Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, who formally declared a primary challenge to Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr. last weekend to me, says she aims to raise $600,000 to defeat the controversial incumbent Bronx Democrat.

“When we analyzed this, normally this would be a race where maybe $250,000 would be enough,” the community activist told me in a telephone interview late Sunday night. “But because of, you know, what this race is about and who this is, we know that we have to raise, probably by September, closer to about $600,000.”

Espada had $252,478 on hand in his main committee as of the last campaign faineance filing in mid-January.

Pilgrim-Hunter has opened a campaign committee, but hasn’t yet filed any reports. (The next one is due on July 15). She has raised $4,956 through ActBlue, and recently hired fundraiser Lisa Hernandez Gioia to help jump-start her money-gathering efforts.

Pilgrim-Hunter seemed a bit overwhelmed when I spoke to her following a fundraiser that she said had been well attended, saying:

“You kind of look and you say to yourself: ‘OK, so now I’m going to wait for…Oh! Here comes the wave. Oh, wow. It’s more than I thought. I’m just trying to get used to all of this.”

I asked Pilgrim-Hunter if she was aware of the latest news regarding the federal probe into Espada’s alleged tax fraud and money laundering, she said she was. (Espada, who insists he’s innocent, suggested she was somehow behind the leaks that led to those stories – an allegation Pilgrim-Hunter’s campaign vehemently denies).

“My focus really is for my campaign to talk about what does my community need and I can’t really base it on whether or not he’s removed out of the picture,” Pilgrim-Hunter said.

“…What is clear to me is that we need a senator that is going to represent the people of this district. It needs to be someone who actually comes from this district and lives in this district, and clearly that’s not what’s happened right now.”

I noted that Espada’s residency question (Bronx vs. Westchester), which continues to be an issue for the senator, actually was the subject of a 2008 legal challenge found in his favor. Pilgrim-Hunter responded:

“I’m not an attorney, and I don’t know the specifics behind that. But it is clear to the residents here in the 33rd district that’s not the case.”

Pilgrim-Hunter, who is poised to land her first union endorsement – perhaps as early as this week – from RWDSU, said she hasn’t yet heard from either Espada himself or his Senate Democratic colleagues. Senate Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Klein said yesterday the conference will be backing all incumbents against primary challengers, but whether that translates into financial support from the DSCC remains to be seen.