The Education of Ben Kallos
Meet the 32-year-old who could be your next city councilmember
He went to state school because, he said, he couldn't afford an Ivy League education. His Hungarian grandparents immigrated to New York in the 1950s. He grew up on the East Side but went to high school at Bronx Science. He got his law degree, worked in private practice, then the New York State Assembly and a good government group.
None of that has stopped the 32-year-old from winning the Democratic primary for City Council on the Upper East Side. Kallos, barring an upset by his Republican counterpart, David Garland, would succeed Jessica Lappin in district five come November. (Over the weekend, Kallos won the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney for the post.)
His refusal to accept campaign contributions from real estate interests and his public school chops dovetail with his idealism, but his launch into public service will be interesting to watch given his neophyte status with the Democratic establishment on the Upper East Side.
"I went to public school for high school, college and post-grad, so I think that it's more representative of the larger city and the public support we all need as a city because without it I wouldn't be here," said Kallos. "I couldn't afford anything else and the only reason I could run for office instead of paying off mountains of law school debt is because I went to SUNY Buffalo."
Kallos said he became politically active in 2007, when "Microsoft was making a move nationwide to switch over to Microsoft-based voting machines, and back on 2007 people were still talking about Bill Gates as a possible presidential candidate, and that scared me a lot," said Kallos. "I have a serious background in technology, I'm a web developer, and that activated me."
At the time Kallos was a member of New York Democratic Lawyers Council and drafted a memo to board of elections opposing the Microsoft-based voting machines. Through his work on the council he met Jonathan Bing, the former NYS Assemblyman for the 73rd District, who took Kallos on as his chief of staff from 2007-2009. Kallos said notable legislation he worked on with Bing that became law included a bill that improved NYC Select Bus Service and a bill that strengthened crane regulations after two collapses in 2008, one of which was fatal.
"By the grace of God it hasn't happened again, and I hope that that legislation had something to with it," said Kallos.
Kallos then transitioned from being an Assembly chief of staff to becoming the director of policy for Mark Green in his 2009 bid to become Public Advocate. Green was later defeated in a runoff election by Bill DeBlasio. In 2009 Kallos signed on as the executive director for the good government group New Roosevelt, where he worked to unseat former state senator Pedro Espada. Espada was indicted on federal embezzlement and theft charges in 2010.
When asked how he won the primary, Kallos said he simply worked hard.
"I ran a campaign on openness, transparency and accountability. We had over 150 interns involved here over the course of the campaign and I think it really resonated with people and we just worked really hard," said Kallos. "We called everyone in the district multiple times, we knocked on their doors, we shook their hands. By the end of [Primary] Day, my field director told me I had spoken to most of the people who voted for me."
Kallos' campaign was helped along when allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against his former rival and current state Assemblyman in the 76th District, Micah Kellner. Kallos won 46 percent of the vote to Kellner's 39 and Ed Hartzog's 15.
But Kallos didn't attribute his win to the allegations against his opponent. "I feel that based on the responses we've been getting for the entire campaign and how sick of Albany politics the district is and how people voted citywide, that we were going to take it," said Kallos.
Still, he said that he can't ignore the scandal as a factor in the race.
"It would be foolish of me not to acknowledge it," he said, speaking of the Kellner allegations, "and not to acknowledge how we as a city rejected certain behavior that voters do not believe should be in government anymore and I'm proud to have been a candidate, I'm proud to be a part of this city and to be a voter where we voted out Weiner, Spitzer and Lopez...we sent a strong message."
As for his political aspirations, Kallos said part of his recent success was not overextending himself. Although he knew he wanted to enter public service since he was 12, he took his time and gained experience as an organizer, chief of staff and policy director on a city campaign and progressive organization. In four years, he said, he'd like to run for re-election and then, who knows?
"It's however much you think you can do. For me I felt that I needed to run the kind of campaign I did in order to get into office in the way I wanted to so I could accomplish the things I want," said Kallos. "For now I'm focused on City Council and doing the best job I can do there...I hope that in eight years I merit promotion."
"Whatever it may be," he said.
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