East Side Council Member Ben Kallos says his answer is “cheesy.”
The 38-year-old rising star in Manhattan politics has been asked about his greatest accomplishment. He points first to the little girl that he and his wife welcomed last year.
“My daughter is the end-all and be-all of my life. And to the extent that’s an accomplishment, it starts and ends there—just to have the privilege of being a father. But I think that’s just a personal milestone,” he says, speaking at his desk in his East 93rd Street office. Snow falls on the other side of the window. He’s wearing a blue suit, white shirt and no tie, talking easily and without the requisite staff members that so often sit in on a politician’s interview.
“I take paternity leave pretty seriously and family leave pretty seriously,” he adds, “and I admit I’ve been a little bit of a bully with any men that I know who aren’t taking leave because I think both partners regardless of gender should be taking an equal and active role in the child-rearing process.”
Kallos says he’s proud to have led the fight for public matching funds, an idea backed by voters in November 2018. “Good-government issues usually aren’t the things that people care about and I can be a little bit down on myself and even self-critical there,” he says, “but in November 1.4 million flipped over the ballot, 1.4 million people voted yes on Question 1.” The charter amendment lowered the amount of money a candidate for city office can accept, but increased the public funding available for those who participate in the public matching funds program.
When he began running for his council seat, which he won in 2013 and again in 2017, Kallos refused to take money from real estate donors. “At the time, people called me self-righteous and felt that I was being idealistic.”
But being in the forefront on good-government issues now seems like a winning side, politically. Kallos is considered a likely candidate in 2021 for Manhattan borough president. The term-limited incumbent, Gale Brewer, is widely viewed as likely to run for her old West Side council job.
“I am interested in running for higher office,” Kallos says. “I am interested in participating in a campaign finance system that I helped create.”
Asked specifically about Brewer’s current job, Kallos smiles and says, “It’s no secret that I want to be Gale Brewer when I grow up. I don’t know very many people who don’t want to be Gale Brewer when they grow up.”
The two don’t agree on term limits, which Kallos favors and Brewer opposes. “Anywhere I don’t see term limits I don’t see functional government. Albany has been broken for a very long time,” he argues. “I think it’s important for folks to get out of the way,” he adds, maintaining that making room for new voices makes sense.
His own voice is rooted in his experience of growing up on the Upper East Side. He’s a graduate of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School and the Bronx High School of Science. He attended SUNY Albany and then paid his way through University at Buffalo Law School. A practicing attorney before his political career took off, Kallos eventually served as chief of staff for Assembly Member Jonathan Bing from 2007 to 2009.
But his interest in government started much earlier. “I thought I might like to be an elected official when I was 12,” he says. As a youngster who attended an Orthodox synagogue, he remembers wrestling with issues surrounding Jewish law. A rabbi suggested that maybe Kallos should grow up to write laws for everyone.
Kallos’s district includes the Upper East Side, Midtown East, Roosevelt Island and East Harlem. For his first three years on the council, he was the chair of the council’s Government Operations Committee, where he tackled more than the campaign finance issue. He also focused on using technology to aid access to government and took aim at patronage. He helped get rid of outside income for council members, and to end the practice wherein the council speaker had the discretion to give “lulus,” or specific financial disbursements.
What has he not done? He hasn’t stopped the city’s plan for a marine transfer station in the area. “Doesn’t mean I have given up yet,” he says.
One big surprise when he got to the council: the corruption. He remembers being told that he needed to “go along to get along” and hearing advice against making any waves. “These are all the things that you might read about in a book,” he says.
Quoting Justice Louis D. Brandeis and the line about how “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” Kallos stresses the importance of whistleblowers and a free press. The news media helps him hold the mayor and institutions in the city to account. He mentions Our Town reporters who’ve written about the issues he’s been involved with. Journalists get credit from Kallos for “holding power accountable — including me — that’s a good thing.”