The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a first, two openly gay black men are probably headed to Congress

New York City Council member Ritchie Torres is arrested at a rally demanding that the Trump administration abandon proposals to cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development's budget in 2017. Torres is leading in the Democratic primary for New York’s 15th Congressional District. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This June has been pivotal for members of America’s black and LGBTQ communities. Americans of all stripes have taken to the streets to protest anti-black racism in response to incidents of police violence. And this Pride Month has featured Supreme Court rulings making discriminating against LGBTQ people in the workplace unconstitutional. There have even been moments of intersection for the events, including a rally attended by thousands in Brooklyn earlier this month denouncing violence against black transgender women.

Mondaire Jones, a lawyer, won the Democratic primary in New York’s 17th Congressional District with nearly 45 percent of the vote as of Wednesday evening. And Ritchie Torres, a New York City Council member, is leading his opponents in the Democratic primary for New York’s 15th Congressional District with more than 30 percent of the vote. Both seats are safe Democratic ones, so the winner of the primary is likely to be the next congressman.

They are on their way to being the first openly gay black men in Congress. Jones, 33, is African American, and Torres, 32, was born to an African American mother and a Puerto Rican father.

Although they competed in left-leaning districts, the two candidates’ paths to victory were not exactly easy.

“For most of this race, much of Westchester County’s Democratic establishment doubted that I could win this election,” Jones told The Fix. “And so I hope that these people will reconsider the next time they make assumptions about candidates like myself and our viability even as we outperform the competition by all conceivable measures.”

Jones’s opponents included two well-known Democratic politicians — New York state Assemblyman David Buchwald and state Sen. David Carlucci — who received the lion’s share of endorsements from the Democratic establishment.

“We have to cultivate diverse talent and support diverse talent and not push them to the side or marginalize them,” Jones said.

Torres also emphasized the importance of including new diverse voices — and even those who do not have the support of established political structures — in the policymaking process.

“I won without the support of the local or national Democratic Party or the Working Families Party or the Democratic Socialists of America,” he said. “I won without the support of a party machine.”

“And so I have the mandate to govern independently, to follow my own path to do what I think is right,” added Torres, the youngest member of the New York City Council. “My career in Congress is going to be driven by my conscience and my independent thoughts and actions.”

The two New Yorkers spoke about the significance of their wins during such a politically charged moment when so many members of the LGBTQ and black communities are calling for an expansion of rights and legislation.

“All of the great milestones for the LGBTQ-plus community have happened in the month of June,” Jones said before noting that the New York legislature legalized same-sex marriage in June 2011; that the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down in June 2013; and that the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage was decided in June 2015. “And now to make a mark on American history is a deeply humbling, somewhat surreal experience."

“There is such power in representation,” Jones added. “People have been reaching out to me — young and old, but usually young — saying, ‘Thanks for running as an openly gay black candidate. It gives me inspiration to be my authentic self. If gives me hope that there is a place for me in a world that is largely unjust.’ ”

Torres said his win was especially meaningful considering that he defeated Ruben Diaz Sr., an established Bronx Democrat known for his opposition to LGBTQ rights.

“I ran against a candidate who is a supporter of Donald Trump,” he said. “There was a real risk that a Trump [supporter] could win the most Democratic district in America. And the triumph of an LGBTQ congressional candidate over an unabashed homophobe represents long-overdue poetic justice.”

“It represents a repudiation of the politics of hate and fear and the politics of Donald Trump,” Torres added. “And for me, what could be a better way to celebrate Pride than to defeat the leading homophobe in New York state politics.”

The national elections following Trump’s 2016 victory have largely been viewed as a backlash to a campaign that unapologetically pointed to the past as the nation at its best. For many Americans, those years are notable for whom they excluded. Voters have responded by sending new faces to Washington that reflect the increasing diversity of the country. The 2018 midterm election was notable for being among the most diverse when it comes to race, gender and sexual orientation in history. This week’s victories suggested that many American voters are still headed in that direction.