Harris pins high hope on humble beginning

Council president contender pitches `leadership not legacy'

August 30, 2007|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

Two of the leading candidates for Baltimore City Council president -- Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and Michael Sarbanes -- owe their political passions to fathers who rank among Maryland's top elected officials.

Not so with candidate Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a two-term Baltimore City Councilman who never knew his father. The only common ground they ever shared was a Northeast Baltimore apartment complex where Harris lived 20 years ago and where the father he never met died in April.

Harris, a 44-year-old two-term Democrat representing North-central Baltimore, has rarely woven the estrangement from his father into his political persona. Instead he has mostly highlighted his hardscrabble upbringing by a single mother.

But as he fights to win the Democratic primary for council president, Harris is attempting to woo voters by aggressively contrasting his rise from poverty against his competitors' more privileged paths: Rawlings-Blake is the daughter of the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings; Sarbanes is the son of former U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

"When you go out to cast your vote and decide who you want as your next City Council president, I want you to look at the initials L-E," Harris said at a recent debate. "Leadership and experience, not legacy or entitlement."

His rivals have taken issue with the assessment, saying they have their own records to run on.

Harris has trailed both opponents in a Sun poll last month and in fundraising.

Baltimore's State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who has recorded a radio ad for Harris with the "L-E" line, was more blunt in her take on the race, saying Harris has a better record and that Sarbanes' lack of council experience is a detriment.

"We don't need to be electing people because of who their fathers were, but on what they're doing to solve the problems of the community," Jessamy said. Harris "is a young man who has excelled. ... Yet he has not had someone in his life to show him how to do that."

Harris was born in 1963 in West Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood to 16-year-old Sylvia Harris and her then-teenage boyfriend, Jerome Linwood Lee.

"It was a shock to [Lee] to find out that I was pregnant," Harris' mother said. "He disappeared."

Describing her lifestyle as "poor" would not suffice, Sylvia Harris said. "When Kenny came home from the hospital, he was placed in a dresser drawer and a pillow. No crib. No bed."

She later married another man, Eugene Conaway, who Harris grew up believing was his father. She divorced when Harris was 6 and married a man named Howard Johnson, raising her family at a now-vacant house on Quantico Avenue in Park Heights. It was a tough neighborhood where Harris said he was robbed at gunpoint when he was 17.

When the councilman was a Dunbar High School sophomore, he unearthed his birth certificate. He was shocked to see Lee listed as his father.

"I said, `What the hell? Who the hell is Jerome?'" Harris recalled.

He never confronted his mother, but months later she told him of his past.

Unable to get along with the strict Johnson, Harris lived with his aunt as a freshman at Morgan State University. The next year, 1983, he rented an efficiency apartment at the Parkside Garden Apartments in Northeast Baltimore.

He worked four jobs to pay his rent and his tuition at the weekend program for business administration at Morgan, where he met Annette Barnes, whom he married in 1985.

The couple had a daughter, Nicole, and a son. His wife decided to name their son Kenneth Harris Jr. to better seal their father-son relationship. Harris has coached his son's Northwood Baseball League teams for the past 14 years.

"He'd come from a council meeting in a shirt and tie to help," said Derrick Wilson, the league's president. "He shows [the players] they can be successful by being a graduate of a Baltimore city public school."

After Morgan, Harris said he worked his way up the ranks at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland, starting as a mail clerk in 1985 and leaving as sales representative in 1997. During that time his wife decided to try to help him connect with his father.

But a cell phone conversation with Lee in 1992 -- the only time they would ever speak -- ended in more pain.

"He said basically that he's not trying to go back and rewrite the past," Harris said. "I said, `I'm willing to see you, do you want to set up a time to meet?' He said, `No.'"

He decided never to talk to his father again.

Instead, Harris became active in his community -- serving as president of the Leith Walk Elementary School PTA and the Glen Oaks Community Improvement Association. He also worked as a mentor and motivational speaker in schools and prison.

He went on to a job at the Downtown Partnership in 1997 and then returned to Blue Cross Blue Shield before leaving in 1999 to run for City Council, winning the seat vacated when Martin O'Malley ran for mayor.

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