Candidate Adds East European Flavor to Council Race
In a City Council race already getting crowded with familiar neighborhood faces, Ken Biberaj is hoping Upper West Siders are willing to get to know one more. The latest candidate to declare a run for the 6th District seat (Council Member Gale Brewer will be out on term limits), Biberaj is also the youngest, at 32, and the least well-known in the community, a fact he readily embraces.
"It's a prime time for people in our generation to say, 'You know what, we're starting nonprofits, we're starting startup technology companies, we're working at high levels of finance and law and business, but we're not stepping forward and putting ourselves out there to give back to the community as elected officials,'" Biberaj said.
Biberaj has a diverse background that he thinks gives him an advantage. His parents emigrated from Albania to the Bronx in 1968. His father taught himself English and worked various jobs until earning a Ph.D. from Columbia and taking a position with the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, D.C. He became head of the Albanian service of a program called Voice of America, which broadcasts U.S. news into foreign countries.
"Once communism fell, it turned out that everybody was listening," Biberaj said. "We grew up having this sense of public service, seeing what my father had done and the impact he had on other people's lives."
It inspired Biberaj to attend American University, where he served twice as student body president and worked for a political consulting company. After graduation, he went straight to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, graduating in 2002, then went to work as the state research director for John Kerry's presidential campaign in Florida. After Kerry lost, Biberaj said he realized he didn't want to just cycle in and out of national campaigns and decided to get some business experience.
He moved to New York to work for his uncle's commercial real estate firm, which had just purchased the Russian Tea Room out from under the U.S. Golf Association and re-opened it as the restaurant it had once been. Now, Biberaj serves as the vice-president of marketing at the West 57th Street restaurant while working with real estate clients.
"We buy and sell buildings and do different transactions," Biberaj said of his day-to-day job. "We also do retail leasing, so I work with a lot of small local tenants. You're constantly trying to deal with their issues as a small business-you deal with the city, you deal with watching how they have to go through the process."
Biberaj went to law school at night and got his real estate law degree in 2008. He volunteers as a mentor for college students through a program called New York Needs You, serves on the restaurant committee of New York's tourism company, NYC and Co., works with the Food Bank of New York and sits on the board of directors of a small community bank on Long Island.
"I've been able to step back after seven years of doing all these interesting things. My goal has always been to find a way back to public service. It's all timing," Biberaj said. "It's a real open opportunity."
Somehow during his time in New York, Biberaj found time to date and marry his wife. The pair met at an Albanian wedding, and their courtship was chronicled in the New York Times Vows column for their wedding in 2009. "My wife is super supportive," he said.
Biberaj, who is running in the Democratic primary, said he'll be spending a lot of time in the coming months talking to people in the community to develop his positions on issues that affect the neighborhood.
"My wife and I, we're going to have kids in the community. We want to live here forever, so we want to make sure that in 10, 20 years, we can afford to live here, our kids can go to good schools here," Biberaj said. "I'm young, but I'm energetic and I'm focused and I'm diligent. I'm going to really sit down and learn issues and get to the root of them and try to solve them."
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