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Nathaniel Oaks' departure from Maryland Senate leaves Democrats a vote shy

Nathaniel T. Oaks, the longtime lawmaker who resigned hours before pleading guilty to federal charges Thursday, has left the General Assembly with too little time left for a replacement to be named before the legislature adjourns April. 9.

That means residents of the Democrat’s Northwest Baltimore district will have no Senate representation in the waning days of the legislative session, and some of his party’s priorities may face tougher passage without Oaks’ vote.

The 71-year-old legislator’s absence leaves Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller with one fewer member of his Democratic caucus at a time when the party may need every vote it can muster to override Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto.

Governors have 15 days under state law to appoint a replacement recommended by party central committees in legislative districts with vacancies. With 10 days left in the session, Hogan has little incentive to expedite the appointment of someone who may oppose his agenda.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said Thursday that the Republican governor will not name a successor before the General Assembly’s session ends.

“It’s not a process that is going to be rushed,” Mayer said. The appointment is “too important to get it wrong.”

Even if Hogan had wanted to move quickly, there was no guarantee city party officials could have agreed on a replacement before the session ends.

In Oaks’ 41st District, two people have filed to challenge him in the June 26 Democratic primary election: former Del. Jill Carter, who manages Mayor Catherine Pugh’s civil rights office, and J.D. Merrill, a city schools teacher who is former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s son-in-law. The primary essentially picks the winner in a district with barely any Republicans.

Carter said she wants the appointment, even if she can not take the seat until after the session. “There’s a void to be filled immediately,” said Carter, who served as a delegate for 14 years.

Merrill, a former teacher at Baltimore City College, said he does not want the appointment.

“I really think the choice between the candidates needs to be made at the ballot box,” Merrill said. He said the committee should choose a “qualified, neutral party” as a placeholder until voters have made their choice.

Carter, who is African-American, could have an advantage over Merrill, who is white, in a district that is roughly two-thirds black. The district stretches from West and Northwest Baltimore, which are predominantly black, to Mount Washington and Roland Park, which are predominantly white.

Del. Bilal Ali, a member of the Democratic Central Committee for the 41st District, said there is no way the group could have rushed the recommendation of a replacement before the end of the session.

“That wouldn’t pass the smell test,” Ali said.

Ali said he thinks Carter is the front-runner for both the primary election and the appointment.

“She has the most experience,” he said. “If I was a betting man, I would certainly put my money on Jill Carter.”

Ali, who was appointed to fill Carter’s seat when she went to work for the city, said he hasn’t seen much support for Merrill in the district. Ali said Merrill’s association with O’Malley will not help him among the district’s African-American voters.

But former Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Democrat who preceded Oaks in the Senate before health issues forced her resignation early last year, said she wouldn’t rule Merrill out. Gladden said Carter had a reputation as a delegate of not being a hard worker.

“Maybe she’ll work harder as a senator,” Gladden said.

Carter disputed the criticism.

“That’s an absolute absurdity,” she said. Carter pointed out that she served on the Judiciary Committee, which she called the hardest-working in the House of Delegates.

Typically, the leading contenders for Senate vacancies often are a district’s delegates. But in this case, the three delegates — Ali, Angela Gibson and Sandy Rosenberg — are all seeking re-election.

“I don’t want to be a member of the Senate running in the House,” Rosenberg said. “I’m very happy in the House.”

For now, the Senate will operate with just 46 members.

Miller managed to get by without Oaks’ vote on the first major test after his resignation.

When the Senate voted Thursday on a school construction bill that Hogan threatened to veto, Miller rounded up 29 Democrats to vote for it. That’s the minimum needed to override a veto.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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