For Pikesville resident and married father of two Robert “Bobby” Zirkin, his announcement on Monday that he is resigning his seat in the Maryland State Senate before the new session opens in January felt like positive move a long time in coming.
The District 11 Democrat for Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee sounded tired but content with his decision when he spoke to the JT on the phone Tuesday evening. This was a challenging day for him, he shared: his mother passed away in June of this year, and today was her birthday.
A number of factors played into the decision to leave the Senate now, said Zirkin, 48, and her passing was a major one. “I needed a break, my family needed a break from politics,” he said.
Zirkin and his mother had a lot of talks about about the subject before she passed, he said, and he informed some colleagues in the Senate of his plans after Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller announced his own resignation for health reasons in November.
But Zirkin had already contemplated life outside the General Assembly for years, he said. He described driving home from Annapolis after sessions ending at 10, 11 o’clock at night to get whatever time he could with his family — his wife Tina and daughters Sophie and Emma — even if the girls were going to sleep through it.
Sophie and Emma are now 10 and 12, he said, and “I don’t want to blink my eyes and find that they’re in college.”
Zirkin said his daughters were happy when he told them the news, but their individual reactions were a little unexpected. Sophie was “ecstatic,” but despite the fact that Emma came down to Annapolis less frequently than her older sister, she was still “reserved” in her response. It didn’t take long to suss out an explanation, however: apparently “there’s an ice cream place that has penguins out in front of it on Main Street,” Zirkin said. Once Emma was assured she could still get ice cream there on family visits, she too was thrilled at the prospect of her father’s career move.
A graduate of Pikesville High, Zirkin had his bar mitzvah at Chizuk Amuno and went to Hebrew school there. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1993 with a bachelors in political science. In 1998 he received a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.
Zirkin has been “a great leader and representative for the Jewish community for many years,” according to Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC). “He’s been a sponsor and a champion of legislation that’s been important to the BJC, the whole region, and the state. It’s difficult to balance the many different competing interests, and he has worked hard to create bipartisan compromise in many areas, and he had success at that.”
Rather than give a rundown of his accomplishments during his more than 20 years in Maryland state politics, in his interview with the JT Zirkin focused on “big ticket items” he worked to pass in the past five years. “In those five years, we accomplished a ton,” he said.
This included spearheading efforts to ban fracking in the state (“It saved a lot of Western Maryland from the dangers that fracking posed.”) and passing a criminal justice reform package that included treatment in lieu of incarceration for drug crimes, sentence reform, and more.
Any of the items in the criminal justice reform package would have been hard to pass individual bills, but as a package it received a unanimous vote in the Senate, said Zirkin. “Working together — the way things are supposed to be — we passed the single largest criminal justice reform package in the nation,” he said proudly.
Other bills passed included Grace’s Law, which focuses on cyberbullying and was named after a young girl in Howard County who was savagely bullied online before eventually hanging herself from a bannister in her home. Another was a “red flag law,” which takes guns out of the hands of individuals with certain mental illnesses and “exhibiting dangerous propensities,” said Zirkin.
As a centrist Democrat, Zirkin did not always win the approval of interest groups commonly associated with the party, however.
For instance, advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety circulated a petition against him when legislation against secondary transfer of firearms such as hunting rifles and long guns didn’t make it past his committee.
Zirkin pointed out that it was the only piece among the five or six pieces of legislation the group were supporting that “didn’t make it to the finish line,” and “if you’re making felons of law-abiding citizens, that’s a problem.”
The issues Zirkin talked about working on in the Senate, and throughout the conversation he emphasized the critical role of political partnerships.
But for Governor Larry Hogan’s support, for instance, the anti-fracking bill would have been dead, he said. “It was only when the governor came on board that I was able to get it out of the Senate. And I’m really proud of that.”
It was also the governor’s executive order that put anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) legislation “on the books” after Zirkin’s attempt failed, he said.
“From time to time, people give me a little grief for working across the aisle. Policymaking isn’t about a summer camp color war. It’s about the ideas, it’s about the law.”
“Senator Zirkin has been a constructive partner in government who always puts the best interests of Marylanders first,” Gov. Larry Hogan said via email in response to a request for comment. “He worked with our administration time and again on critical issues, such as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, violent crime, and Baltimore County priorities. I wish him and his family well.”
The governor’s press secretary, Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill, declined to comment on the speculation that Zirkin resigned his seat in advance of accepting a position in Hogan’s administration, and Zirkin confirmed that he is genuine in his declaration that he is moving out of the political arena to spend more time with his family and focus on new ventures with his law practice. Zirkin grew animated talking about his collaboration with athletes on community outreach projects such as Baltimore Ravens player Bradley Bozeman and his wife Nikki’s anti-bullying foundation.
“I spent my whole adult life in office and I’m excited for new adventures.”