Ken Biberaj, the latest candidate in the hotly contested race for an Upper West Side City Council race, lacks the local political experience of the other candidates but is stressing his business experience and personal commitment to the area.
Biberaj registered for the race last month and officially launched his campaign on Wednesday. He is the vice president and spokesperson at RTR Funding Group, Inc., which owns the iconic Russian Tea Room restaurant in Midtown Manhattan.
“I saw that 2013 was going to be a real opportunity for new people and new leadership with a fresh perspective,” Biberaj told Spectator. “It seems like it’s going to be a competitive field, and I provide an alternative to everybody else.”
Biberaj is one of four candidates looking to replace City Council member Gale Brewer, who is running for Manhattan borough president. He will face former Community Board 7 chairs Mel Wymore and Helen Rosenthal as well as Democratic Party District Leader Marc Landis in the November 2013 election.
Unlike Wymore and Rosenthal, Biberaj has not been active in the community board or local government. And at 32, Biberaj is 17 years younger than the next youngest candidate—Wymore and Landis are both 49, and Rosenthal is 51.
“I think people appreciate and understand that it’s OK to work in business and now kind of step forward and use all those experiences to effectuate change,” Biberaj said. “The community, when they get to know me better, will see that I’m a hardworking, dedicated young person who is married and lives here, came here because the West Side is so amazing, and wants to make sure the community is strong for my kids.”
Biberaj said his most pressing concerns are quality-of-life issues—including reducing crime and traffic—improving the education system, and creating jobs for small businesses with “smart solutions.”
For example, Biberaj noted that in order to get help from the city Department of Business, small-business owners need to hire an expediter who knows how to navigate the government bureaucracy, which he said doesn’t make sense.
“For someone who’s running a small business, who needs to get something done, it just creates additional cost that they have to hire someone else to do it,” Biberaj said. “I hope to be able to make it a little easier for small businesses to operate and get started.”
Biberaj also emphasized that he would continue some of Brewer’s policy initiatives.
“Technology was also a large issue for Brewer, and it’d be one of those issues that I’d like to pick up for her—and that goes to everything, from access to broadband to creating a workforce that can fill tech-related jobs,” Biberaj said. “We are becoming the Silicon [Valley] of the East.”
Biberaj was born in the Bronx to parents who fled communist Albania in the 1960s. He credited his passion for public service to his father, Elez Biberaj, who delivered pizzas and drove taxis before becoming director of the Eurasia division of Voice of America, an international broadcasting organization funded by the United States government.
Elez received a doctorate in political science from Columbia. Inspired by his father, Biberaj went to American University for his undergraduate education and received a master’s in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
He later served as the political research director for Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 presidential campaign in Florida.
“At the last meeting [of the Kerry campaign], somebody made the offhanded remark it felt like yesterday was the  Dukakis campaign,” Biberaj said. “And I realized suddenly that I love the campaign energy and feel, but I always had a greater passion for public service and governing and getting stuff done rather than the battle of the campaign.”
Biberaj returned to New York after the campaign ended to take on the job of reviving the Russian Tea Room.
“I decided it’d be important to get some business experience and dive a little deeper to become a potential better public servant later,” Biberaj said.
Biberaj has set up a website and hopes to take advantage of the rare open seat on the council, which Brewer is vacating due to term limits.
“I’m at the point in my life where this makes perfect sense for me to give it a shot,” he said.