I was a freshman at Pikesville High School when Bobby Zirkin was a senior and president of the Student Government Association — an early indicator of his political inclinations. A week before the year-end Spirit Week festivities, I was working with a classmate on a banner to represent our class when we got word that the SGA had canceled the banner competition. Word on Labyrinth Avenue was that Zirkin had stepped in because the senior class wasn’t prepared. Incensed, I wrote a letter to the Pikesville Pipeline calling Zirkin out.
Twenty-eight years later, I’m again writing to call out Bobby Zirkin, who is now the state senator representing the 11th District, which includes Pikesville, and chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Truth be told, I don’t really know whether Zirkin canceled the banner contest to protect the seniors. But after watching Zirkin during the 2017 General Assembly session that ends on April 10, I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that my schoolmate has lost touch with the values of fairness, equality and justice that have always felt like the bedrock of the community where we grew up.
Here is a brief recap of Zirkin’s moves during this year’s session:
Zirkin led the fight against paid sick leave, which nonetheless passed the Senate with a veto-proof majority. Zirkin was one of just four Democrats who voted against the measure, which requires businesses with more than 15 employees to provide leave.
Zirkin shot down a bill that would have prevented Baltimore County developers with development or zoning approvals pending before the County Council from donating to Council members’ campaigns.
In the case of a bill that terminates the parental rights of rapists when a rape results in pregnancy, Zirkin’s committee added an amendment allowing judges to require that victims publish their names for rights to be terminated. His committee has held up the HOME Act, which prevents housing discrimination based on source of income (such as Section 8 vouchers).
Perhaps most troubling, Zirkin has led the fight for a bill that would undo a Court of Appeals ruling intended to make the state’s bail system more fair. The unanimous ruling encouraged judges to look for alternatives to cash bail for poor defendants who pose little flight or public safety risk while requiring that those who present a genuine risk be held without bail. Study after study has shown that such a system improves public safety without penalizing poor people, who can lose jobs and housing while being held, even though they are presumed innocent and charges against them are often dropped.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh called the current system “likely unconstitutional” and says Zirkin’s bill is a “disaster.” Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks says, “We should be offended” by the bill. It’s opposed by the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun editorial boards, the ACLU, the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore law schools and virtually every criminal justice advocate in the state.
Pretty much the only people supporting the bill are the bail-bonds industry, which has spent lavishly to get it passed. Indeed, the Post editorial board notes that “only California and Florida, states six and three times more populous than Maryland, respectively, rake in more campaign cash from the bail bonds business.”
In 2016, the largest recipient of that cash was Bobby Zirkin, who pushed the bill as chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and again on the Senate floor, even after the Legislative Black Caucus urged him to oppose it and the House of Delegates dropped it.
On issue after issue, Zirkin is a barrier to progress.
Zirkin’s behavior this session led Pat Murray, former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, to compare him to Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia who routinely votes with the Republicans.
“There is a distinction, though,” Murray writes in a commentary on the Maryland Matters blog. “Manchin is the only Democrat who can carry ruby red West Virginia in the 2018 Senate race. Zirkin represents a powder blue district. … Instead of playing water boy for the Republicans in Annapolis, Zirkin ought to be worrying about his left flank in a Democratic primary back home.”
I don’t know if Greater Pikesville is as “powder blue” as Murray believes, but I know that people in this community believe in fairness and justice — core Jewish values — and I know they expect their representatives to act in the best interests of their constituents and not those of special interest groups. Based on his record in the 2017 General Assembly, Sen. Zirkin fails on both counts.
Evan Serpick is a 1992 Pikesville High School graduate and a Mount Washington resident.