Finding common political ground for the common good

We are a Democrat and a Republican, members of the Maryland Senate from different parts of the state who serve together on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The most important word in that first sentence is "together." Not Democrat. Not Republican. Because we believe that even in this new era of political divisiveness, the most important thing that we do as legislators is to work together for the common good.

Our committee tackles the most controversial and complex issues that come before the General Assembly. Our goal is to shut out the partisanship and the "all-or-nothing" approach that some advocacy groups and their paid lobbyists want to bring to the table. We favor reasoned and nuanced debate about the complexities of an issue, knowing that the title and summary of the stated purpose of a bill often mask the details of that legislation — details that require careful reading and understanding. We shut out those who try to score cheap political points by refusing to consider other points of view. We tune out media coverage when it lacks depth and understanding and goes for the "click bait" approach. We know that if we make a mistake in Judicial Proceedings, someone can lose their life or liberty. We take our responsibilities seriously, without regard to party or politics.

Over the past legislative sessions, we have tackled some of the most challenging public safety issues of our time. Judicial Proceedings passed the single largest criminal justice reform package in state history, turning around a bloated and ineffective system in favor of strategies that reduce crime and save taxpayers millions. The bill included sentence changes, parole and probation reform, and a massive increase in expungement opportunities. It favored treatment in lieu of incarceration for drug crimes and eliminated many mandatory sentences while increasing penalties for violent crimes such as child abuse and second-degree murder. And we passed this bill unanimously in both the committee and in the Senate.

We tackled the controversial police and community accountability issues after the disturbances in Baltimore City and passed comprehensive legislation addressing concerns from all sides of the debate. We passed multiple bills on sexual assault including the "no means no" legislation clarifying that physical resistance was not necessary for a rape conviction and mandating that rape kits would be kept for 20 years. We enhanced the opportunities for the use of GPS monitoring for victims of domestic violence, and we tackled drunk driving and the heroin epidemic from multiple angles. We passed legislation on human trafficking and multiple bills to protect children from abuse and sex offenders. These complex bills were passed by rolling up our sleeves, leaving party politics at the door and working together.

Please don't mistake the point. We often disagree on issues, and it is not always possible to find common ground. For example, one of us fought for (and was successful in passing) a ban on fracking. One of us disagreed strongly. One of us is a fervent supporter of the NRA and the "right to carry." One of us sees the issue differently. We spend hours together and with our other nine Judicial Proceedings colleagues debating these issues and the hundreds of others we tackle every year. Our committee strives to find common ground and work together. The issues before us are controversial and emotional, but we find that when we truly listen to other points of view, consensus is often achievable.

George Washington, who famously resigned his commission as general of the Continental Army in our Annapolis State House, warned that political factions would overtake common sense and reasoned debate in favor of division and diversion. The partisan politics of today reflect the fears of our founding fathers. Washington, D.C,. has been divided for some time, and now, that inability to compromise seems to be seeping into Annapolis. We continue to fight against that tide. Compromise does not mean that you have to sacrifice your principles; it is often the best path to progress and worth the political risk to achieve sound legislation. Good and bad ideas come from both sides of the political aisle, and our job is to weed out the bad ones for the sake of the public good.

From time to time, our refusal to vote the party line and our willingness to reach across the political aisle has rattled some in our own parties. So be it. The citizens of Maryland deserve representatives who work for their interests and the common good. The founders of our country would be disappointed in what they see today. But we believe it is not too late to change. And it should start here and now.

Democrat Bobby Zirkin (bobby.zirkin@senate.state.md.us) is chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee; Republican Michael Hough (michael.hough@senate.state.md.us) is a member.

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