For two decades, voters in northwestern Baltimore County have sent Bobby Zirkin to Annapolis to represent them in the Maryland General Assembly — first as a delegate, then as a senator.
The Democratic lawmaker has risen through the ranks to a top leadership post in the Senate, and has run unopposed by candidates from either major party in the last two elections.
But this year some of Zirkin’s constituents, saying his positions aren’t progressive enough for them, persuaded Pikesville lawyer Sheldon Laskin to challenge Zirkin in the Democratic primary for Senate in June.
“Bobby Zirkin increasingly does not represent the values we think are important in the 11th district,” said Laskin, a first-time candidate who said the incumbent is too conservative on issues such as bail reform, sick leave for workers and protections for immigrants.
Across the state, dozens of inmates convicted of violent crimes — carjackings, shootings and attempted murder — are using a state law intended to help addicted offenders get drug treatment to win early release.
“We’re excited to jump into this race and show Senator Zirkin that he’s going in the wrong direction and we’re demanding some accountability,” said Charly Carter, executive director of Maryland Working Families. The group plans to urge its supporters to volunteer for Laskin’s campaign.
Zirkin, 46, controls a powerful committee in Annapolis that weighs criminal justice issues such as gun control and bail reform. He has well-funded campaign coffers and said he’s not focused on the campaign right now in the midst of the 90-day assembly session. By law, he’s not allowed to accept campaign donations during the session.
No Republican has filed to run against him in November, and he said he’s not yet worried about the June 26 primary.
“My philosophy in these things is you do the best you can as a legislator, and politics takes care of itself,” he said.
Zirkinis one of several Democratic state senators from the Baltimore area who are facing credible challengers this year.
In Baltimore City, several of Zirkin’s longtime colleagues in the Senate — including Joan Carter Conway, Nathaniel McFadden, Barbara A. Robinson and Nathaniel T. Oaks — are also facing Democratic primary challenges from candidates espousing more progressive positions.
And in northeastern Baltimore County, four-term Democratic Sen. Kathy Klausmeier will face Max Davidson in the primary, with the winner going up in the general against Republican Del. Christian Miele.
Laskin has been politically active in Democratic circles. He serves as treasurer for Baltimore County’s Progressive Democrats Club and works with Jews United for Justice.
The Maryland Senate is preparing a comprehensive crime bill that jettisons two key elements of Gov. Larry Hogan's proposal to combat street violence — mandatory minimum sentences and a crackdown on gangs.
He said he had planned to run for the party’s central committee in Baltimore County this year but was approached by organizers of a political group called Justice 11, a coalition of activists and district residents who say they have grown frustrated with Zirkin’s opposition on issues such as paid sick leave and bail reform.
Members of the group said they spent months lobbying Zirkin to change his positions — and searching for someone to challenge him.
Laskin, 67, said several Justice 11 members came to his home and made a pitch for his candidacy. He said he figured he would hear them out and then politely decline, but was persuaded.
With the group’s help, Laskin has a campaign staff, a professional website and social media accounts. Campaign chairwoman Dana Vickers Shelley said the challenger will keep “social justice, fairness, equity and opportunity front and center as he runs to represent us in Annapolis.”
Laskin is aware it won’t be easy taking on Zirkin, who has name recognition, access to money and strong political connections built over two decades in office. But he said he’s in the race to win.
“Do we have a shot at winning? I think the answer is yes,” Laskin said.
Zirkin was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1998, and no one has attempted to unseat him since 2006, the year he won election to the state Senate. That year Zirkin sailed past both a Democratic primary opponent and a Republican challenger in the general election, winning with 71 percent of the vote each time.
In November, Zirkin held a fundraiser at a Pikesville hotel attended by 600 people — including NFL star Torrey Smith, the former Baltimore Ravens receiver who won a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles this year. Meanwhile, across the street, a few dozen Justice 11 activists — including two who would become Laskin’s campaign managers, Sam Novey and Adina Potter Yoe — gathered at a bowling alley at a counter-event that raised money for progressive causes.
Zirkin has other famous friends besides Smith. The past two years, Orioles owner Peter Angelos has invited him to throw out the Opening Day ceremonial first pitch.
Zirkin, who receives a salary of $50,330 a year as a senator, is the top recipient of campaign donations from the bail bond industry in the state, accepting $78,200 between 2011 and 2017, according to a Common Cause report. He had nearly $370,000 in his campaign account, according to his last campaign finance report in January.
Laskin, who has not yet had to file a report, acknowledges he’ll have a financial disadvantage: “I’m not going to beat him in the funding war.”
But he said his nascent campaign is getting positive feedback from residents who want a senator who is more left-leaning in a district where 72 percent of voters are Democrats.