Zirkin finds political power is double-edged sword

Community Times

Bobby Zirkin, the Owings Mills-Pikesville state senator, is learning leadership requires a thick skin when making tough decisions that don't please everyone.

This past 90-day General Assembly session put Zirkin repeatedly on the hot seat.

He's chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, a post that requires controversial calls.

Zirkin, for instance, opposed a measure limiting local and state cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. The "Trust Act" became a rallying cry for anti-Trump, anti-deportation liberals.

The senator worried the measure could make a mess of law-enforcement coordination and lead to the release of criminals who happened to be illegal immigrants. He tried to narrow the bill to one point — local police cannot stop people to ask their immigration status.

This weakened measure passed his committee but died in the House.

For taking a stand at odds with the "progressive" Democratic wing, Zirkin became the target of furious rebukes from Hispanic legislators. Del. Josephine Pena-Melnyk of Prince George's County called for Zirkin's constituents to vote him out of office.

She denounced Zirkin as "a DINO" – Democrat in Name Only.

Yet his moderate voting record has proved a good barometer of local sentiment. He won last time without any Democratic or Republican opponents.

The senator blamed criticism on "ideological purity" by left-wing legislators "who don't want to accept any compromises or admit their proposals might not be the best approach."

"I've always believed for 19 years doing this that you do the best you can on public policy and let the politics take care of themselves," Zirkin said on WBAL radio. "I believe good ideas come from both sides of the aisle, and bad ideas come from both sides of the aisle."

Zirkin also irritated women's groups by seeking modified language on a bill terminating the parental rights of an alleged rapist.

For nearly a decade state judges have opposed this proposal, fearing the rights of the accused could be abused.

Zirkin was caught in the middle. A strong supporter of women's rights, he could see the judges' rationale. A year ago he had made a reworked bill "a priority" in 2017.

It was not to be. Time ran out once more.

Zirkin was taken to task by women's groups for not speeding the parental-rights measure through a conference committee before the session ended.

Additionally, he caught flak for voting against a paid sick leave measure Democrats strongly endorsed (three other moderate Democrats joined him in opposition).

The former director of the state party savaged Zirkin for participating in a PR splash put on by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to announce his flip-flop on banning oil and gas "fracking" in Maryland.

Why was Zirkin "playing water boy for the Republicans in Annapolis," Pat Murray wondered?

On top of that, Zirkin enraged many African-American lawmakers by siding with the bail-bond industry on a measure to give judges more leeway to impose cash bail.

The bill, which eventually failed, sought to weaken a new Court of Appeals rule that discourages judges from imposing cash bail except in serious cases. The jury is out on whether this will work or lead to the release of too many dangerous individuals.

Further muddying matters: Bail bondsmen are one of Zirkin's biggest campaign contributors over the years.

The senator is discovering the prestige and power of serving as a committee chairman is a two-edged sword. Criticism flies at you.

He remains, though, a believer in seeking common ground.

"Compromise is not a dirty word," Zirkin notes. "I categorically reject this new era of hyper-partisanship that seems to have replaced rational debate."

Barry Rascovar's blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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