Analysis: Winners and Losers From the Zirkin Retirement

Departing Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County). Photo by Bruce DePuyt
The looming departure of Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) only accelerates the pace of change that’s already coming to the Maryland Senate.
Zirkin’s resignation, which he announced Tuesday morning, first in interviews with The Baltimore Sun and The Daily Record, then in a lengthy Facebook post, completes the clean sweep of top state Senate leaders who were in place at the end of 2018.
No change is more significant than the transfer of power from 33-year Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), to Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), which will formally take place on the first day of the legislative session, Jan. 8.
Ferguson will be able to appoint two new committee chairs — at Zirkin’s JPR, and at the Budget and Taxation Committee, where Ferguson has already committed to naming Sen. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), an appointment that has not been officially announced yet. Add to that the fact that the Senate got three new committee chairs at the beginning of this year, and will be getting at least two new committee vice chairs next year, and the institution is clearly undergoing a major transformation.
From a policy standpoint, Zirkin’s departure seems particularly important. He was a moderating force in a legislature that is becoming increasingly progressive, and he put his stamp on multiple significant debates during his five years as JPR chairman.
Zirkin’s retirement could have a major impact on a range of policy debates going forward, from criminal justice reform, to immigration, to death with dignity, to the state parole system, to asbestos litigation.
Zirkin timed his resignation announcement to coincide with his late mother’s birthday — a poignant reminder of his devotion to his family.
Here’s how Zirkin summed up his 21-year legislative career in his Facebook post:

“We banned fracking, passed marriage equality, had the single largest criminal justice reform bill in the nation, created a medical cannabis industry and decriminalized marijuana, passed the strongest anti-cyberbullying law in the country, passed scores of laws against child pornography and sex offenders, reformed and modernized outdated law on divorce and family law, passed a national model red flag law to take guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals, worked to bring police and communities closer together, favored treatment in lieu of incarceration for non-violent drug offenders while stiffening penalties for violent criminals, moved forward on greater use of renewable energy, increased resources for our schools, and the list goes on,” he wrote.

“Locally, I am so proud that together we transferred the Rosewood facility to Stevenson University, created a more accountable school board, built several new schools, renovated schools such as my alma mater Pikesville High, and so much more.

“And we did all of this together. Democrats and Republicans and Independents alike rolling up our sleeves and working together regardless of party or politics or loud and divisive voices. We just tried to focus on the law and figure out the best way forward. In my opinion, the way it should be. As I take this break from public office to focus on my family, my greatest wish for politics in Maryland is that this important tradition of working together regardless of party affiliation continues. We are not Washington D.C. and should never strive for that type of divisiveness.”

Zirkin’s committee is one of the most heavily lobbied in the General Assembly, and his forthcoming resignation changes the overall dynamic of Annapolis in incalculable ways. Here is a look at some of the winners and losers:
Winner: Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City). The incoming Senate president now gets even more flexibility in setting his leadership team and will inevitably get a Judicial Proceedings chair he is more ideologically in sync with.
Loser: Continuity. See above. Change makes lawmakers jittery, and there will be plenty of it in the General Assembly next year — especially in the Senate.
Winner: Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County). The chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, former vice-chair to Zirkin on the Judicial Proceedings panel, was a major booster to Ferguson in the race to replace Miller, and she grew weary of Zirkin killing her bill to take parole decisions away from the governor. Chances are that bill has a much better shot of passing now.
Loser: The Miller Democrats. Miller has displayed an amazing talent for cultivating his fellow senators and engendering loyalty. But the inescapable fact is the Senate Democratic caucus has moved away from Miller in recent years, and the members he was most in line with, ideologically and temperamentally, have moved on in the past year, due to retirements and electoral defeats. Even though Miller will remain in the chamber in 2020, Zirkin’s resignation is another and very stark reminder that it’s not Miller’s Senate anymore.
Winner: Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery). The JPR vice chairman is the odds-on favorite to replace Zirkin. Nothing is set in stone, and a lot of crazy things could happen in the next couple of weeks, but another promotion would serve as a reminder of Smith’s rapid rise in Annapolis. Remember, he wasn’t even a member of the General Assembly until 2015.
Loser: Sen. Michael R. Hough (R-Frederick). Hough in many ways was Zirkin’s closest compadre on JPR, his de facto lieutenant. Now, he’s just another conservative Republican.
Winner: Progressives. Those who fought with Zirkin, those who despised him, those who felt he impeded progress, will rejoice. But how easy will it be for them to get their full agenda through? With Zirkin gone and Miller returning to the rank-and-file, who will they inveigh against next?
Loser: The Angelos Law Firm. Peter Angelos, his sons, and legal associates, spent a lot of time investing in buttering up Zirkin, including inviting him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Baltimore Orioles games. They have little relationship with Smith — though Camden Yards is in Ferguson’s district.
Winner: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City). The leaders of the two judicial committees in Annapolis always have an uneasy relationship, and Clippinger and Zirkin were just feeling each other out. Now Clippinger is the senior chairman — and chances are, he’ll find a Senate counterpart he agrees with more readily.
Loser: Billy Murphy. Another wily and prominent Baltimore lawyer with close ties to Zirkin.
Winner: Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County). All three delegates in Zirkin’s 11th District — Hettleman, Dana M. Stein and Jon S. Cardin — are talented lawmakers, but the early line is that Hettleman has the advantage when it comes to the Senate appointment.
Winner: Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). Yes, he loses a rare ally in the Senate Democratic caucus, but as Hogan eyes a more prominent role in national GOP politics, he’ll probably start beating on legislative Democrats more than ever. The fact that the Democrats are likely to promote a more progressive (conservatives would say permissive) agenda on crime and punishment probably helps Hogan and gives him several partisan talking points.
Winner: The Zirkin family.
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.