State Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin (D-11th) was the featured speaker at a community meeting at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville on July 26. Cosponsored by Jews United for Justice and the Chizuk Amuno Social Advocacy Committee, the event was attended by approximately 150 people.

“We are building an active Jewish community to achieve the justice goals we all believe in,” said Molly Amster, director of JUFJ and a host of the meeting.

Representing the synagogue’s Social Action Committee, Andy Miller told attendees, “We [the committee] use our voice in support of state policies and laws that we feel should be promoted. For example, reduce the use of cash bail [a system that penalizes defendants who can’t afford to post bail and are therefore kept in prison awaiting trial].

In fact, bail reform was one of the four issues Amster raised for discussion. Others were:

  • Paid Sick Leave: Passed by Maryland’s House of Delegates and State Senate, this bill was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan and will come up again in the next legislative session.
  • Trust Act: A bill to clarify the parameters of state and local participation in federal civil immigration enforcement.
  • Rent Court: Reforming the Rent Court’s process to provide greater protections for tenants.

“Lobby the legislature,” urged Amster. “Show them how Jewish values can influence legislation.”

Zirkin, chairman of the of Maryland’s Senate Judiciary Proceedings Committee and a Chizuk Amuno member, spoke on these issues for 2 ½ hours.

State Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin addresses a crowd at Chizuk Amuno Congregation on Jan. 26.

Asked if he would help override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of paid sick leave, Zirkin said, “We must look at the details of this bill. It will put some people out of business. Farmers are exempted?  Why?  I ask ‘Why farmers?’ A person in my district has 2,500 summer employees who take care of swimming pools. He would be put out of business if the paid sick leave bill passed. He is not exempted.”

Regarding Rent Court, he was asked about the vote he cast for expedited convictions.

“ I don’t know rental law, so I put property bills into subcommittee. But one portion of the bill discussed expedited evictions for meth labs and guns being shot out of the homes. I didn’t think this was controversial,” said the senator.

About the Trust Act: “Do you support resisting President Trump’s immigration plans?”

“I like nine out of 10 provisions in the bill. For example, police cannot ask about immigration status, the senator said. “But I don’t like the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] Detainers provision. “Fingerprints of detainees automatically go to ICE, which can detain the person because he or she is deportable. I think we need to rewrite a portion of that bill so that someone on a terrorist watch list, for example, would be deportable, but [someone not on a terrorist watch list] would not be detained.”

Bail reform was among the most contentious issues of the evening. “Are you aware of the more effective bail bonds systems available in other parts of this state and some other states?” asked one attendee.

“I don’t care about the bail system,” Zirkin answered. “Bail reform sounds great, but it’s what’s behind it that’s important. The bail bond industry paid almost $75,000 over three years to lobby against changes to the bail bond system. But the fact is, there is a 100 percent increase in people being held in jail this year as compared with last year, because there is no chance of bail before their court date.”

“I expect a follow-up bill in the next session. We need to pilot a new pre-trial system, but that takes money, the state budget needs to get involved.”
Near the end of the evening, there was a series of rapid questions and answers:

“Would you work with advocacy groups on new bills that you might sponsor?”


“Should citizens sit on trial boards? For example, in cases of suspected police misconduct?”
“No, not yet because current police contracts won’t allow that.”

“Can you support end of life legislation?”

“Yes, I will vote for this bill.”

Just after the event concluded, Carla Johnson of Catonsville said, “I’m happy he was here tonight. I’m interested in legislation against sexual assault. He has said he would meet with advocacy groups, and he’s done that.”

Said Greg Friedman of Pikesville, “I’m involved with Jews United for Justice and am very interested in rent court legislation. It was great to hear him speak.”

Meanwhile, Zirkin was in his element. “I love it,” he said. “I love talking about the details of legislation, talking with citizens. A lot of the best ideas have come from citizens. And I love the tough questions!

“We have 90 days in the Legislature, which quickly becomes 60 days to discuss 600 bills, including the recommendations of sub-committees. There is so much to do in such a short time. That’s why I’m here tonight, long before the beginning of the new session.”

Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.

Photos by Peter Arnold

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