Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

My Neighbor, the Presidential Candidate

What drives someone like Jay Torres—an Army veteran and political neophyte running for the GOP nomination in 2024—to seek the highest office in the land?
by Jim Swift
September 7, 2022
My Neighbor, the Presidential Candidate
Presidential candidate Jesus “Jay” Torres. (Composite / The Bulwark / Shutterstock)

I was pulling into a parking lot in front of a Food Lion when I saw the first sign. In large block letters, it proclaimed, “Jay Torres for President, 2024.”

President of what, I thought, his HOA? Confused but intrigued, I took a picture and googled him later.

It turns out that local man Jesus “Jay” Torres is running for the office of president of the United States.

And as it happens, I drive by the candidate’s house every day. Torres’s property, on a corner in a middle-class neighborhood in Woodbridge, Virginia, is decorated with a big-ass yard sign for his campaign—I’m surprised I missed it before—plus an American flag, a Puerto Rican flag, and a Cambodian flag.

Flying the flag of your own country at your home can be an expression of simple patriotism; for some, it is barely a political act, akin instead to standing for the national anthem at a baseball game.

But raising the Stars and Stripes alongside two other flags, plus a giant yard sign—that’s different. I had to discover what Jay Torres was all about.

So I asked to meet him. We agreed to grab dinner at the local Elks Lodge near both our homes.

That evening, Torres greets me in the parking lot wearing a dark, well-tailored suit with subtle pinstripes, a red striped tie, and an American flag lapel pin. His suit is nice enough that I suggest he leave the jacket in the car—smoking is permitted in the lodge, and the smell gets into everything—but Torres politely refuses and we head inside. He later tells me he designed the suit himself as part of a former business venture.

Torres has come equipped for some old-fashioned gladhanding: He carries with him a binder for campaign literature, business cards, and fliers, as well as sleeves of hats to give out. Many of the hats are a familiar red color, but embroidered with a different message than one is accustomed to seeing above the brim: “WTP,” they say—meaning “We the People”—over “Torres 2024.” (While the red hats are a hit among tonight’s lodge patrons, some opt for the white version, with one member commenting that she won’t wear a red political hat. Fair enough.) I ask Torres if, like Trump’s hats, his were made in America. He tells me he actually sourced them from Cambodia—his wife, Sotheary, grew up there. (His own Puerto Rican heritage accounts for the other flag outside his home.)

Jesus “Jay” Torres hands out his red “WTP” campaign hats. (Photo by Hannah Yoest / The Bulwark)

Torres came of age in Bushwick, the neighborhood in Brooklyn, and he joined the military in 1992 to escape the “toxic” environment of his part of New York City, with its crime and drugs.

Now 53, Torres is retired from the Army, though he still keeps his hair in a close-cropped “high and tight” cut, and working for General Dynamics, a defense contractor. (His employer, he tells me, is aware of his presidential candidacy.) He and his wife are raising a 9-year-old son; he also has an adult son in Uganda from a previous marriage. His wife has four other kids from a previous marriage: Two are in the Army and the other two are planning to enlist after they finish high school.

So it’s not the typical postcard- or banner-image-ready family of a career pol. The complicated reality that Jay and Sotheary Torres navigate together might limit his political appeal—although who knows, it could endear him to those of his fellow citizens whose family lives are similarly complicated. (And it’s better to be straightforward about your complicated family life than to, say, lie about it.)

Torres identifies as a Republican, and my first line of questions is about where he stands on the party’s central doctrine: love of Donald Trump. It’s not clear that he is either a Trump supporter or a Never Trumper; he lacks the obvious polarity that defines most in today’s GOP. In 2016, he did vote for Trump; in 2020, an overseas trip prevented him from casting a vote, but he had already decided against supporting him again. The former president’s poor response to Hurricane Maria, COVID, and the events of January 6th were “the icing on the cake” for him when making that decision, Torres says, but he doesn’t say whether this would have pushed him to vote for Joe Biden, had he been able to.

Torres says he did want to like Biden—“because his heart is genuine”—but Trump’s failures convinced Torres to run in 2024 as a Republican no matter what the Biden administration has in store between now and the next election.

Torres and the author. (Photo by Hannah Yoest / The Bulwark)

Discussing politics energizes Torres, which gets him into elevator-pitch mode.

“President of the United States is not an easy job,” he tells me.

So, you’re going to make mistakes. Right? And I always say to people, “I might not be the best president, but I’ll be the best president you’ve ever seen”—because I’m going to be a combination of . . . the charisma of . . . Barack Obama . . . [and] assertive like Donald Trump, because I still have that Brooklyn mentality that, coupled with my military mentality, [means] you gotta be out of my way. You need to step out of my way when I’m walking, because I will just walk right over you.

“I’m a train with no brakes,” he says.

Torres suggests that he’s a natural fighter. But what does he want to fight for? As he begins describing the policies he advocates, he starts to come into focus for me as a classic cultural and economic populist—the sort of guy William Jennings Bryan could have stumped for in the twilight of the nineteenth century. He doesn’t want power for its own sake, and he doesn’t want to impose an ideology. He just wants to stick up for his friends and neighbors; his political advocacy begins at the level of their everyday problems and concerns.

The first big policy goal Torres tells me about is slashing the cost of prescription drugs for seniors by 50 percent. “You’re going to start with that. I’m not going to be able to revamp the [entire] healthcare system,” he says, “but we can start somewhere, and we need to start with our seniors.” He hasn’t developed a definite approach to the issue yet, policy-wise—price controls, subsidies, allowing reimportation, and potentially other ideas are all still on the table—but the objective is clear enough for a campaign poster or even a button: 50 percent.

Torres’s second goal is countering critical race theory (CRT), a concern he shares with many on the right these days. As we talk, he gives me a handout depicting a gingerbread man. On closer inspection, it turns out to be the Genderbread Person. “These are the types of things that really infuriate me . . . they’re trying to teach this to our school-age children,” he says, telling me to keep the handout. But in his view, the world outside the classroom is a place where toleration is the rule of the day. Torres notes he has family who are gay and happy, adding that “When you’re an adult, you can make a decision for yourself who want to love.” His problem is with what he sees as ideological indoctrination targeting children in public schools at a young age. The Genderbread Person is about gender and sexuality rather than race, of course, but to Torres, progressive cultural education is all of a piece—as it is to anyone who advocates an intersectional approach to social justice, for that matter. But CRT in particular is almost infinitely malleable in conservative polemics today: It can be anything people want or need it to be.

“The Genderbread Person.” (Photo by Hannah Yoest / The Bulwark)

Here’s a fact that might surprise you: A total of over 3,500 candidacies for president have been registered with the Federal Election Commission in the last five presidential elections. But fewer than 500 of the candidates reported to the FEC that they had raised more than $0 in campaign donations.

What would it take for Torres to stand out from that crowd? What does the road ahead look like for an aspiring national political candidate with no experience, network, or campaign infrastructure?

While a primary nomination in the Republican party is a virtual impossibility for Torres, it might actually be possible for him to get his name printed on the general election ballot as an independent candidate in Virginia. To do this, he will need to collect 5,000 signatures in support of his candidacy. (It would take the same number to get his name on the Republican primary ballot in the state, but the deadline for that would come months earlier.) Virginia law calls for independent candidates to file their petitions with signatures by the third Tuesday in June the year of a general election. That goal would give Torres almost 22 months to gather the necessary signatures—a challenging but theoretically achievable task.

Getting on the ballot as an independent candidate in every state in the country would require meeting each one’s unique requirements; most of them similarly require petitions with signatures in support of the individual’s candidacy, although the numeric thresholds vary from state to state, and some states accept a filing fee instead. In any case, for Torres to broaden his campaign to the national level would require amassing two things he’s short on: money and staff.

Currently, Torres claims, he has a team of around 50 volunteers from across the country. As his campaign progresses, he also hopes to be able to involve his family in a larger capacity.

He is not able to pay his volunteers, many of whom he has recruited on sites like GlassDoor, but hopes that will change as he starts to bring in money. So far this hasn’t deterred them. “[They] are in it because they care about America,” he says, “not because they’re going to get money in their pockets.” That’s a truth about most people who work in politics, as it happens. Young, idealistic campaign staffers are a precious American resource.

One obstacle to Torres’s larger aims is his lack of name recognition. Fortunately for him, “Jay Torres” has all the hallmarks of an effective campaigning name: compact, tough, and fun—I have to imagine—to shout. (That’s even before factoring in Jesus, his birth name—you can imagine the campaign slogans, to say nothing of the meme potential.)

Getting his name out there would become easier with some high-profile collaborations with fellow party members. To get himself on the radar of the big-name Republican politicians, Torres tells me, his organization has sent letters to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, and Attorney General Jason Miyares, and all of Virginia’s congressional Republicans. (The rest of the nation’s Republicans in Congress should be getting a letter from him soon.) With any luck, he hopes to be able to pick up a photo op or a quotable reply—an actual endorsement is probably outside the realm of the possible—from one of these contacts, which would be a boon for his nascent campaign.

Torres is also hopeful that social media will boost his name recognition. (His Twitter account provides some insight into views he didn’t have a chance to discuss during our meeting, such as gun control—he’s in favor of “stricter gun laws” and implies that the current Republican approach to the issue is “insane”—and Columbus Day, which he considers a “fake holiday.”) He’s also planning some wildcard moves, such as reaching out to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to advocate his heterodox position on the Southern border: He is a big supporter of legal immigration but tough on border security.

In Torres’s mind, presentation is everything. It’s the only reason a person would wear a beautiful suit into a smoky Elks Lodge. Approaching LULAC to talk about stricter border security is not something your typical politician would do; it’s hard to imagine someone gaining anything politically valuable from this sort of encounter. But Torres believes his charisma can sell his policies. His presentation doesn’t convince me that he has a real chance of success with LULAC, but it does leave me in no doubt that he is sincere.

Some of his other policy positions bear out this view of him. As with prescription-drug prices and opposition to CRT, support for a living wage is something Torres advocates because of the hardships he has experienced firsthand and witnessed in the lives of his fellow citizens. As I press him, it becomes clear he is aware of the distinction between a minimum wage and a “living wage” that Washington pols get so hung up on, but that’s not the side of the issue that holds his attention. His position is simply that people should earn a wage that enables them to live.

He would like to take this sincerity on the road. If sufficient donations come in, Torres plans to get a bus and do a Straight Talk Express–style tour of the country for a full year. But even though that seems mightily ambitious given where he stands today, Torres is already thinking even bigger: After finishing the bus circuit, he intends to take to the skies and embark on a global tour.

When I bring up straight-talker John McCain’s criticisms of Barack Obama for doing exactly this—criticisms that resonated strongly with just the sorts of Republican voters Torres wishes to reach—Torres is undeterred. He thinks it’s important for an American politician to hold squishy allies to account, and for someone—him—to impress upon them the need to align their interests more closely with those of the United States and NATO. “We need to make sure that we can count and rely on India,” he says. “We don’t need someone that’s neutral. We need someone that’s with us.”

Torres at the Elks Lodge in Woodbridge, Virginia. (Photo by Hannah Yoest / The Bulwark)

As is probably clear by now, Jay Torres is the kind of guy who will give you his real opinion every time you ask him about something. His answers to my questions were sometimes politically infeasible, technically inaccurate, or plainly unrealistic. But my two hours of conversation with him at the Elks Club at least convinced me of his honesty.

Honesty is not always a politically valuable commodity—some of Torres’s answers would have horrified me if I were his campaign manager—but I think that’s what made his straightforwardness so refreshing. And while avoiding the committee-workshopped, flavorless style of talk that political careerists favor, Torres also refused to give in to the appeal of Trump-style “honesty”—raw, childish aggression dressed in the garb of “authenticity.” (Trump’s act is, of course, deeply ironic, given his pathological commitment to lying.) Torres simply comes across as uncoached. He doesn’t leave the impression of a politician, but of a person who just woke up one day and decided to run for president.

As our conversation wound down, I wanted to give Torres some time to mingle with my fellow Elks members. After all, they are potential voters, and if he has a shot at getting on the ballot—any ballot—it’s here in Virginia. But before we end our chat, Torres turns the tables on me.

He asks: “If I became president, what would be the two things—not three, not one, but two things—that you would say, ‘Jay, we really need help in this area. Do something about this.’ . . . What would they be?”

It was another strangely refreshing moment: I got the sense that he did this not to troll or dish back, but because he cares and wants to learn more about the issues. And I am a potential constituent, too, after all. So I offered him my two things: first, a version of my old boss Jon Kyl’s immigration reform bill, and second, an overhaul of our free trade policies. Torres listened respectfully as I made my case for each.

Oddly enough, if you overlook his inexperience and the quixotic nature of his campaign, Jay Torres is closer to my ideal than most Republican candidates who have a realistic chance of competing for the party’s presidential nomination in 2024. (Here, I can admit a preference for the leadership of average citizens, and the occasional technocrat, to that of careerists who are hungry for power—a time-honored conservative principle.) And this is a source of frustration: Why isn’t Torres running for something more achievable? He could even have chosen to compete in the House primary for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. Our Louie Gohmert–endorsed county supervisor Yesli Vega won the nomination and is running against Democrat Abigail Spanberger for our recently redrawn district’s open seat. I would have happily voted for Torres in that primary.

Even so, there’s something heartening about the sight of Torres among the Elks after our conversation, shaking hands and signing hats. Hundreds of people across this country will mount similar 2024 presidential campaigns out of their garages and their basements and their living rooms. (In Torres’s case, he shares his converted garage with Sotheary, who runs a nail salon out of her side.) That so many Americans feel that urge every four years and act on it is strangely beautiful. For all the sacrifices these unknown candidates make, all the knocks on closed doors, all the handshakes with people who won’t remember their names, all the hours and dollars and sweat that might seem better spent elsewhere, these candidacies are about the thing that in the end matters most in American politics: hope.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.