Josh Kurtz: Meet Larry Hogan’s New Best Friend

State Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) will be joining Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) for their annual tour of the Ocean City boardwalk Friday morning, where they will no doubt be hailed as the saviors of the tourist economy, ever since Hogan mandated, at Franchot’s urging, that public schools open after Labor Day.


But Franchot better stick closer than ever to the popular governor if he wants to retain his status as Hogan’s best Democratic friend. Because Hogan could have a new one.


That role may be going to state Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.


In an extraordinary interview with Steve Lash in The Daily Record this week, Zirkin accused former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous, the Democratic nominee for governor, of attempting to politicize judicial appointments in Maryland – something, according to Zirkin, that has never, ever happened in this state.


Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Robert A. Zirkin (left), and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. File photo 


“I think it’s an irresponsible thing to do,” he said.


The senator was reacting to a tweet from the Jealous campaign equating the current fight over President Trump’s newest Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh [see related story] – and the general right-ward drift of the federal judiciary – with the fact that the next governor will make at least four appointments to the seven-member Court of Appeals, Maryland’s top court, in the next four years.


The offending tweet said, in part, “given what’s happening @SCOTUS, we cannot afford to let the GOP pick our judges too.”


It didn’t help matters that Jealous also made the unpardonable sin of referring to the state’s top court as “our supreme court” – when in fact, no Maryland Supreme Court exists. This may or may not have been a question of capitalization.


Zirkin didn’t make reference to the possible gaffe, but it did not go unnoticed. Jealous supporters winced. The website Red Maryland mocked him on Twitter. It was just another opportunity for Republicans and other critics to suggest, with zero subtlety, that Jealous is an alien life form who landed in Maryland by accident and doesn’t really belong here.


But back to Zirkin.


He has a long history of cozying up to Hogan and other Republicans. When Hogan surprised the whole spectrum of the political world last year by announcing his support for a fracking ban that Zirkin and other lawmakers were proposing, only Zirkin appeared at a hastily arranged State House news conference with Hogan. None of the advocates or other Democratic legislators who had worked the issue for years were there, and according to several, they were never invited.


Zirkin endorsed a Republican colleague, Allan Kittleman, when Kittleman was running for Howard County executive in 2014. Zirkin has also appeared at fundraisers for his Republican colleagues on Judicial Proceedings. And in Annapolis, it’s an open secret that conservative Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) – whose day job is being chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Alex X. Mooney (R-W.Va.) – occasionally operates as the de facto vice chairman of Zirkin’s committee (it will be interesting to see how the new, young vice chairman, Montgomery County Sen. William C. Smith Jr., figures into the equation).


For his heresies, Zirkin got an aggressive Democratic primary challenge this year from a 67-year-old tax attorney, Sheldon H. Laskin. The underfunded campaign never really took off – many progressive activists who eventually backed Laskin had hoped that Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D) would take Zirkin on, but Hettleman apparently comes from the Ben Cardin School of Abundant Caution and decided to seek reelection.


It was hardly a near-death experience for Zirkin (he won with 70 percent), but the Laskin challenge could have served as a wake-up call to toe the party line a little bit more. But instead, Zirkin is angry about the criticism from the left, is reading the tea leaves and has concluded that his largely suburban Jewish district is going to go big for Hogan, and figures he has little to lose now by going after his party’s gubernatorial nominee.


You might think a legislative committee chairman, if he objected to something his party’s nominee for governor had said, might take the nominee aside and gently admonish him. Or try to educate him. Or say nothing at all.


But no, Zirkin felt empowered enough to blister Jealous in conversation with a reporter. How is that? He has clearly watched Franchot’s behavior over the last many years and taken notes.


Earlier this year, Franchot told reporters that he would endorse his party’s nominee for governor. Then, after the primary, he recanted, saying he decided to stay neutral because he realized how much he liked Hogan. Palm, meet forehead.


If Franchot doesn’t wind up endorsing Hogan in the fall, it will only be because he has made some calculation that there’s a purity in public neutrality – or he’s doing a favor to his Washington, D.C.-based media consulting firm, Devine Mulvey Longabaugh, which happens to also be Jealous’ firm.


If Zirkin doesn’t wind up endorsing Hogan in the fall, it will only be because he has made some calculation as well. Remember, this was a guy who addressed the 1996 Democratic National Convention as a paragon of Maryland Young Democrats.  


Will there be consequences for Zirkin? Short-term, probably not. He’s the only holdover chairman in the state Senate, so Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) needs that element of stability.


Could there be longer term implications for Zirkin if he, say, wants to make a play for Senate president sometime down the line? Maybe not: Zirkin has already burned so many bridges with his fellow Democrats that that opportunity may never present itself. But Zirkin still has his powerful perch, and for the foreseeable future.


So for Zirkin, it appears to be a no-lose proposition; after all, Franchot has suffered no discernible political consequences for his endless romance with Hogan, no matter how often he infuriates his fellow Democrats. In fact, he will once again be the top vote-getter on the statewide ballot this November.


Democrats are not required to march in lockstep with Ben Jealous. Many Democratic moderates — elected officials and average voters — are more comfortable with Hogan, who, after all, has largely governed as a moderate Democrat in his first term. But holding an important party position carries certain responsibilities. Franchot and Zirkin seem to be abdicating theirs.


Yet while Zirkin and Franchot compete for the status as Hogan’s best Democratic friend, they might find they have company. One consequence of Jealous’ middling poll numbers is that more  Democrats who are inclined to be Benedict Arnolds can now comfortably come out into the open. It won’t be pretty.


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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.


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