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New York poised to send first openly gay black members to Congress

Absentee ballots are still being counted from New York's primary Tuesday, but two leading candidates appear to be on the cusp of making history as the first openly gay black members of Congress. 

Lawyer and activist Mondaire Jones declared victory in the primary race to replace retiring Congresswoman Nita Lowey in New York's 17th District just north of New York City. In the Bronx, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres is currently leading in the primary race to replace retiring Congressman José Serrano. Both seats are considered safe for Democrats, meaning both openly gay black men are likely to win in November, once they've officially secured their party's nominations. 

Democratic New York congressional candidate Mondaire Jones. Facebook

"It is a lot of responsibility," Jones told CBS News of the prospect of being the first openly gay black member elected to Congress. Seeing someone like him in Congress while having grown up poor, black and gay would have "materially improved" his life, Jones said. "It would have been direct evidence of the fact that things really do get better."

Jones was raised in New York by a single mother with the help of grandparents. He went on to Stanford University and Harvard Law and served in the Justice Department under the Obama administration. He has been frustrated with Democrats, whom he says need to bring more vigor to their advocacy for the underserved. Declaring he was "fed up," Jones jumped in the 2020 race.

"I'm happy to be providing that kind of representation for so many young people and older people all throughout my district and all throughout this country who have reached out to me and said, 'I'm so inspired by what you're doing. You give me hope and I can be my authentic self in a world filled with so much injustice,' and it's really an honor to be able to do that."

Ritchie Torres is poised to win Congressman Jose Serrano's open seat in the 15th District, beating out a crowded Democratic field. Torres was cautious about declaring victory before the absentee ballots are counted; at this point, he leads the pack of 12 candidates by about 10 points. 

He said "the odds were stacked against us" and that there were questions about whether he, as an openly LGBTQ candidate, could even win in the South Bronx. But Torres had made history before when he became the youngest, and first openly gay member to represent the Bronx on the New York City Council in 2013. 

Democratic New York congressional candidate Ritchie Torres. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Point Foundation

One of Torres' main opponents was Reverend Ruben Díaz Sr., a South Bronx pastor who is known for being unapologetically opposed to same-sex marriage. Once, in 2011, Díaz Sr. held an anti-same-sex marriage rally while his granddaughter held a dueling event in support of it across the street. As a state senator, Diaz Sr. voted against bills legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009 and 2011. 

"Look, the triumph of an openly LGBTQ congressional candidate over a leading homophobic in state politics, that to me represents long overdue poetic justice," Torres told CBS News. "What better way to celebrate pride month than to defeat the politics of homophobia?"

Earlier in June, Republican incumbent Congressman Denver Riggleman lost in a Virginia "drive-thru" convention. One of the reasons he faced a primary challenge was because he had officiated a same-sex marriage between two of his former campaign staffers. 

His opponent, Bob Good, used the issue of marriage equality to paint Riggleman as out of touch with the district's conservative voters. Riggleman retorted that he represented a Republican party that "stays out of our business, out of our pocketbooks, but also out of our bedrooms." In November, Good will be facing Democrat Cameron Webb, a black doctor and lawyer who is the director of health policy and equity at the University of Virginia.

After the 2018 midterm, there were at least ten LGBTQ members of Congress setting a new record including two senators and eight members of the House of Representatives. Katie Hill, the first openly bisexual California congresswoman, stepped down last year.

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