On the eve of the 90-day General Assembly session, Republicans are preparing to bludgeon Democrats with the ongoing federal corruption case against Baltimore state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks (D).
Court papers revealed last week that Oaks, who was indicted in a bribery case in April, just days before the end of the 2017 legislative session, admitted to taking cash in exchange for official actions. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) told The Baltimore Sun last week that it would be “unfair” to seek to remove Oaks from the Senate, because his trial isn’t set to begin until mid-April, a week after this year’s legislative session ends.
But Maryland Republican Chairman Dirk Haire will release a statement on Tuesday saying the GOP is launching a petition drive calling for Oaks’ ouster. He said the fact that Oaks will continue to be paid by Maryland taxpayers while under indictment is “an embarrassment to our state.”
“Senate President Mike Miller has said it would be ‘unfair’ to remove Oaks from office,” Haire said. “Unfair to whom? Taxpayers? His defrauded constituents?”
This marks another legislative session that begins with corruption in the headlines. Last year, several indictments were handed down in a corruption case involving the liquor industry in Prince George’s County just as the session was getting started. Among those indicted were a former lawmaker, ex-Del. Will Campos (D), and Del. Michael Vaughn (D), who resigned several days later, citing health reasons.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) used those indictments to propose a package of ethics bills – and to restate his desire to put the congressional and legislative redistricting process into the hands of a nonpartisan commission. He held a news conference to promote the legislation in front of the State House and then dramatically walked up the steps to personally deliver the bills to legislative leaders.
Hogan is expected to push the redistricting measure again this session but is almost certain to face the same resistance from Democrats that he has encountered in previous sessions.
Nevertheless, it can’t help Democrats to have one of their own on the legal hot seat just as they attempt to crank up their arguments for denying Hogan a second term.
Relatedly, Hogan on Monday announced that he would introduce legislation to create an Office of the State Education Investigator General within the state Department of Education.
While not directly related to corruption, the legislation highlights what Hogan has characterized as school mismanagement in two jurisdictions with huge Democratic populations – in Baltimore city, which is struggling with frozen school buildings, and in Prince George’s County, where officials have been accused of inflating grades to boost graduation rates.
“This lack of accountability in education systems all across our state cannot and will not be tolerated by our administration,” Hogan said Monday. “Not addressing it would mean that we are failing Maryland taxpayers, and – more importantly – failing our children who need help the most.”
Not coincidentally, the Prince George’s scandal has singed one of the leading Democratic candidates for governor, County Executive Rushern Baker.
Democrats will be gathering for their annual pre-session pep rally Tuesday at the Westin Hotel in Annapolis. An array of party leaders, including U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both alumni of the legislature, will be speaking.
“As we move toward electing Democrats up-and-down the ballot this year, I am looking forward to discussing our legislative priorities for 2018 General Assembly with our Democratic leadership and rising stars,” Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathleen Matthews said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Oaks, who held a fundraiser last week, got his first Democratic primary challenger on Monday. J.D. Merrill, a former teacher and administrator in the Baltimore city schools, announced that he would be a candidate.
Merrill – who is former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s son-in-law – said he would focus on improving and winning more funding for the city’s schools if elected.
“We need new leadership that is focused on improving our schools. And we need it now,” he said. “We all do better when our schools do better. No matter the issue – jobs, crime, good government, it all comes back to education.”
But a challenge to Oaks could be a heavy lift for any white candidate in the 41st District, which takes in Edmondson Village, Mt. Washington, Roland Park, Northern Park Heights, and was 68 percent African-American as of 2012. There are, however, rumblings that former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon (D) is gearing up to run for the Senate seat.