In early December, U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres stood at a lectern embossed with the congressional seal in his district office in the Bronx, staring with his head cocked at a line of local news cameras.
The cryptocurrency exchange FTX and its wunderkind founder Sam Bankman-Fried, a darling in Washington, had collapsed a few weeks earlier. Torres was far from Bankman-Fried’s immediate orbit, but he was not free from association, either. Since being sworn in to his seat from New York’s 15th Congressional District in January 2021 as a Democrat, Torres had allied with a bipartisan group of crypto-curious politicians. Representing one of the poorest congressional districts, Torres argued for crypto’s potential to help low-income people build wealth and disrupt the unjust power dynamics of finance.
Once FTX declared bankruptcy, just three days after Torres’s reelection, none of those ideals mattered. Markets were in free fall, billions of dollars of customer funds were lost, and Torres had been outed as one of dozens of politicians on both sides of the aisle to receive donations from the disgraced founder, who had spent at least $40 million on such outlays. Never mind that Torres had never met one-on-one with SBF, or that the donations he’d received from crypto interests appear to have made up a tiny fraction of his war chest.
So Torres picked up the tools available to him as a U.S. congressman: He introduced legislation and called a press conference. Wearing a tight navy sweater with a starched ivory collar that shrouded him in a priestly aura, Torres addressed the assembled camera operators. “FTX was essentially a house of cards built on nothing more than Monopoly money,” he said. He unveiled a bill that would require exchanges to prove and publish their assets and liabilities.
Ever the overachiever, Torres had a second bill drawn up. Before he could discuss it, someone’s cell phone went off. “FTX is interrupting the press conference,” he deadpanned.
For now, FTX isn’t interrupting Torres’s ascent. At 34 years old, he has established himself as a rising star after just a single term in Congress. Headlines focus on his pioneering demographic profile—Torres is the first openly gay Afro-Latino elected to Congress. But he stands out on policy issues too: At a time when partisan lines are etched in marble, Torres seems to relish contradiction, taking unorthodox positions for a young liberal.
Of those stances, his support of crypto may be the most divisive. The volatile, largely unregulated industry has been a dominant point of discussion in D.C. throughout its 2021 boom and subsequent bust. Legislators bickered over regulatory details, while regulators themselves largely demonstrated that they couldn’t keep up. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came to view crypto as a dangerous distraction, with some calling for outright prohibition.
But Torres has embraced the promise of crypto and blockchains, hailing them as a conduit for financial inclusion and a tool for dispersing the concentrated power of money. He’s been unusually diligent about learning the technology’s ins and outs—and as a person of color from a modest background, he diverges from the increasingly mocked and distrusted stereotype of the Crypto Bro. With crypto legislation serving as one of the 118th Congress’s top priorities, the distinctive stance of the millennial lawmaker from the Bronx could chart a path for the industry’s survival.
Fortune met with Torres at his D.C. office in mid-December, where boxes were piled high in preparation for some renovations. Recalling his eventful first term, Torres admits he knew almost nothing about cryptocurrency when he first took office. “Most elected officials have heard of crypto, but very few people can even define it,” he said. “I was one of those people.” But by the time FTX collapsed, Torres had brought himself up to speed, and staked out a position he has called “the liberal case for cryptocurrency.”
Many of his Republican colleagues see crypto as a libertarian salve to the traditional financial system, lauding cryptocurrencies’ potential for privacy, autonomy, and deregulation. Some, like Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis, advocate including Bitcoin in 401(k) portfolios. Torres has taken a more measured stance. He says the role of government should be creating a regulatory environment where private industry can build and investors feel safe. Rather than the “regulation by enforcement” recently pursued by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Torres advocates a model closer to New York’s Department of Financial Services, where crypto companies can receive licenses through a stringent process with requirements around compliance, record keeping, and asset custody protection.
Torres says he doesn’t advocate for cryptocurrencies or exchanges as an investment tool. Instead, he argues for the merits of using the underlying blockchain technology to offer faster and cheaper rails for payments, including for check cashing and remittances, which many people rely on in his immigrant-heavy home borough.
In his take on financial inclusion, he parts ways with many liberals and progressives. Organizers, researchers, and politicians on the left often see crypto in its current form as more a hazard than a help to lower-income communities, an asset class whose volatility and transaction costs make people more vulnerable, not less. And some allege that pro-crypto lawmakers—if not Torres specifically—are motivated more by financial opportunism than by ideals.
Torres pushes back against such criticism, with a rare mixture of the free-market ideals of cryptocurrency and an almost “Occupy Wall Street”–style rhetoric. “The project of radically decentralizing both the internet and the financial system strikes me as profoundly progressive, more so than people realize,” he says. “There’s no telling how the crypto revolution will unfold or whether it will even succeed, but I’m rooting for its success.”
Torres’s patient earnestness was on display at a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, just over a week after his Bronx press conference. Bankman-Fried had been slated to appear until his arrest by Bahamian authorities the night before, so the politicians settled for John Ray III, the corporate salvage expert tasked with overseeing FTX’s bankruptcy. Each congressperson was allotted five minutes to question Ray, an opportunity that many used for grandstanding. One representative from Missouri went on an extended soliloquy about how crypto should be renamed “creepy dough currency.”
Congresspeople filtered in and out of the room, huddled in the corner in conversation or only entering as their turn to speak neared. Torres, a committee member, was the exception, intently following the proceedings until almost the three-hour mark, when his turn finally came. With scalpel-like precision, he questioned Ray about an obscure token that FTX had created and included on its balance sheet, whose value amounted to $2.2 billion.
“Do you agree that there’s something fundamentally fraudulent about the practice of counting your own tokens as assets on your balance sheet?” Torres asked.
Ray looked impressed—well-informed questions, after all, had been rare. “It’s a very risky position to use your own asset effectively as collateral,” he replied.
That Torres had done his homework would not come as a surprise to those who know him. His work ethic has won Torres respect from across the aisle—as it has throughout a political career that started in his teens.
He grew up in the East Bronx, raised with two siblings by a single mother making minimum wage, in a public-housing project across the street from a vacant 222-acre plot that became the Trump Golf Links. Torres attended Lehman High School, one of the largest public schools in the city, and participated in moot court. He had to develop appellate-style arguments and present them to judges, often sculpting positions that he disagreed with; Torres says it was the single most formative intellectual experience of his life.
Torres attended New York University but, dealing with severe depression, dropped out his sophomore year. Having campaigned for a local politician’s New York City Council campaign while in high school, he took a part-time job in his office, eventually working seven days a week on housing issues. Torres decided to run for an open council seat in 2013. He survived a crowded primary field and won 91.4% of the vote in the general election, becoming the youngest serving council member, at 25 years old.
Rafael Espinal, now the executive director of Freelancers Union, was elected to City Council in the same year as Torres, at 29. Espinal recalled getting brunch early in their term together at a pizzeria in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he was struck with Torres’s mastery of language. It soon became apparent how dedicated Torres was to his job rather than his social life: When Espinal suggested they order a round of mimosas, Torres had never even heard of the drink.
Espinal’s parents were from the Dominican Republic, and Torres’s father was from Puerto Rico. Both grew up in low-income homes, and each spent most of their lives “unbanked”; indeed, households in the Bronx are twice as likely to be unbanked as in the rest of New York City. Espinal didn’t have a bank account until he was 20, instead relying on expensive check-cashing businesses, which can charge as much as 10% of the value of the check in fees. “If you grew up in these communities, you quickly learn it’s expensive to be poor,” Espinal says.
The two lawmakers soon collaborated on progressive issues, including a successful push to ban cashless businesses, which Torres argued disadvantaged poor communities of color. Torres chaired the council’s Committee on Public Housing. And the two were among the few council members to endorse Bernie Sanders for president in 2016.
Still, Torres often differed with the left on policy issues, arguing that the ethos of the Democratic Socialists of America did not always mirror his constituents. He often referred to his district as the “Bible Belt of New York City”—more likely than the AOC set to be socially conservative, a persistent campaign hurdle for the openly gay Torres. Once in office, he took what he described as “pragmatic progressive” stances. During one pivotal episode in 2017, Torres struck a backroom deal on a police reform bill, agreeing to a watered-down stipulation about when officers have to provide identification during stops—an act that many of his onetime allies took as a betrayal, but that Torres defended as a compromise.
The incident soured Torres’s reputation among those who would normally be allies on financial inclusion. Michael Kink, executive director of the New York–based labor coalition Strong Economy for All, described Torres as “more of a conventional politician than any kind of left-wing firebrand.” It also helped fuel challengers on his left in the 2020 Democratic primary, though Torres won handily.
But Espinal describes the distinction as a badge of honor, calling Torres a free thinker. “It’s drawn from his experience and history of growing up in the Bronx,” Espinal says. “This outcast mentality that we bring with us creates true independence.”
Torres was assigned to the formidable House Financial Services Committee just as cryptocurrencies’ bull run was kicking into high gear, and just as crypto executives began ramping up their pitches and donations in Washington. In December 2021 the committee held its first hearing on crypto, inviting executives including Bankman-Fried and Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire. Torres, hitherto a newbie, threw himself into intensive study, reading as many articles as he could and even watching a video-recorded blockchain course taught at MIT by Gary Gensler, now the chair of the SEC and widely viewed as a crypto nemesis.
He says he came out on the other side with a new perspective, believing blockchain technology could help solve problems that disproportionately affect low-income communities of color like those in his district. Torres began meeting with industry leaders, including Chris Dixon, an influential partner at venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, who was an early advocate for Bitcoin. Torres describes Dixon as an illuminating “philosopher and practitioner” in the crypto space. Dixon declined to be interviewed, but in an emailed statement he praised Torres as a “pragmatic policymaker who understands that achieving Web3’s potential requires clear regulatory guidelines.”
Dixon and Andreessen Horowitz are proponents of a “decentralized internet” that uses blockchain technology to spread ownership for everything from art to games to technical infrastructure like Wi-Fi networks. The approach has come under fire, with critics pointing out that the massive venture firm’s large stakes in such projects make them anything but “decentralized.” But Torres sees potential in the Web3 vision. With less of their wealth claimed by corporate middlemen, he explains, “it would mean that workers and creators get to keep a greater share of their income.”
The view resonates with many of Torres’s constituents. So does the idea that speculating on cryptocurrencies could boost their wealth—a view Torres himself says he’s skeptical of.
Julio Barrios and Andrew Richards, surgical technicians at the Montefiore Medical Center, say they began to dabble in crypto investment even as their wealthier, mostly white colleagues stuck with traditional stocks like Apple and Amazon. During crypto’s bull run, the two men say, those colleagues began to turn to them for recommendations. “I’m giving advice to doctors who went to Harvard,” Barrios says, laughing.
Barrios and Richards created the community group Bronx Crypto to teach the basics of crypto investing, for $25 a month, to anyone who signs up for their Discord server. It’s a group whose members are mostly people of color. Of his Bronx neighbors, Barrios says, “We’ve been able to remix every single song, we’ve been able to create new dances, but we have not been able to teach our people how to grow generational wealth.”
When Torres announced his two crypto bills in December 2022, Barrios and Richards were by his side. Torres held them up as examples of the investors he wanted to protect. Barrios and Richards had about $5,000 locked up in FTX when it filed for bankruptcy, although they say they have overall still seen gains in their risky crypto bets over the long run.
The sheer volatility of crypto has driven away many on the left—with some arguing that such instability does the most damage to those who can afford it least.
A recent study from the University of Chicago showed that 44% of Americans who own and trade crypto are people of color, a figure far higher than the number for traditional stock ownership. That means that tumbles in crypto prices can exacerbate the wealth divide even further, says Michele Gilliam, deputy political director of the nonprofit Action Center on Race and the Economy. Gilliam acknowledges that many elements of the traditional financial system are deeply flawed and racist, but adds that “the answer isn’t to move into a system that is even worse.” She compares the recent collapse of the crypto market to the subprime mortgage crisis, where Black and Latino homeowners were far more likely than white borrowers to lose their houses.
Outside of the realm of speculation, crypto hasn’t yet proved itself as a tool of financial inclusion. Research from the Brookings Institution found that even in use cases like remittance payments, the transaction costs and price volatility of crypto options outweigh the benefits, even compared with existing, often-predatory alternatives.
What crypto does have is leaders and lobbyists who are adept at making their case to legislators—and who have lately been eager to back sympathetic ones financially. Torres denies that donations motivate his interest, but he has experienced some of the largesse. His 2022 campaign received a $2,900 donation from Sam Bankman-Fried, and Bankman-Fried’s brother, Gabriel, donated over $30,000 to his campaign and related political action committees. Torres also received nearly $12,000 in donations from individuals associated with Andreessen Horowitz, which hosted a fundraiser for him at the glitzy Zero Bond club in Manhattan’s NoHo district.
Torres says his team is setting aside any donations associated with Bankman-Fried, in the event that they’re clawed back during FTX’s bankruptcy. At the moment, that seems like a manageable sacrifice. Torres’s overall campaign fundraising topped $4 million in the 2022 cycle, and after facing only token opposition, he has most of that cash on hand. Many of his biggest donors have been pro-Israel groups, private equity, and hedge funds—further sources of consternation among his progressive critics.
On a chilly Friday evening in January, Torres met with Fortune again at an Italian restaurant a few blocks off the main strip of the Bronx’s Little Italy. The meeting was delayed by the historically protracted vote for the House speaker, with Kevin McCarthy finally winning on his 15th ballot.
Amid the dysfunction, Torres still planned to push his crypto agenda, including reintroducing the two bills he had drafted in the wake of FTX’s collapse. Over a plate of chicken Parmesan (hold the pasta, hold the vegetables), Torres brushed off the notion that he was expressing any kind of controversial viewpoint by promoting blockchain technology.
“I admit that I’m a heterodox Democrat,” Torres says. “I won my race without the support of the Democratic establishment and without the support of the progressive movement.” In his quest for a saner system, Torres has taken some big swings against that establishment. In December, he called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate the SEC’s failure to protect the public from FTX. For a second-term congressman to lambaste an appointee of a president from his own party raises eyebrows in conventional circles, but Torres views it as common sense. And given the current upended power dynamics in Congress, where first-year GOP representatives almost torpedoed McCarthy’s speaker bid, the environment could be ripe for Torres.
“On some level, anything is possible in this House right now,” says Sheila Warren, CEO of the Crypto Council for Innovation, a trade group in Washington. “There is a lot of room for somebody who has actually spent time getting educated about this topic to have a lot of influence.”
And as for critics who complain that it’s fishy for a legislator to be pro-crypto? “If there are people who have issues with me, that’s their problem, not mine,” Torres says. “I’m from the Bronx. I just don’t give a shit.”
Crypto’s Capitol Hill characters
While many legislators view cryptocurrency and blockchains with suspicion, the industry has won supporters on both sides of the aisle. Here are some of the figures who could help decide its future in the 118th Congress.
J. Scott Applewhite—AP Images
Rep. Patrick McHenry
Among the big winners of the 2022 midterm elections was Patrick McHenry. The pro-crypto lawmaker from North Carolina took over the powerful House Financial Services Committee when the GOP won a majority; stablecoin regulation is high on his agenda.
Eva Marie Uzcategui—Bloomberg/Getty Images
Sen. Cynthia Lummis
The Republican senator from Wyoming has been one of the biggest boosters of crypto in Congress, advocating for including Bitcoin in retirement portfolios and even changing her profile picture to include laser eyes, a meme in the crypto community.
Michael Brochstein—Sipa USA/AP Images
Sen. Debbie Stabenow
The Michigan Democrat chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has taken the lead on crypto legislation thanks to its oversight of derivatives markets. The committee was a favorite of FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried, passing a regulatory bill that he backed.
Nathan Posner—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Rep. Tom Emmer
Emmer, a Minnesota Republican, is one of Congress’s most outspoken advocates for crypto, cochairing a blockchain-focused caucus and sponsoring numerous bills to advance industry-preferred regulation. His new status as House Majority Whip adds to his heft.
Melissa Lyttle—Bloomberg/Getty Images
As head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Gensler is one of the main regulators for crypto. He has drawn ire for refusing to draft new rules for the sector and instead taking a hard-line approach that critics describe as “regulation by enforcement.”
Michael Brochstein—Sipa USA/AP Images
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has always been a wonkier sibling of the SEC, but chair Behnam has taken a higher-profile role through his regulation of crypto, which many industry participants view as a friendlier approach compared with Gensler’s.
This article appears in the February/March 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Crypto’s newbie ally in Congress.”