Kenneth N. Harris Sr., the brassy city councilman who has been an outspoken critic of Baltimore's Police Department, was to announce today he is running for council president, adding a new dimension to a citywide race that is quickly becoming competitive.
The two-term Democratic councilman, who also considered running for mayor, will offer a sharp contrast to the current president, Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, who is also expected to seek the job in the September primary and who was an ardent supporter of Gov. Martin O'Malley's mayoral administration.
"We need someone with strong leadership to lead the council. It's OK to disagree sometimes, it's OK to agree. That's part of a democracy, that's honest democracy," said Harris, 43, who lives with his wife and two children in the Bellona-Gittings neighborhood on the city's northern border. "What I'm going to bring to the table is more of a check and balance in the City Council."
Harris is one of several council members running, or contemplating a run, for higher office at a time when the current mayor, Sheila Dixon, is serving the remaining 11 months of O'Malley's term. Some have suggested the election will be a referendum on O'Malley's policies and, if that's true, few races could expose that debate as clearly as the one for council president.
The position, which carries an $80,000 salary, is the second-most-powerful in the city. The president oversees the 15-member council and leads the Board of Estimates, which approves most city spending. Historically, the council has been considered a rubber stamp for the mayor, in part because it has virtually no control over the city budget.
But as a councilman, Harris has used the bully pulpit to question O'Malley - much the same way O'Malley tweaked former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke before O'Malley ran for mayor in 1999. Harris and O'Malley started as allies when Harris first ran for the council in 1999 to fill one of two vacancies in the old 3rd District - one of which was left by O'Malley.
"I said, 'This guy's going to be a force to deal with,'" said council Vice President Robert W. Curran, remembering Harris' ambitious run for the Democratic State Central Committee in 1998. Curran is not taking sides in the race - noting he has supported both Harris and Rawlings Blake in the past - but he predicted that Harris "is going to run a full-throttle campaign, and we'll see how it resonates with the voters."
Harris has been a vocal critic of police overtime, which year after year has exceeded the budget, as well as scandals that have shaken the department in past months. He called for hearings into travel expenses racked up by the trustees of the city's pension system and initially opposed construction of a $305 million convention center hotel, later changing his position when the city agreed to set aside money for affordable housing and scholarships.
This past year he became a lead sponsor, along with Curran, on a proposed smoking ban for Baltimore.
Harris represents the 4th District, which roughly runs between Charles Street and Loch Raven Boulevard in north Baltimore. Developing a citywide organization will be a challenge, and his campaign account contained less than $100 as of Jan. 10. But that does not include a fundraiser Harris held last week at the Lyric Opera House, where tickets ranged from $100 to $500.
He will also likely have the support of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin because he organized the Democrat's campaign efforts in Baltimore last year.
Harris scheduled a news conference for this morning at the Belvedere Square shopping center near York Road and Northern Parkway to officially announce his candidacy, with Cardin expected to appear.
Harris, who oversees commercial accounts for cable provider Comcast in Maryland and Delaware, grew up in Park Heights and said he gravitated toward a community center and the neighborhood library to avoid drugs and gangs. At 17 he was robbed at gunpoint along Quantico Avenue, an experience he said changed his life and pushed him toward public service.
He graduated from Dunbar High School in 1981 and from Morgan State University in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in business administration. He started work for Blue Cross as a mail clerk and left several years later having risen to the position of account sales representative. He has dabbled in motivational speaking and belonged to Prison Fellowship, a group that offers ministry to prisoners.
"I'm a guy who grew up on Park Heights Avenue and everything I've gotten, I've gotten on my own. Nobody's given nothing to me," Harris said. "I'm running hard. I don't expect anybody to give me anything."