Nathaniel Oaks, who is facing federal fraud charges and refuses to resign, told the Baltimore Sun last month, "I'm a senator. I have obligations to the constituency that elected me." Tell that to voters interested in having a say in choosing representatives who can do the hard job of improving Maryland's largest city.
Indeed, Nathaniel Oaks is a senator, but he was not elected by voters in his west Baltimore district. Instead, he was appointed to the position by the city's powerful Democratic Central Committee in a process rigged for political insiders and one that has now burdened us with a distracted politician who must lawyer up to avoid prison.
Selecting Mr. Oaks for the upper house of the General Assembly earlier this year as a result of the resignation of former State Sen. Lisa Gladden for health reasons, Democratic Party insiders held an open vote among six members. This includes Mr. Oaks who also serves on the central committee and selected himself. It is not uncommon in Maryland for elected officials to also serve as party central committee members, thereby increasing their political influence.
At the time of the central committee's decision, Mr. Oaks was a delegate in the General Assembly, having served for nearly 30 years, meaning the politician was able to keep a watchful eye on his peers. If this wasn't enough to sway the outcome, two other central committee members were vying for vacant delegate positions. One of those delegate slots was for Oaks' former seat; the other for that of Del. Jill Carter who resigned to take a job with Mayor Catherine Pugh. Those delegate seats were filled by the same central committee members who backed Mr. Oaks for state Senate. In this game of musical chairs everyone wins except regular citizens and political outsiders.
The main issue though is whether Mr. Oaks should have been chosen for the Senate in the first place. Mr. Oaks, in his official duties as delegate, was found guilty in 1990 by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals of reimbursing himself twice for expenses — once from his campaign account and again from the state. Mr. Oaks left office, winning the seat back a few years later.
Had the party's central committee exercised even the most basic due diligence, they might have asked themselves about their favored politician's criminal history. According to the Maryland Democratic Party's bylaws, malfeasance in office is grounds for being removed from the central committee. This raises the question of why such malfeasance was dismissed when party insiders granted Mr. Oaks' promotion to the state Senate, where presumably a higher standard should have been met.
Fast forward to spring 2017 when a federal grand jury indicted Mr. Oaks on nine fraud and bribery counts. Mr. Oaks allegedly took part in a scheme to defraud the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state of Maryland. In one telling incident, according to the criminal complaint, undercover informants say Mr. Oaks used the code word "lollipop" to signal increments of $1,000 as the price for his influence in helping a developer seeking government funding to build an affordable housing project. Oaks is accused of accepting 15.3 lollipops, or $15,300 in bribes.
I was the only other person to submit my resume and interview for the position of state senator, so I have a special interest in the selection process. As someone who had been appointed by both Democratic and Republican governors to assist economic development efforts in Maryland, I was far more interested in advancing policies to encourage job growth than holding an official position. I run a thriving business in the city, live in the district and sent my kids to public schools, and I believe we need government officials in Baltimore who can solve deep-rooted problems. Ironically, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that Mr. Oaks allegedly misled, is charged with revitalizing inner cities. That won't happen if politicians ignore the needs of the district seeking lollipops for themselves.
Maryland's process for filling state legislative vacancies needs reform. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, among states that appoint individuals to vacancies, just five states let political parties fill them. Special elections are held in most states, allowing voters to choose among candidates for state legislative vacancies. Aside from legal remedies to Maryland's selection process, the Democratic Party can take the initiative by allowing private ballots and encouraging regular citizens to serve on central committees. We should demand committed, effective local leaders by reducing corruption and cronyism and returning power to voters.
Jay Steinmetz is the CEO of Baltimore-based Barcoding Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.