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Money and power in Annapolis

When Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller faced the task of selecting a new chairman for the Judicial Proceedings Committee to replace Attorney General-elect Brian Frosh, he had a choice between two well qualified but contrasting candidates: Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a practicing attorney from Baltimore County, and Sen. Jamie Raskin, an American University constitutional scholar from Montgomery County. Both were open about their desire for the job, and both have their supporters.

Ultimately, Mr. Miller picked Senator Zirkin. There are plenty of valid reasons for him to do so. Although JPR, as it is known, has handled some thorny and high-profile bills in recent years that involve big questions about the constitution and the role of government in society, including gun control, the death penalty and marriage equality, the day-to-day business of the committee falls more squarely into Mr. Zirkin's zones of professional expertise — family law, criminal law, civil practice and so on. Mr. Raskin is a leader in the Senate's progressive caucus, but Mr. Zirkin's views and experience more closely align with those of Senator Miller, who is also a practicing attorney and relatively conservative. (Mr. Frosh, though a leading progressive voice, was also a practicing trial attorney.) The choice of Mr. Zirkin may also be part of a strategic retrenchment of the Senate now that the state will have a Republican governor after eight years of progressive politics under Gov. Martin O'Malley.

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But there is one other element of the story that has raised some eyebrows.

From the time Mr. Zirkin first ran for the Senate in 2006 until the beginning of this year, he had never transferred any of his campaign money to fellow Democrats running for the Senate. That was true even though he was unopposed in the primary and general elections in 2010. He shared some money — a bit more than $30,000 over the 2006 and 2010 election cycles — with his fellow members of the District 11 slate. In 2010, he gave $6,000 to Vicki Almond, a former aide who was then running for her first term on the County Council, and $6,000 to Del. Luiz Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat and close friend of Mr. Zirkin.

This year, though, Mr. Zirkin spread around $146,000 that he had raised for his campaign, most of it for fellow Democrats running for Senate. He gave $58,000 to the Maryland Democratic Slate Committee, which is controlled by Senator Miller and used to help Democrats in Senate races state-wide. He gave another $52,000 directly to incumbent Democratic senators, plus another $6,000 to one of the party's nominees for an open seat. In terms of his largesse for fellow Senate candidates, Mr. Zirkin was second only to Mr. Miller. (Second by far, it should be noted.) Mr. Zirkin also gave $6,000 apiece to the Brown and Ulman campaigns and to the state Democratic Central Committee.

Mr. Raskin helped out some fellow Senators but on a much smaller scale. He gave $15,000 to Mr. Miller's slate and a little less than another $15,000 to fellow Democratic Senate candidates.

As we said, there are plenty of good reasons for Senator Miller to choose Senator Zirkin for the JPR chairmanship, and we don't believe anything like a quid pro quo is at work. In an interview, Mr. Zirkin said he had a lot of friends in tough races this year and was happy to be in a position to help. He said he had never been told that such largesse is expected of those in leadership and that some who wrote large checks to fellow candidates this year aren't, which is true.

But it's also true that members of leadership in the Senate do almost universally raise money to help elect fellow Democrats. Senator Miller has long used his slate as a tool to build loyalty in the Democratic caucus, and committee chairs play a part in that process. The same is true to a degree in the House of Delegates where the committee chairs (with the exception of Appropriations Chairman Norman Conway, who focused his resources on his own, eventually unsuccessful, bid for re-election) spread around an average of more than $70,000. Republicans in Annapolis do it too, though on a smaller scale. Mr. Zirkin may have been somewhat more generous than most other members of the new Senate leadership team, but what he did was not unusual or new. It is the way things work.

But it shouldn't have to be that way. As Governor-elect Larry Hogan just proved, public campaign financing works. It allows candidates to focus on the concerns of the voters, not the concerns of donors, and it extricates elected officials from the tangled webs of obligations that the free flow of money in politics inevitably creates. We don't think money explains Mr. Zirkin's promotion, we just wish it weren't even a question.

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