UPPER WEST SIDE — Ken Biberaj has spent the last eight years at the Russian Tea Room and away from city politics — and that's why he believes he's the best person to represent Upper West Siders in the City Council.
Biberaj says he's not "from the establishment" and has a "fresh perspective."
"I think the response from people is, 'This is someone who is new, who has different experiences,'" he said.
With the entry of Noah Gotbaum at the end of February and state committeewoman Debra Cooper in August, there are now six candidates, with Marc Landis, Helen Rosenthal and Mel Wymore rounding out the group.
Rosenthal has raised the most money to date, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, with $185, 791 in contributions. Biberaj has banked $132, 970 in contributions.
Gotbaum trails him with $121,402 in funds.
Brewer has not endorsed any of the candidates.
At 32, Biberaj is the youngest candidate in the race. And although he has been working in the private sector, he said he has "always loved government."
It is the melding of both sides of his experience — his time working on political campaigns and his education at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and as a vice president at the Russian Tea Room in Midtown — that he believes sets him apart from the other candidates and makes him best suited to represent the neighborhood.
Biberaj's parents emigrated from Albania in the late 1960s. His father worked for Voice of America in Washington, D.C., where Biberaj studied his father and the impact of his work.
"I grew up with a sense that our dad made a difference," he recalled.
The younger Biberaj channeled that understanding into graduate studies at the Kennedy School, working for former President Bill Clinton's foundation and as the statewide policy research director for John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign in Florida.
After Kerry lost to former President George W. Bush, Biberaj took a step back from politics.
"I knew government and politics mattered, [but] I wasn’t convinced that going campaign to campaign was the best choice for me," he said.
He joined his uncle's real estate firm to get a better grasp of how business works and worked toward a law degree from New York Law School at night.
Still, he remained connected to state and national politics, campaigning and fundraising for Hillary Clinton's Senate re-election campaign in 2006 and then for her presidential bid two years later.
He helped reopen the Russian Tea Room in 2006. Biberaj said his ongoing management there was essential to his ability to understand how businesses work and what kind of support they need.
His professional background, he says, is just what the Upper West Side needs. He stresses that he has the ability to create public and private partnerships and to bring multiple perspectives to the table.
"I think it’s time to get new people with different experiences," he said. "I may not have been on the community board, but I think I have a unique set of experiences."
Biberaj's campaign strategy has been to host an array of activities and stand on street corners passing out literature and listening to locals' concerns. He made a commitment to campaign outside every day in January and honored it, he said.
Beyond his vow to help small businesses, Biberaj wants to focus on improving school overcrowding, bringing tech campuses to the city, addressing climate change and solving local infrastructure problems, among many other issues.
"I see the City Council office as being an economic development office," he said.