Powerful Committee Chairman Zirkin to Step Down

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (right) and Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Robert A. Zirkin in 2018. File photo

Confirming a rumor that has been swirling around Annapolis for several weeks, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) told two Baltimore media outlets Monday that he plans to depart the General Assembly in early January, just before the start of the next session.

In an interview with The Daily Record, published early Tuesday morning, Zirkin, who was spent two decades in the legislature, said he was stepping down to spend more time with his family and focus on bolstering his law practice.

“I’ve been thinking about this for some time,” Zirkin told the newspaper. “This has been a year where it’s become very apparent I needed to spend more time with my family. Leaving my family for that amount of time is just something I am not willing to do. That is the main reason; there are others. Spending time with my girls is the most important thing to me, and they need me home.”

Zirkin gave a similar interview to The Baltimore Sun.

Zirkin’s departure is just the latest example of the profound and rapid changes taking place in the General Assembly — especially in the state Senate, where President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) is giving up the gavel after 33 years on the job. On Sunday, another veteran lawmaker from Baltimore County, Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Vice Chairwoman Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D), announced that she was retiring for health reasons.

It will be up to Miller’s presumed replacement, Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), to name a new leader for the Judicial Proceedings Committee — and the next chairperson will almost certainly be more liberal than Zirkin.

Zirkin, 48, was elected to the House of Delegates in 1998, and won an open Senate seat eight years later, when the incumbent, Paula C. Hollinger (D), made an unsuccessful bid for Congress.

Miller named Zirkin chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee — a position Miller himself once held — in late 2014, after Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) was elected attorney general. While it was seen as a two-way battle between Zirkin and then-Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery) — now a member of Congress — Zirkin had contributed $111,000 to fellow Democratic senators and Senate candidates, and Miller liked Zirkin’s practical legal experience compared to Raskin’s status as a law professor and constitutional scholar.

Zirkin runs a general practice in Pikesville, Zirkin & Schmerling Law, that focuses on criminal law, family law, medical malpractice, traffic cases, and workers’ compensation.

Zirkin’s tenure as JPR chairman coincided with the election of Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., and the two were frequent allies and public admirers. While Zirkin publicly eschewed political labels, he was a notable centrist on many issues at a time when the Democratic caucuses in both chambers of the legislature have moved perceptibly to the left.

“Senator Zirkin has been a constructive partner in government who always puts the best interests of Marylanders first,” Hogan said in a statement Tuesday morning. “He worked with our administration time and again on critical issues, such as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, violent crime, and Baltimore County priorities. I wish him and his family well.”

Zirkin also used his alliance with Hogan to prevail upon the governor to support a ban on hydraulic fracturing in the state — an announcement that was made at a hastily-arranged State House news conference in 2017 where most environmental leaders were notably absent.

Progressive groups and criminal justice reform advocates clashed with Zirkin on several issues during his time as chairman, and he was called out as a “Democrat in Name Only” in 2017, when he opposed legislation called The Trust Act that would have effectively blocked local authorities from cooperating with federal immigration crackdowns.

Some progressive groups targeted Zirkin in the 2018 Democratic primary, but they could not field a well-known or well-funded candidate, and the incumbent prevailed easily.

Zirkin would often point out that his district, centered in Pikesville and with a heavy Jewish population, was more moderate than most people assumed, despite overwhelming Democratic registration. Although Democratic presidential nominees do well there, Hogan carried the district twice, and by significant margins.

“Senator Zirkin has always been deeply committed to the people of Baltimore County and the state of Maryland,” County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) said on Twitter Tuesday morning. “He always sought to put the needs of Marylanders ahead of politics and passed significant public legislation, including efforts to protect our children from cyberbullying.”

Despite his political successes, Zirkin in recent years privately expressed ambivalence about politics and the prospects of extending his legislative career. He was close to his family and a sports junkie, and had begun helping professional athletes bolster their charitable work — a mission he expressed an interest in pursuing professionally.

When Miller disclosed early this year that he had cancer, Zirkin’s name was rarely among those senators mentioned as possible replacements, despite his lofty position. That was partially a reflection of his own political and personal deliberations, and partially a reflection of the likelihood that he was too centrist to win many votes in a caucus election.

Zirkin’s mother died of cancer earlier this year, plunging the senator into a new round of self-reflection and contributing to his sense that he needed to spend more time with his family and less time focused on his legislative career.

“I had somewhat of an equilibrium, but the events of this last year threw that equilibrium off and it’s just that the things that are the most important require additional time,” Zirkin told The Daily Record.

Whether the looming ascension of Ferguson, a vocal progressive, to Senate president, was a factor in Zirkin’s decision to step down is hard to say. Miller and Zirkin were often in sync on criminal justice issues — though Zirkin said complimentary things of Ferguson publicly when the Senate Democratic Caucus nominated Ferguson to replace Miller. Even then, though, his ambivalence about political life was evident — and it’s clear that the caucus is well to Zirkin’s left on many issues.

While Ferguson has yet to signal his preference for a new leader for the Judicial Proceedings Committee, Vice Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) — who has introduced some of the most progressive liberal social legislation in Annapolis in recent years — is the logical frontrunner.

This could change the dynamic on the committee, where Zirkin has worked closely with committee Republicans — and Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick) was considered his closest ally on the panel.

“This is a huge loss for the Maryland Senate and the state,” Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll), who serves on JPR, said in a tweet Tuesday. “Senator Zirkin has been a strong force for supporting rule of law while also championing reforms in criminal justice system. In addition he was very fair in how he worked with members from both parties.”

Zirkin’s departure means the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee must recommend a replacement for the Senate seat to Hogan, who has the ultimate say. Dels. Shelly Hettleman, Dana Stein and Jon Cardin could all be in the mix.

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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.