Five years ago, Nathaniel Oaks was a State House disgrace. He lost his seat in the House of Delegates after a conviction on theft charges stemming from clumsy double-dipping.
But in September, Mr. Oaks scored an upset victory in the Democratic primary, and next week he's expected to regain his place representing West Baltimore's 41st District in the legislature.
"I think this victory had a kind of divine intervention," Mr. Oaks was saying the other night after a political rally in Dundalk. His legal troubles, he says, have made him more mature, closer to God, and better attuned to the needs of the down-and-out in his district.
Mr. Oaks' comeback effort drew little publicity except for the disclosure that he had received $3,000 from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Parris N. Glendening.
When news of the contribution surfaced, Mr. Glendening's campaign manager, Emily Smith, said she hadn't known about Mr. Oaks' messy past.
An energetic campaigner, Mr. Oaks lost his first bid for the House of Delegates in Northwest Baltimore's 41st District by six votes. Four years later, in 1982, he won, and in 1986 he gained a second term.
Wiry and exuberant, Mr. Oaks was best known for his off-field antics. Once at a University of Maryland basketball game he attended as a guest of the campus chancellor, he got into a post-game shouting match with the then-coach, Lefty Driesell, who reportedly suggested that they settle the argument like men in the locker room.
In 1987, Mr. Oaks had a one-punch scuffle in an Annapolis restaurant with fellow Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis.
The roof caved in the next year, when The Evening Sun reported that he had billed both his campaign account and the taxpayers for many expenses, including out-of-state travel. Mr. Oaks fumbled for answers. He was convicted of stealing more than $10,000 from his re-election fund, as well as perjury and misconduct in office.
In a bizarre interlude between conviction and sentencing, Mr. Oaks wandered around Annapolis, a delegate in name only.
He agreed that it would be too embarrassing to take his place in committee hearings or on the floor of the House of Delegates. He did, however, file for his daily legislative expenses, attend political receptions and dine with lobbyists. He even managed to land a four-day junket to Miami, courtesy of Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon.
In January 1989, a judge gave Mr. Oaks a five-year suspended sentence and ordered him to perform 500 hours of community service. He automatically lost his House seat -- and his expense account. (At Mr. Oaks' request, a Baltimore judge in 1990 struck the conviction from his record and replaced it with a probation before judgment.) Mr. Oaks says all of that is history.
"I can't unring rung bells, I don't have that kind of power," he says.
The people of his district forgave him. Many worked in his campaign.
"I had people on the corners working for me [on Election Day]," he says. "I had some people put down their drug habits to help me."
They understood what it means to hit bottom. "They said, 'Hey, man. You got a good heart. I want to help you,' " he says.
Mr. Oaks, who works for the state Injured Workers Insurance Fund, campaigned hard. He distributed Election Day ballots with his picture and Mr. Glendening's under the headline: "Two Winners."
Mr. Oaks ran alone against the slate controlled by the district's political godfather, Sen. Clarence W. Blount, as well as a harsh anti-endorsement from The Sun. In the end, he came in second in the race for three seats, displacing Del. Samuel M. Parham, who had replaced him five years ago.
"I might not have two tackles, I had one tackle," he says. "But that was God. And he's the best tackle. I feel a degree of total vindication."
At 48, he is still lean and he still sports his trademark wool cap. But his beard is turning to gray and he says he has learned from his troubles.
In an overwhelmingly Democratic district, Mr. Oaks and Democratic incumbents Margaret H. Murphy and Frank T. Boston are expected to withstand the challenge from three Republicans, Edward J. Eagan, Harry E. Grant and Daniel S. O'Shea.
"I know how it feels to be in and then out. I have empathy for what's going on," he says. "I took my punishment as they handed it out. Now I'm older and I'm wiser."