By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
A series of legal maneuvers to keep a controversial candidate on the ballot in a key state senate race is raising questions.
The 41st District showdown pits former State Del. Jill P Carter, against political newcomer J.D. Merrill, a Baltimore city school teacher. But, the race is coming under intense scrutiny after the unsuccessful withdrawal from the ballot by disgraced former State Sen. Nathaniel Oaks set off a contentious court battle.
Several voters from the 41st petitioned an Anne Arundel Circuit Court for injunctive relief to have Oaks removed, a motion that was granted. But, the Attorney General’s Office appealed the decision to the Court of Special Appeals, which ordered Oaks back on ticket.
It was a legal move voters who sued to have Oaks removed say is both unfair and ill-timed
“Free and fair elections do not exist where there is a candidate on the ballot who is ineligible to serve.” Christopher Irvin, 41st district resident and plaintiff in the lawsuit to remove Oaks told the AFRO. Oaks pleaded guilty to federal bribery and corruption charges hours before resigning his seat in March.
A spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh says his office was simply ensuring the ballot for the upcoming June 26th primary adhered to the law.
“We defend the state based on the statutes.” Raquel Combs said. “It is nothing more, nothing less than defending state law.”
“It’s not about what they want, it’s that the laws should be adhered to.”
But Carter, who was appointed by Governor Larry Hogan to serve out Oaks’ term, said the AG’s decision has ulterior motives.
“I definitely think there has been a desire on the part of the establishment to keep Sen. Oaks on the ballot, they think they can split the Black vote and get my opponent in the seat,” Carter told the AFRO.
State election law required Oaks to withdraw from the race by March 9th, a move he requested shortly after pleading guilty to federal bribery charges but several weeks past the deadline.
The suit filed by Baltimore Attorney Michael Stichel on behalf of three voters from the 41st district won for injunctive relief, arguing the Board of Elections has the power to remove candidates in extenuating circumstances.
“The state board had the discretion to take his name off the ballot and it should have taken his name off the ballot because having a disqualified candidate will cause confusion with voters and would deprive them of having an effective vote,” Stichel told The AFRO.
“I think the state could have consented to take his name off the ballot.”
The ballot conflict heightened tensions in a race between the veteran legislator Carter, versus Merrill, who has family ties to one the state’s most formidable political dynasties.
Merrill is married to Grace O’Malley, daughter of former governor Martin O’malley. She is also employed by the office of the Attorney General. When asked if his wife’s ties to Frosh played a role in his decision to pursue the case, Merrill said the notion was far-fetched.
“The circuit court got it right: ‘The harm to the voters…by the appearance of a disqualified name on the ballot far outweighs any inconvenience to the Board of Elections.’ The choice in this race is between Jill P. Carter and J.D. Merrill. That choice should be made at the ballot box without confusion,” Merrill wrote in an email.
But with two African-American candidates on the ballot, voters like Irvin say the possibility that the Black vote could be split in a district that is 60 percent African-American is a legitimate concern.
“Overall, the people suffer, the process suffers and there is nothing free or fair about voters voting for a candidate who is disqualified,” Irvin said.
The controversy started when Oaks pleaded guilty to federal charges of accepting bribes while in office. Federal investigators caught Oaks on wiretap and through an informant accepting $15,000 cash in exchange for pursuing legislation and writing letters on their behalf.
After his guilty plea, Oaks asked the State Board of Elections to remove his name from the ballot. Meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan appointed Carter, who had served three terms as a Delegate, to the 41st District Senate seat vacated by Oaks.
The race also has the potential to revive a long-standing feud between Carter and the O’Malley clan over then Baltimore Mayor Martin O’malley’s controversial zero tolerance arrest policy.
During his tenure as mayor, tens of thousands of African-Americans were illegally arrested. The strategy was cited in a scathing Department of Justice report that found the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), engaged in unconstitutional policing targeted primarily at African-American neighborhoods.
At the height of zero tolerance policing Carter was one of the few elected officials to voice opposition to the policy, a stance she thinks cost her politically and still motivates opposition to her candidacy.
“I definitely feel there have been distortions and attacks that most likely would not occur to another candidate with different characteristics, meaning not Black nor female,” she said.