Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Ken Harris never stopped trying

The Baltimore Sun

It only looked like Ken Harris loved being on TV.

When there was a hot issue in Baltimore - schools, crime, convention center hotel - the city councilman spoke out, then tuned in. But what he saw on the evening news rarely satisfied.

"His wife told me he'd come home and watch the tape over and over ... and see how he could improve himself," said City Councilman Nick D'Adamo, a good friend. " 'I was sweating too much. I was too nervous.' He used to talk in front of the mirror and practice his speech."

That drive for self-improvement helped Harris, fatally shot over the weekend in a robbery outside a Northeast Baltimore jazz club, overcome tremendous odds. Born to a 16-year-old single mom who tucked him into a dresser drawer because she couldn't afford a crib, he stayed out of trouble, finished high school and college, worked his way up from mail clerk to sales rep at Blue Cross Blue Shield, won a City Council seat.

He remained driven even when, by most measures, he'd made it.

"He used to dress with his $500 suits, and I used to tease him: 'Ken, where'd you get that $69 suit?' " D'Adamo said. "He had his initials on his shirts. 'What's that, a $9.99 shirt from Kmart?' He would tell me, 'It's tailor-made, $100, $150.' I said, 'You paid too much.'

"He always told me, 'Nick, I came from nothing. I'm going to make something of myself. Most of my friends are dead or in jail.' I said, 'Ken, you have already. You're a councilman.' ... He kind of raised himself the hard way, the streets. And he wanted to prove something to people."

Last year, Harris gave up his safe council seat to run for council president.

"He was running for president of the City Council, and I was running for mayor," former Councilman Keiffer Mitchell recalled. "And when the Sunpaper came out with the first poll in July and showed the odds that were overwhelming, Ken called me early in the morning. 'Keiffer, don't believe those polls. Those polls are wrong. We at least got our families to vote for us.' "

Even the power of positive thinking - Harris had a stint as a motivational speaker, and years later still handed out copies of his corny but earnest tape, "How to Pursue Your Goals with an Optimistic Approach" - has its limits. Harris lost the race.

Harris also lost his job with Comcast. The company, which hired Harris shortly after he was elected to the council, has a habit of collecting people in and around power. (Think Kendel Ehrlich, Tommy Bromwell's sons, Mike Miller's daughter ...)

The guy who never shied away from bright TV lights cleaned out his City Hall office in the dead of night.

"I didn't want people seeing me taking my boxes out," said Mitchell, who lost his race, too. "I'd come at night, and Kenny was down there taking stuff out."

Harris didn't keep his head down for long. Not content to just mail out resumes, he traveled to Ocean City for the Maryland Association of Counties conference last month to schmooze. His efforts paid off, according to lobbyist Bruce Bereano. Harris told him about two weeks ago that he'd just landed a job with Morgan State University as a lobbyist. (Morgan officials told The Baltimore Sun's Annie Linskey that Harris was in the final round of interviews for the job.)

"He told me to keep it quiet. 'They're going to announce it soon,' " Bereano said. "He was very excited about it. It's his alma mater, and he's just so committed to Morgan. He would have been phenomenal for Morgan - his personal skills, his enthusiasm, his commitment to the university."

Harris wasn't banking on energy and personality alone to prepare him for a new line of work. He turned to Bereano, a top earner in Annapolis who also knows a thing or two about bouncing back.

"I want you to mentor me," Harris said, according to Bereano.

Bereano sent Harris books on House rules, Senate rules and the legislative process, a copy of the Maryland Constitution, a pamphlet on legislative lingo. They were going to discuss it all over lunch at Miss Shirley's restaurant in North Baltimore tomorrow.

Harris, 45 and the father of two, will be buried that day instead.

"I said, 'Make sure you read everything,' " Bereano said. " 'We're going to have a lesson.' It was for this Thursday at 12 o'clock. It's on my calendar. This Thursday at 11, I'm going to see him, but not as I wanted to."

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