Just weeks ago, many residents of the South Bronx worried that a homophobe would be elevated to Capitol Hill. Now that same homophobe is leaving politics altogether.
Councilmember Ruben Diaz, Sr., fresh off a devastating defeat in the Democratic primary race for the 15th Congressional District, announced on July 13 that he would not be running for re-election in 2021. The 77-year-old city lawmaker made the announcement just months after his son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., abruptly pulled out of the 2021 mayoral race and said he was leaving politics.
The elder Diaz used one of his “What You Should Know” emails — a platform he has utilized for years to voice his political perspectives — to make the announcement after initial results showed him finishing in a paltry third place in the competition to replace retiring Congressmember José Serrano. Out gay City Councilmember Ritchie Torres jumped out to a significant lead, followed by Assemblymember Michael Blake, in results that have not yet been finalized.
“After serious analysis, of which I spent in prayer with God, family, ministers and after a political analysis, I have made the decision to follow the example of my two sons,” Diaz wrote. “My biological son Ruben Diaz, Jr., and my political son Marcos Crespo.”
Crespo, an assemblymember, stepped down last month from his role as the chair of the Bronx Democratic Party, in yet another example of the rapid shift in the political makeup of a borough that just two years ago saw the dramatic rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also represents part of Queens.
Diaz, who has mixed his homophobia with opposition to women’s reproductive rights, patted himself on the back throughout his “What You Should Know” email, crediting himself for being the namesake of a housing complex and apartment building in the Bronx, in addition to a handful of other “accomplishments” he lists in the note.
“I remained steadfast and brought many projects and programs,” Diaz wrote. “I did so, with my head held high, defending those in need regardless of race, sexual orientation, political orientation, nationality or religion, regardless if they resided in my district or not, my office welcomed and served all.”
His work in “defending” people “regardless of… sexual orientation” obviously did not square with his longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage or his other anti-LGBTQ actions, such as his 1994 assertion that the Gay Games “would lead to an increase in AIDS cases and to wider acceptance of homosexuality by young people.”
But Diaz has always been a rather complicated figure. He once came to the defense of ACT UP activist Christopher Hennelly, who was a victim of police brutality, and most recently was among the few Bronx political voices to stand up for Abel Cedeno, a bullied gay youth who is serving a 14-year sentence after getting convicted of manslaughter last year for fatally stabbing his classmate, Matthew McCree.
It is likely that Diaz’s poor showing in the congressional race was a factor in his decision to avoid a re-election bid. He was crushed by Torres in his own City Council district and only won a tiny slice of it, according to an electoral map drawn up by researchers at the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Diaz is in his second go-around on the City Council after serving a stint there before serving in the State Senate from 2003 until 2017. His return to city government, however, has largely been overshadowed by his tendency to revert back to themes of homophobia and sexism that dogged him during his time in the State Legislature. He hurled comments last year asserting that the City Council “is controlled by the homosexual community,” leading his colleagues to punish him by dissolving his Committee on For-Hire Vehicles, and then he landed in hot water yet again when he ruined a City Council sensitivity training event by saying he would not “rat” if he witnessed sexual harassment, according to the New York Post.
Diaz also had a reputation for doubling down on the controversies he brewed, refusing to extinguish fires he himself started. As he was facing calls to resign in the days following his complaints about LGBTQ control of the City Council, he told Gay City News that he would not apologize for the comments and even maintained the position that got him in trouble in the first place.
“What is wrong with what I said?” he asked during an interview at his district office in February of 2019. “That the gay community has power and control? Yes, they do!”
Torres, who is expected to walk through the general election in a district that is overwhelmingly dominated by Democratic voters, spent the entire primary election process painting himself as the underdog to Diaz. But now, having dispatched his cowboy hat-wearing colleague, Torres is celebrating.
“BREAKING NEWS: I cannot officially declare victory until the results are certified but I can announce that I have retired the politics of hate and fear in the Bronx,” Torres wrote in a tweet reacting to Diaz’s announcement on July 13. “Happy Belated Pride!”
According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, three candidates — Amanda Farias, Darlene Jackson, and Eliu A Lara — have filed to run for Diaz’s seat in the 18th City Council District encompassing Soundview, Castle Hill, Parkchester, Clason Point, and Harding Park.
Farias, a state committee member in the 87th Assembly District, previously faced Diaz when she ran for City Council in 2017 and snagged 20.88 percent of the vote.
“Diaz’s exit makes our path to victory clearer, but a lot can happen in the next year,” Farias wrote in a tweet July 13. “So, the work doesn’t stop. This is where our movement goes full speed ahead.”
Diaz, who still has more than a year remaining in his term on the City Council, is at least staying true to his word about his future plans — even if he didn’t expect to go down this way. He told Gay City News in that February interview that “the only people who could ask for my resignation are the people of the 18th Council District.”
Based on last month’s election results, the people of his district appeared to do just that.
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