Ritchie Torres Reaps Real Estate Cash in Bronx Congress Race

Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) speaks before a City Council vote to close Rikers Island, Oct. 17, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

City Councilmember Ritchie Torres’ bid to represent the South Bronx in Congress is raking in real estate cash, campaign finance records show.

Torres leads a crowded pack of Democrats seeking to replace retiring Rep. José Serrano, pulling in a top $878,000 since declaring his candidacy in July.

This story was originally published on October 21, 2019 by THE CITY.

At least $110,000 of that came from people with ties to the real estate industry, according to THE CITY’s analysis of the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission.

The vast majority of donations to Torres’ campaign — 96.3% or about $845,000 — came from outside the 15th Congressional District, which is among the poorest in the nation. Overall, about 93.5% of the contributions came from addresses outside The Bronx.

Torres defended his real estate industry bounty, and pointed to the number of small donations he’s received.

“In the latest quarter, two-thirds of our contributors are small donors who gave less than $100,” he told THE CITY in a text. “We have a diversified donor base with contributors big and small.”

The ‘Next Williamsburg’

The real estate sector donations have flowed in during a development boom in the South Bronx — and follow pledges from some in the race to forgo money from developers.

Some donors to Torres’ campaign have big real estate projects in progress in the South Bronx, including a residential complex being built on “the most expensive development site” in the borough.

William Cote, the founder and chief executive of Hudson Meridian Construction Group, which is building on the property, gave $8,400 to Torres’ bid individually and through an LLC, federal campaign finance records show.

That development is planned for Mott Haven, a neighborhood some eager brokers already are calling the “next Williamsburg.”

And as new buildings go up, the price per square foot for home sales in Mott Haven and in nearby Melrose is rising — shooting up close to 60% between 2016 and 2018, according to the nonprofit Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.

Another one of Torres’ top donors is the president of real estate at Cactus Holdings — the holding company for the Western Beef supermarket chain — which filed plans with the city this summer for a mixed-use development within the 15th Congressional District.

Longtime Rep. José Serrano (D-Bronx) is retiring.

Longtime Rep. José Serrano (D-Bronx) is retiring. Photo: Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo/Flickr

Cactus Holdings’ Joshua Agus and a limited liability company associated with the project contributed a total of $7,200 to Torres’ campaign, according to federal financial disclosures.

Several individuals at the Kraus Organization, which either owns or manages several buildings in The Bronx, including New York City Housing Authority complexes, donated a combined $8,400 to Torres.

The company recently came under fire for reportedly owing the city $148 million in unpaid property taxes.

Some New York real estate mainstays also have chipped in to Torres’ campaign.

Among them are Jed and David Walentas of Two Trees, who donated a total of $10,000 and have been largely credited with the “renaissance of Dumbo” in Brooklyn. Douglas Durst — the head of the Durst Organization, which owns multiple buildings in Manhattan and Queens — and several individuals associated with the company have given a combined $10,000 to Torres’ campaign.

Donors contacted by THE CITY either didn’t respond to requests for comment or declined comment.

’A Trump Republican’

Torres was the only candidate in the race to itemize all of his campaign donations. The names, addresses and occupations of those who make contributions under $250, classified by the FEC as small donations, do not need to be fully detailed and can be pooled together as “unitemized.”

He is far from the only candidate to reap donations from outside The Bronx. That trend has played out to varying degrees among most of the other nine declared Democratic contenders — among them City Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr., Assemblymember Michael Blake and former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Bronx City Councilmember Rubén Díaz Sr. attends a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Parque de los Niños in Soundview, Aug. 13, 2019.

Bronx City Councilmember Rubén Díaz Sr. attends a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Parque de los Niños in Soundview, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In his statement to THE CITY, Torres portrayed his run as a two-person race with the 76-year-old Diaz, a controversial longtime Bronx elected official.

“I am the only candidate who has enough resources to defeat Ruben Diaz Sr. — a Trump Republican who, were the race held today, would win on the sheer strength of name recognition,” Torres said.

Diaz, who has amassed $126,654 this cycle, said he’s collected the most donations from within the district and the borough. He’s raised at least $29,700 in the district and $47,000 in the borough, though that doesn’t count unitemized contributions.

“They come from The Bronx,” he said of his donors.

Blake, who is a distant second in the fundraising sweepstakes with about $360,000, said he has “incredible support locally.”

“We clearly are the campaign with the momentum right now,” he told THE CITY.

Meanwhile, Torres’ real estate donations alone outpace the total fundraising of several candidates: Marlene Cintron; Samelys Lopez; Jonathan Ortiz; Tomas Ramos and Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez. Candidate Chivona Newsome didn’t file a campaign disclosure form.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.