I am writing in response to an ideological and personal attack that was printed in the Jewish Times on March 31 (“Bobby Zirkin Doesn’t Represent Our Values”). First, it is important to consider the source. The writer of the mean-spirited and factually deficient editorial, Evan Serpick, is director of strategic communications for the Open Society Institute, which has helped fund and support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. I find his views on Israel abhorrent. I am a staunch supporter of Israel and the lead sponsor of the anti-BDS bill this session. Serpick has decided that he speaks for our community. Based on his work against the State of Israel and his lack of understanding of state issues, I would strongly disagree. Nevertheless, I thought this was a valuable opportunity to discuss issues from the 2017 session, both ones that were mentioned and those that were not.
A word about my political values. Serpick and his organization are dedicated to the new era of hyper-partisanship and ideological reflex. I am not. For 19 years as a public servant, I have tried to make decisions based on the substance of an issue and not the politics. I am chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which oversees issues as diverse as criminal law, civil law, family law, estates and trusts, corporate law, real property and vehicular law. Our committee hears from victims of sex offenders, drunk drivers and domestic abusers. We hear testimony about the scourge of drugs and the growing heroin epidemic. We listen to countless stories about our civil and criminal justice system. Our job is to make the laws of Maryland work and to balance the needs of public safety and civil liberties. My committee has no tolerance for partisanship, and that is the way it should be. We roll up our sleeves and work together. The issue, the law and its consequences are the only things that matter. From time to time, my refusal to vote the party line has rattled some; but I believe in policy over politics, and I refuse to buy into the growing partisanship and politics of personal destruction that are taking hold in American politics.
In the past 80 days, my committee (JPR) has heard almost 500 separate pieces of legislation. My main personal priority this session was to ban fracking, a dangerous gas extraction technique that poses a serious threat to our environment and to the health of all of us. Working together with Democrats and Republicans, I am proud to say that last week, we banned fracking in Maryland. And it was done in a substantive, nonpartisan way. I also am committed to passing anti-BDS legislation to shut the door in our state to this discriminatory movement directed at Israel.
A number of issues were mentioned by Serpick that I would like to address. But first, it is important to note that the title of a bill rarely reflects the substance. Taking shots from the cheap seats, without bothering to understand the specific issues or why a legislator might be for or against a bill, is lazy and easy but rarely helpful or intellectually honest. Now, a word on some of the controversial issues of this session.
Pre-trial reform has been a controversial topic for years, and reforming our criminal justice system in a way that protects public safety is vitally important to me. Last session, my committee spearheaded the Justice Reinvestment Act, the single largest criminal justice reform package in the nation, which included sentence reform, expungement, drug treatment enhancements and parole and probation reform. Pre-trial issues, and specifically bail reform, were not included in Justice Reinvestment, as the prevailing thought was that major reform should be based on data and not anecdote. Due to a rule passed in the Court of Appeals, a degree of discretion was taken away from judicial officers. Unfortunately, the system response to the rule change has not been positive, including a dramatic increase in defendants failing to appear in court and a doubling of individuals held pre-trial. The increase in failures to appear in court is a danger to public safety and law enforcement. In response to victim’s advocates, states attorneys and law enforcement professionals across the state, the Senate voted to restore judicial discretion. It is a complex issue, and I believe that the undermining of public safety necessitated a response. Of course, Serpick does not understand any of this — but has an opinion nonetheless.
Serpick mentioned my “no” vote on a random and constitutionally problematic bill that would prohibit developers from participating in political speech with Baltimore County Council members. What he failed to mention, and probably doesn’t know, is that the bill also barred constitutionally protected speech by their wives, children, parents, attorneys and others. The bill was so poor that it was killed in multiple committees. I voted against this bill. It wasn’t even a close call.
Different versions of a paid sick leave bill have passed each House. The bill, although noble in concept, had issues that I thought needed work. I am a small-business owner and I provide paid sick leave to my employees, and I certainly see the value in the concept. During the debate, I was contacted by a number of small businesses in our area that would have faced major fiscal problems due to the bill. I offered a change to allow a business to receive a “hardship waiver” if the law would have a dramatically negative impact, but it was not adopted. It is important to keep in mind that small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, and we should act with careful consideration. Failing to do so can lead to loss of employment. The details of this bill failed the test. Our hope is that a better bill will be forthcoming.
This session has brought a number of important successes not mentioned in Serpick’s column. I am excited that we are finally tackling the issue of heroin addiction, and we are doing it on multiple fronts. We increased the criminal penalty for distribution of fentanyl-laced heroin, increased funding for treatment and tackled the distribution of painkillers. We have passed legislation targeting repeat drunk drivers. We solved a thorny issue related to the statute of limitations against child sex offenders. We acted swiftly to ensure that law enforcement maintains rape kits and reiterated that physical force is not necessary in a rape prosecution. We passed the Rape Paternity Bill to protect victims of sexual assault. We are continuing to move toward implementation of our medical marijuana program. We passed a law banning firearms on college campuses. We have moved boldly to protect our natural resources. And again, we banned fracking. This is just a sampling of the complex issues being worked on this session with great success.
Importantly, we did these things working together. Democrats and Republicans working together is the way politics is supposed to be.
Making complex policy is challenging. Often what is contained in a bill is not reflected in its title or the headline. Too often, those who cast reckless and specious assertions, such as Serpick, are purposely uninformed about the intricacies of the legislative process. In today’s new world of politics, it has become fashionable to simply attack and demean and fight. This is not my style and never will be. I proudly do not share the political values of Serpick, someone who would prefer partisanship and cheap attacks to the hard and detailed work of public policy and someone whose work includes attempting to marginalize the State of Israel. That is simply not my value system. The new era of ugly politics is one that I will fight against until I am finished with public service. Party politics and attacks from the cheap seats mean nothing to me. Working together for the common good means everything.
Bobby Zirkin is the state senator for Maryland’s 11th District.