Not Quite Gone and Far From Forgotten, Oaks Hovers Over Races to Replace Him

By William F. Zorzi

Onetime legislator Nathaniel T. Oaks, who quit the Maryland Senate nearly two weeks ago, hours before pleading guilty to two felonies in federal court, did not put in an appearance at the forum Sunday for candidates looking to fill his seat come January, but he certainly was there in spirit.

To begin with, just inside the auditorium door where the Baltimore Women United forum was held, amid burgeoning piles of campaign literature, was a tabletop placard emblazoned with Oaks’s name, directing 41st District voters to sign the petition on the clipboard below to remove him from the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee.

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Del. Angela C. Gibson, chairwoman of the 41st District Democratic State Central Committee, addresses a campaign forum in Baltimore Sunday on the delicate question of ex-Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks’ ballot status. Photo by William F. Zorzi

In an untidy bit of business, it seems that despite his guilty plea, Oaks remains on the 41st District Democratic State Central Committee because he will not be sentenced until July — which means he will be among the committee’s seven voting members April 17 picking the replacement to finish the last nine months of his Senate term.

It’s complicated.

Then, the late-afternoon forum began with Del. Angela C. Gibson, chairwoman of the 41st District Democratic State Central Committee, taking to the stage to announce details of the upcoming meeting to elect an interim senator to replace Oaks.

Gibson then had the unenviable role of fielding questions from the audience.

“Will Nathaniel Oaks recuse himself from the vote?” asked one man.

“Not to my knowledge,” Gibson said. “As of today, he’s still a voting member of the state central committee.”

She looked around the audience. “Any other questions?”

“Is it going to be rigged this time?” the same man asked of the central committee vote.

Gibson ignored the follow-up.

Dr. Helena S. Hicks, the octogenarian civil rights and political activist who resides in the 41st District, then rose with a query.

“I’m just raising this because I’m a doctor of public policy, and I taught it at the University of Maryland law school, and I’m saying you need to clear whether or not Nathaniel Oaks can vote in that April 17th [central committee meeting],” Hicks said.

“I mean clear it by somebody who has authority, not just whomever you want to talk to, some lawyer somewhere, because that is, really, an unusual situation, to have somebody like that” vote for his replacement, she said. “We have a responsibility to the people.”

Gibson explained that she was in daily contact with the chairman of the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee, Scherod C. Barnes, and that he, in turn, is in touch with the Maryland Democratic Party on the question of whether or not Oaks can vote at the April 17 meeting.

“It is not going unnoticed,” she said. “The question has been asked; we are waiting for a reply from the state Democratic Party.”

And only then, could the forum’s main event begin at the Baltimore City Public Safety Training Facility in Northwest Baltimore – the airing of differing philosophies by the two Democratic candidates for Senate from the 41st District, Jill P. Carter and J.D. Merrill [see related story].

But back to the issue of Oaks and his guilty plea, there really are two questions in play:

  1. Oaks’s name appearing twice on the June 26 Democratic primary election ballot for the 41st District — for state Senate and for the Democratic State Central Committee; and
  2. The fact that he remains on the 41st District Democratic State Central Committee and will be able to vote next week for his temporary replacement.

Both hinge on the fact that Oaks is still a registered Maryland voter and therefore still able to remain active in the politics of the state. Under state election law, there are only three “disqualifying events” that undo one’s registration, and thus render one ineligible for elective office — death, imprisonment and removing one’s own name from the voting rolls.

Although Oaks pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud March 29 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore – both stemming from a bribery scheme revealed in a federal political corruption probe – he has not been sentenced. That is not scheduled until July 17 before U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett.

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A sign at the candidate forum. Photo by William F. Zorzi

Yet it is not the actual sentencing that is the determining factor under state law. That disqualification occurs only if and when Oaks is finally imprisoned for the crimes to which he has pleaded guilty.

Under a little-known provision of the Maryland election law, his name could be removed from the ballot with help from a Circuit Court judge. If the judge were persuaded by a petitioner – a registered Maryland voter – that the appearance of Oaks’ name on the ballot could affect the election, then the judge could order the Maryland State Board of Elections to remove his name from the ballot.

That is exactly what supporters of Carter would like to see happen. They fear that Oaks’ name on the ballot will draw votes away from Carter and give Merrill an advantage in the June 26 primary election.

Of course, Oaks could easily remedy this conundrum by turning in his voting card, pure and simple, thus rendering himself unqualified to appear on the ballot or hold a seat on the Democratic State Central Committee.

But that also would mean he would lose his role on the central committee in voting for his temporary Senate replacement from the 41st District.

The Baltimore Democratic State Central Committee for the 41st District will meet to interview candidates and hold a public vote for a Senate replacement at 6 p.m. on April 17 at the Forest Park Golf Course clubhouse, 2900 Hillsdale Rd.

bzorzi@marylandmatters.org

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