anti-Israel detractors to exploit the controversy in Israel, to condition aid to Israel and to fundamentally change the nature of the American-Israeli relationship and I reject those attempts emphatically. My belief in the American-Israeli relationship remains unshaken.
But here’s where I have concerns, and my concerns are true not only of Israeli democracy but every democracy on Earth. Every democracy needs an independent judiciary, and no legislature, whether it be Congress or the Knesset, should be empowered to overturn the decisions of the court by a simple majority. In a parliamentary system, the executive and the legislature are one and the same, so the need for a check on legislative power is even more important—not less. Those have been my constructive concerns about the particular reforms in Israel. Those concerns apply to every democracy on Earth. But again, it has no bearing on my view of the strategic importance of the American-Israeli relationship.
U.S. Policy Toward China
Katulis: You sit on the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). What's your view so far—I know it's early—of the work of the committee, and do you see any opportunities there to build a bipartisan consensus on U.S. policy towards China?
Torres: There is an opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus, but we have to ensure that it's a responsible consensus. There is a strategic competition between the United States and China. In fact, a powerful case could be made that we no longer live in a unipolar world where the United States is the sole superpower. We live in a bipolar world, where the United States and China are competing superpowers and there are countries that are aligning decisively with the United States, there are countries that are aligning decisively with China, and there are countries—particularly in the Global South—that are hedging their bets and playing both sides. In that bipolar [and] multipolar world, alliances and partnerships become more important, not less.
I do believe public perception overstates the rise of China and overstates the decline of the United States. China has structural challenges that will likely prevent China from surpassing the United States at the level of economics. The first challenge is demography. China's population is projected to collapse in half by the end of the century, China’s projected to lose 200 million working-age adults and gain 300 million retirees over the next 30 years—it's the worst demographic crisis in the world. The second challenge is debt. China’s debt as a percentage of GDP has gone from 100 percent in 2010 to somewhere in the range of 300 percent in 2020—that's a massive accumulation of debt that is unsustainable. And the third crisis is declining productivity. China's productivity in the 2010s collapsed in half, and the astronomical growth that we saw in China was driven largely by debt rather than by productivity gains.
So the fundamentals of the American economy are much stronger than those of China, and there’s a sense in which China might be a house of cards that will come crashing down—I don’t want to overstate that point because China is powerful enough to challenge the American-led international order, but we have to be careful not to overstate the rise of China and understate the strength of the United States.
Katulis: On the committee itself, do you see the Republicans or different factions of the Democratic Party trying to use the China issue in ways that might divide us as opposed to build new coalitions?
Torres: It’s now clear to me that there's a broad recognition that China poses a strategic challenge, but not yet a consensus about how to best address it. I believe that we should adopt a policy of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, because anyways the CCP is more sensitive to words than to actions. You should focus on building, on taking substantive actions that build American power, American competitiveness, rather than pursuing performative and provocative gestures that only antagonize the CCP and escalate tensions because there’s a real potential for a world war.
An example of a substantive action are export controls that prevent the transfer of the most advanced semiconductors to China. That is substantive action rather than performative rhetoric that will simply escalate tensions. The most dangerous fact about geopolitics at the moment is the lack of communication between the United States and China, between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden. Even during the peak of the Cold War and during the Cuban missile crisis, there was communication between United States and Soviet Union that averted nuclear war. I’m worried that the lack of communication between two superpowers like the United States and China could mean that we're one accident away, we’re one miscalculation, misunderstanding away from precipitating a catastrophic world war—and the risk of war is much greater than people realize, including much greater than most members of Congress realize. So we should speak more with our actions rather than our words.
Katulis: You've raised concerns about China surveilling and intimidating people here in the United States, specifically through secret police stations. What should be done to address China's active presence here at home and its efforts to suppress those who are voicing concerns about the government in China and its actions there and then around the world?
Torres: Well, the CCP is a totalitarian regime that specializes in mass surveillance and espionage. The CCP’s espionage not only has spy balloons in the air but it has secret police stations on the ground. The CCP has a network of more than 100 secret police stations in countries like the United States and cities like New York. I recently partnered with Chair Mike Gallagher (R-WI), who leads the Select Committee on China, to conduct a protest with human rights activists outside one of these police stations in Manhattan in New York City. The purpose of these police stations is not the solving of crime, the purpose is the systematic surveillance, and intimidation, and suppression of human rights activists, activists who are part of the Uyghur community, or the Tibetan community, or the Hong Kong community.
My view is simple: that protecting human rights is not a Republican or Democratic value—it should be an American value. How can we protect human rights activists abroad when we fail to do so at home on U.S. soil? We have pressured the FBI and law enforcement to crack down aggressively on these secret police stations whose only objective is to terrorize Chinese dissidents here on U.S. soil.