Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore City), whose diminutive stature belied her status as a political trailblazer and legislative powerhouse, died Sunday after a long battle with cancer. She was 81.
Hoffman, an educator and later a political operative, was appointed to a Northwest Baltimore state Senate seat in 1983, replacing her mentor, former Sen. Rosalie S. Abrams (D), who took a job in the administration of then-Gov. Harry R Hughes (D). But she reached the zenith of her power from 1995 to 2003, when she served as chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee — the first woman to hold the position.
Hoffman ascended to the job just as former Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) was leaving office, and working in tandem with the late House Appropriations Committee chairman Howard P. “Pete” Rawlings (D-Baltimore City), she helped Baltimore retain its legislative might even as its population and overall influence in Annapolis was beginning to wane. Hoffman was a ferocious advocate for the city’s interests, particularly on the education and economic fronts, and she frequently battled with lawmakers from other parts of the state to make sure Baltimore kept its budgetary primacy.
“During her two decades in the Maryland Senate, Barbara Hoffman was a champion of her district, her city, her county, and her state,” Baltimore Jewish Council Executive Director Howard Libit, who covered Hoffman while a State House reporter for The Baltimore Sun, said in a statement. “She was particularly passionate about equity in public education and played a major role in substantial overhauls of funding for Maryland’s schools. Her impact on our community and our state continues to be felt today.”
Hoffman, who graduated from Towson State College (later Towson University) in 1960, was an educator for many years, teaching English and history in Baltimore City public schools and then supervising Morgan State University student teachers. In the legislature, she championed Baltimore City Public Schools, and worked to ensure that they received adequate funding.
“It’s not good for the entire state to let the Baltimore City school system disintegrate entirely,” she once told The Baltimore Sun.
Hoffman could be charming and empathetic, especially around children and financially needy constituents. But she was tough as nails during legislative battles and often dismissed opponents or people testifying before her committee who she thought were inadequately prepared with a lacerating tongue. In a 1997 Baltimore Sun interview, Hoffman was self-aware but unapologetic about her reputation.
“You know what Popeye said: ‘I yam what I yam,'” she said.
Hoffman first became involved in Baltimore-area politics through her friendship with Myrna Cardin, the wife of now-U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who has spent 55 years in elective office. Through the Cardins, she met Abrams and volunteered for her political campaigns. When Abrams became chair of the Maryland Democratic Party in 1979, Hoffman served as her executive director for four years before taking over her Senate seat in late 1983.
Hoffman’s political career ended in 2002, after reapportionment reduced the number of legislative districts in Baltimore City.
Hoffman’s district for the previous decade had spilled into Baltimore County, but the Maryland Court of Appeals overthrew the legislative map that had been approved by the General Assembly and moved to reduce the number of districts that took in both the city and county. As a result, the court drew Hoffman’s home into District 41, held by the equally powerful and formidable Senate majority leader, Clarence W Blount (D).
Blount was retiring in 2002, and he had thrown his support to then-Del. Lisa A. Gladden (D) to succeed him. After Hoffman and Gladden were thrown into the same district by the court, Blount and Rawlings stuck with Gladden, arguing that, despite Hoffman’s power and influence in Annapolis, the district, whose population was 71% Black, ought to be represented by a Black senator. Gladden wound up defeating Hoffman in the primary by 6 points.
After leaving office, Hoffman did charitable work, was director of international programs and special projects at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University from 2002 to 2006, served on government boards and commissions, and worked as a lobbyist with The Artemis Group, a woman-owned firm. She remained an astute observer of federal, state and local politics.
“I will forever be grateful for how helpful Senator Hoffman was as a 5th District constituent and her willingness to offer advice and guidance,” Baltimore City Councilmember Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D) tweeted Monday.
Hoffman is survived by her husband, Donald Hoffman, three children and six grandchildren. Services will be held on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. at Sol Levinson Chapel, 8900 Reisterstown Rd. in Pikesville. Burial will follow at Beth Tfiloh Cemetery in Woodlawn.
William F. Zorzi contributed to this report.