Council Member Ben Kallos on the Joys of Being an Outsider in NYC Politics

September 23, 2018

Since 2013, New York City Council Member Ben Kallos has represented Roosevelt Island, along with the Upper East Side and the rest of the City's Fifth District. Recently, high-school student Mark Strong Shinozaki interviewed the 37-year-old council member about growing up on the Upper East Side, his decision to go into politics, and his hopes for the future of Roosevelt Island. 


The interview is part of an going Time Capsule project, sponsored by the Children, Youth, and Education Committee of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA). For previous conversations with Islanders,  including with RIOC President Susan Rosenthal, Nisi owners Kaie and Alex Razaghi, Dr. Jack Resnick, and others, check out the rest of our Time Capsule series


Left to right: Adib Mansour, Mark Strong Shinozaki, Ben Kallos, and Francine Elisaia.


Growing Up Next Door


Mark  Strong Shinozaki: Mr. Kallos, please tell us a little bit about your upbringing. 


Council Member Ben Kallos: I grew up in the neighborhood. I went to Park East, which is a parochial school in the 60s, along with the Block family from Roosevelt Island. My father was a dermatologist who actually worked on Roosevelt Island and every time we went on the 59 Street Bridge, he would tell about me about the elevator he would take with his car to get to Roosevelt Island to treat patients at Coler and Goldwater. 


My parents were divorced when I was four. I was actually born in Florida–don’t trust Wikipedia, it is not always correct. I moved here when my parents got divorced. My mother is a psychologist. I worked my way through school, got here, and am happy every moment to be a Council Member. 


Shinozaki: Can you describe your neighborhood and how is it different now? 


Council Member Kallos: The first apartment we moved to was on 88th Street and York Avenue. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my mom; she had the living room and I had the bedroom. It was across the street from the garbage dump–which was open at the time. I wasn’t allowed to cross the street because she was afraid I would be hit by a garbage truck. The street was covered in trash that leaked out of the garbage trucks. The neighborhood smelled like a dump. I used to go play at Carl Schurz Park, but I wasn’t supposed to play there alone because there were drug needles everywhere and the city was pretty much in disrepair, and that’s, I guess, what it was like in the city during the 80s. 


We were in a tall Glenwood building, but there were still a lot of six-story buildings throughout the neighborhood. I don’t recall construction on every block. I don’t recall seeing scaffolding everywhere. I don’t remember the city being as crowded. I do remember that the subways and buses weren’t reliable back then and they’re still not reliable today. 


Shinozaki: From your perspective how was growing up in New York City and do you think, if you lived anywhere else, you be as interested in politics? 


Council Member Kallos: My interest in politics is more related to my religious upbringing and the fact that, in my Jewish faith, we spent a lot of time learning about the law. I wanted laws, whether they were religious or secular, to benefit the people who observed them and to make the world a better place. 


In terms of growing up in the city, I think it had a dramatic impact. As a person who’s proud of their Jewish faith, it really felt like there weren’t many other places in America that I could be a Jewish person. I went to school in Buffalo and at an interview people would ask me where I went to church, and my answer would be “synagogue.” I wasn’t offered the job. 


Also, in growing up here, you’re surrounded by so many races, ethnicities, and cultures. I think that we’re very unique. I went to Bronx Science and I was the minority. We really benefit as a city from all the different races and cultures. It really changes perspective and tolerance. My grandparents weren’t born here; they immigrated here. My wife immigrated here more than 20 years ago. I think it really changes how folks feel about immigrants, at least here in the city—especially in the face of a nation that is intolerant and wants to ban people based on their religion. 


Shinozaki: Do you think it is more your faith or more that you saw many difficulties and challenges in the neighborhood that you wanted to represent? 


Council Member Kallos: In my case, I look at systems and I see ways of fixing them. My mother, when I was very young, would say, “Don’t criticize something unless you have a better idea.” So that meant when I saw something that was wrong I spent a lot of my time thinking about how to improve it. So I would I say  it’s nature and nurture. 


Shinozaki: Anything(s) in particular you remember you didn’t like and had ideas to fix? 


Council Member Kallos: When I was at the Bronx High School of Science, there were meetings with the principal where we talked about ways to improve the school. There was a lot of focus on school lunches at the time. 


Then, when I went to college, I was involved in student government. I spent a lot of time listening to what students wanted. Believe it or not, what the students wanted at the time was the Cartoon Network. So that was something I actually won on campus. 


And, when I graduated and was a lawyer, one of the things bothering me at the time was that people were talking about Bill Gates running for president–which now seems more and more like anyone can run for president. At the time, Microsoft was trying to operate the machinery that conducted elections. That really lit a fire under me and got me very involved in politics. I wanted to make sure that the elections we had were operated freely, openly, with a paper-based backup that I didn’t think would be easy to hack as a computer. 



Shinozaki: You graduated from the University at Buffalo School of Law in 2005; did you work as a lawyer? 


Council Member Kallos: My first job as an attorney was working for a union-side labor and employment firm, removing criminal elements from labor unions. I also had the opportunity of working on representing people in labor unions who had worked their entire lives for a pension, only to see the company (in the case of General Motors) spin off their failing divisions into a company called Delphi. As they paid their executives hundred of millions of dollars as golden parachutes, they didn’t have a million dollars here and there to cover the retirements for their employees. I thought this was really wrong. That person had basically given 30, 40, or 50 years of their lives in exchange for a retirement. They usually took less pay just so they could retire, and the laws are stacked against them in such a way that people that had worked there for a couple of years were getting hundreds of millions, while they were getting nothing. 


I realized that somebody had to get into government to change the laws so that people who worked their lifetime wouldn’t be hurt by some CEO’s greed. 


Shinozaki: Was there anything else that inspired you to become a politician? 


Council Member Kallos: A lot of people want to run for office, and one of the things I always suggest is get involved in a cause. I think advocates become better elected officials better than politicians do. 


As an attorney, somehow I had free time and got involved in a group called Democratic Learners Council that was focused on improving elections, which was good government. I also got involved with Community Board 8 and in my religious community. I saw different issues. I was just so disappointed in government. 


At that point, Jonathan Bing needed a new Chief of Staff and he reached out to me, having seen how hard I was working for the Community Board and on various campaigns where I was trying to help people get elected who would make a meaningful change. 


I got to serve as his chief of staff from 2007 to 2009. He was a really good elected official, but what I saw is a legislative system in Albany that was designed to stop good things from happening. 


At the time, people didn’t know how their elected officials voted. So, in 2009, when I left him, actually all the legislative voting records were put up in Albany. I was threatened by other elected officials and party bosses. They told me I would never work in politics again and, to be honest, they tried to stop anyone from ever hiring me again. But I’m still here and they’re not! 

 Kallos at the 2016 Roosevelt Island Halloween parade, which he attends every year.


Shinozaki: In 2013, at the age of 32, you defeated Micah Kellner in the New York City Council election primaries. Were you nervous? 


Council Member Kallos: One of the reasons I wanted to run was because I kept feeling like elected officials were selling out their communities to real estate developers and weren’t willing to make the tough choices. I wanted to do everything that no one else was would do. I wanted to stand up against the real estate developers. I wanted to force good government into the City Council. I figured I only needed one term and if I could get as much as I could in my first term done that would be fine, even if the real estate industry tried to get rid of me. 


I think a lot of people in politics sacrifice their first term for their second term; their second term for a higher office; and that office for the higher. And they keep going, and then they look back in their lives and realize they never got the chance to do anything. 


In 2013 I opened up a campaign–at the time it was considered a long-shot campaign. I didn’t take money from real estate. I called everyone that I’ve met in my life... about 4,000-5,000 people in my Rolodex. About 1,000 people gave. My most frequent contribution was about $10. 


I met with leaders in the community on Roosevelt Island. Some of my first supporters were Lynne Strong Shinozaki, as well as Michael Shinozaki, and one young man who was at Child School’s Legacy High School who volunteered in my campaign as the Roosevelt Island Director, Joe Strong. 


We literally just worked our tails off. We spoke to every single voter. I spoke to about 7,000 voters myself and we just ran as hard as we could. And it worked. We actually had to run again in the general election because it was a three-way election, which is rare on the Upper East Side. I really value the opportunity to talk to 7,000-8,000 people who ended up voting for me... because I got to hear exactly what their issues were. That actually formed what I did for the first four years. 


Shinozaki: How have the communities you represent changed your previously held perspectives on local government? 


Council Member Kallos: We’ve been able to take our queues from residents. We do something we call Policy Night where we come up with legislations and ideas. 


A kindergarten in my district, PS 290, had concerns about Monsanto’s Roundup, which was being sprayed. At the time, no one really cared and I thought it was just a weed killer, but the students in kindergarten educated me on glyphosate, and that it was a carcinogen. A year later, the World Health Organizations confirmed it was. On the heals of that, we introduced a legislation to ban the spraying of pesticides in the parks where children are playing. Because who cares if there’s weed there... you don’t want the kids to die from cancer. The issue is, we actually connected with public health experts who educated me that, it isn’t that if you have a certain amounts of it, you could get cancer; it’s that they don’t know what the exposure is. It could be minimal, it could be a lot. It is not linked to quantity. That’s a legislation we are still working to get done. 


I take my queues from my constituency and I’m very lucky that I have such a thoughtful constituency. 


Shinozaki: What do you attribute your political success to?


Council Member Kallos: I grew up in this neighborhood. The people who are voting are the people who watched me grow up, or whom I grew up with. I think we see a lot of people who move into a neighborhood, run for office, win, sellout the community, try to run for a higher office. That’s really disappointing for me, so I think I was able to offer something very different, having someone who grew up the in the neighborhood—ultimately, just somebody who’s willing to listen and sit down with folks. First Friday started on my campaign, when no one wanted to show up and talk to me. We still do it in this day in my office–where the first Friday of every month we meet with people. 


Shinozaki: Are there still people you look up to for guidance or advice? 


Council Member Kallos: I look to my residents for guidance every day, whether solicited or unsolicited. I am on the phone with community leaders every day, sometimes multiple times a day, finding out what’s important to them and what’s going on that I might not already know about. 


That being said I really look up to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and State Senator Liz Krueger. I joke that I want to be Gale Brewer when I grow up, but I’m pretty serious about that. A lot of the things that I try do in office are following the model that both set for me. Liz Krueger doesn’t take money from Real Estate and we’ve been able to do a lot of things by asking is it the right thing to do. 


One thing we want to do is support the homeless. People have been voted out of office for supporting the homeless. I sat down with Liz and said, “Do you want to start a task force for homeless outreach with the specific goal of building beds for homeless people in this neighborhood?” She said, “Yes, unequivocally,” knowing that is something we both could lose our jobs over. Gale Brewer wanted to participate on it. So we opened 17 beds of supportive housing on 91st street, across the street from not one, but two, public schools and the students and their parents came out in support. 


She doesn’t like me to talk about her, but my wife is my bedrock. In this job, you could feel that you are constantly under attack—specifically for me, from the real estate industry, which has unlimited funds to do so. No matter what I read in the newspaper, my wife is always there to tell me that she loves me no matter what. 


Shinozaki: On April 20, 2018, I attended the Washington Square Park walkout for the school shootings that have been occurring around the United States. How does it make you feel to see teens expressing non-violent civil disobedience? Do you think that this generation of teens will be part of a new wave of massive legislative change? 


Council Member Kallos: I’m incredibly excited. We have been doing everything we can to support it. I joined the National Walkout in support of the kids at East Side Middle School, P.S. 527, and P.S. 151. 


There are 1.1 million public school students, and if we register every single one of them for the next 10 years, that’s about 600,000-800,000 students who’d be between the ages of 18 and 28. In the last mayoral election, I think only 700,000 people voted. That would double the number of people voting, and this would be a group of people who cared about things like public education–which I think is very important–and cared about gun violence. 


NY State has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. I am hoping that as folks go to colleges across the country, that they bring with them this sense of civics, that they register to vote, that this generation decide gun safety isn’t a partisan issue but an everybody issue.


Shinozaki: Do you have a fun or interesting politics-related story you’d like to share with us? 


Council Member Kallos: I try to have a sense of humor about everything.

I would say one of the funniest moments would be on the campaign for re-election. I was calling people and asking them for their vote. We were working on a lot of issues and one of them was bus, Tram, and subway service. We publicized our fight against bus service cuts in Our Town. But people had picked up the paper and saw that there were bus cuts and were saying, “I don’t know if I am voting for you, I am very upset about the bus service cuts.” I had to explain to them that the only reason they knew about the bus service cuts was because I was fighting them and was sharing them with the news outlets! 


I think you have to take a step back and take a moment to laugh at yourself. You could be working as hard as you can and letting people know about the great work you’re trying to do, but sometimes people may not appreciate it. All that means is you have to communicate it better. 


Roosevelt Island


Shinozaki: What are your top five favorite things on Roosevelt Island? 


Council Member Kallos: 1: The kid in me loves the Tram. I never get tired of riding the Tram. 


2: I would say the ruins are just a part of history that you could see from everywhere and that puts you in touch with the Island. 


3: When we put up South Point Park, I thought that was really a welcome edition, creating a space for the community–whether it is for the Fall for the Arts festival or the Movie Series. I really like that. 


4: Cornell Tech campus together with South Point, and Four Freedoms Park together brought something special to the Island. 


5: The last piece would be the residents of the Island that aren’t like anywhere else. You have an entirely accessible Island and a diversity in socio-economics and ethnicity on this Island that you don’t see in neighborhoods throughout the city. Most of my district is incredibly homogenous. Here, you got folks living right across the street from each other, or in the same buildings. I am disappointed we don’t see that in South Town or some of the other developments. Sad to be losing the Mitchell-Lama programs that made this island so socio-economically diverse. I think we need to do anything we can to protect it. 


The Future


Shinozaki: Have you thought about a potential career transition to the Senate or the House of Representatives? Maybe the Presidency? 


Council Member Kallos: I would like to stay in the government as an elected official as long as possible. I believe in term limits, so 2020 is coming and I hope to run for higher office and get support from the residents on the Island. I hope that folks are willing to invest in me as a candidate because I am not willing to go to Real Estate and ask them for large checks. I am not willing to sell out to them, so that means taking small dollar investments from people who can’t afford it the same way they can, but you get the democracy that you pay for. 


Ultimately, I do not want to ever be a lobbyist; I do not want to work for Real Estate like other folks have done. I also just want this to be a citizen legislator; so I hope to continue as an elected official for as long as I can without compromising my principals, and when my time is done, I hope to go back to the private sector as an attorney, or to continue to do my software development, and continue to find other ways to make this world a better place. 


Shinozaki: As a Democrat, there are a lot of issue arising from Donald Trump’s presidency that will affect our country now and in the future. Can you tell us a little about your perspective on our elected official? 


Council Member Kallos: I am concerned about how much power this President may have. I was actually very happy when the courts had struck down the Muslim ban and frustrated so much of what he was doing, and I was taking solace at the fact that, while he might want to do whatever he could, the courts will be a check on that power. But now that the Supreme Court is failing to do so, I think he is a bigger danger to local municipalities like this one than I’ve ever thought before. 


That being said, I am concerned that Trump is giving a pass for elected officials who could be doing more on local level to make things better. Simply by opposing everything he does, they get a pass on doing the real work as elected officials in the community. 


I just spoke at over a dozen graduations talking to the next generation about what they can do. I think the best thing you could do to resist is be tolerant of your brother and sister who may be a little or a lot different. On the local level, it’s making sure to protect immigrant communities—and there is a huge one here on Roosevelt Island. Making sure that we provide legal services, and that is something we passed as part of the budget. Anyone facing any situation with his or her citizenship status could reach out to our office and we are happy to help. 


Shinozaki: How do you foresee the future of Roosevelt Island in 25 years when we re-open the time capsule? 


Council Member Kallos: So, in 25 years, we would still be under RIOC (their lease will continue for 50 years). We’ve approved the Tram for another 50 years, so I believe the Tram will and should still be there. 


I hope the ferry service will not only have continued but improved. I hope by then the F train becomes much more reliable. As a dream I’d love to see additional means of getting on and off the island beyond the bus service, such as having either the connection to the E train station on the Island, southerly where there is a tunnel under the island, or restoring the elevator or stairwell to the bridge. 


I hope by then I would have gotten Bike Share for Roosevelt – I’m hoping to have it done within this term. That’s something I’ve been working on since 2009, I believe. 

I really hope that there still is affordable housing on Roosevelt Island. That the island is still disabled accessible. And I really hope we still have Coler. 

I so hope to see that by then we’ve achieved democracy for Roosevelt Island where residents are electing RIOC Board members. 


These are some of my hopes and dreams for Roosevelt Island. I also hope that by then we’ve open the door on capital investment on Roosevelt Island from the City Council. We’re hoping to see a completion of a lot of capital investment for the island. 



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