Jmore catches up with Sen. Bobby Zirkin to discuss life, family, the state of the state and his political future.
Ask Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin (D-11th) what’s most precious to him, and the 20-year Maryland General Assembly veteran and chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee doesn’t hesitate.
“My wife and two daughters,” he says. “Nothing comes before them.”
The Zirkins live in Pikesville, where the senator grew up, and they are active members of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Stevenson. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the Georgetown University Law Center, Zirkin is a practicing attorney with a law office of 13 people.
Jmore recently caught up with Zirkin, 46, the highest-ranking Jewish member of the State Senate.
You’re a well-known figure in the area, but what’s most important for us to know about you?
There’s nothing more important to me than my wife and two daughters. They are my top priority. My wife, Tina, is an incredible woman, a wonderful mom to our girls and an incredible wife. She’s a nurse educator who does some work in my law practice, coming into my office and helping us read the medical records.
Sophie is 10, going into fifth grade, and Emma, 7, is going into second grade. I’m raising my daughters to be strong and independent. They are both athletic, smart, funny, and they love doing new things. They try everything. Both are fantastic basketball players; they also love soccer and lacrosse, and they are best friends with each other, too.
They love coming around to events with me at night. That makes the community or political events more meaningful for me. I don’t have to leave them. You blink an eye, and they are little people all of a sudden.
My family is incredibly tight. My parents live in the same house where I grew up, right near us. My brother lives three houses from us on the same street. Our families are being raised right next to each other. The children think they’re growing up among four siblings.
And you speak frequently at local schools.
I love going around to schools, talking to kids. I’ve done this for the past 20 years. I try to go to each Jewish school once a year. Going to the Talmudical Academy, for example, is the most fun. Debating with them, voting, everyone is cheering and hollering.
How did you get involved in public service?
When I was in elementary school, I went door-to-door with my parents. My parents would sit around the table, talking politics with us. They would get involved in local campaigns. One in particular was a big environmental problem for the Smith-Greenspring Association. Right nearby what is now Quarry Lake was an actual rock quarry. The owners put a tire plant and an asphalt plant there, polluting the environment. I remember going door-to-door with my mom, making sure that that pollution did not stay.
Paul Bolenbaugh, a social studies teacher at Pikesville High, was also influential. In his class, we would discuss a controversy every day — the death penalty, abortion, nothing was off the table. He increased my understanding of local issues.
Steven David [professor of International Relations] at Johns Hopkins University was my politics professor as well as a renowned scholar on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He expanded my understanding of American politics and the world.
What are currently the most pressing issues in state politics?
In general, we have got to stop this growing trend of hyper-partisanship. It’s not helpful for democracy, for the state or for the country. This notion that ideas are either good or bad based on whether there’s a D or R after your name, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. Good ideas come from both sides, and bad ideas come from both sides, too.
This hyper-partisanship is getting significantly worse in Washington, and it’s starting to creep into Annapolis. This is the fault of many individuals, but at our level of government we can’t let hyper-partisanship creep in.
Our job is to roll up our sleeves, leave politics at the door and fix problems. Whose name is on the bill or what party they come from should not matter at all. What should matter is the idea and the details.
What are your current committee and leadership roles in the legislature?
The Judicial Relations Committee deals with really emotional, complex and controversial issues, including criminal law, civil procedure, family law, estates and trusts, corporate law, real estate law and vehicular law. We get every bill that has a victim attached to it, including drunk driving, domestic violence and sex offenders.
Chairing this committee is an enormous task, even after three years. I’ve got an incredible committee, and we pride ourselves on leaving party affiliation at the door. Just in the past two years, this committee passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, the single, largest criminal justice reform package in the state’s history, perhaps in the history of the country. The committee passed this bill unanimously, and the State Senate passed it unanimously.
This bill deals with decreased sentences, increased sentences, treatment in lieu of incarceration, increased funding for treatment, pre-trial, post-trial, every aspect of the criminal justice system, and it goes into effect Oct. 1 of this year. There will be significant growing pains, and it needs monitoring to make sure that the words on paper help stop crime and help people to get back on track, such as in drug treatment.
After many years of frustration, my legislation to ban fracking also passed, also because of the cooperation between Democrats and Republicans needed to protect the environment. Environment protection is an issue of tremendous importance to me.
Now, look at Baltimore City. Things are not working well. The top priority, certainly in my Judicial Proceedings Committee, is to combat the growing violence in Baltimore City. This is a multi-faceted problem that will require a lot of change. Whether it’s dealing with gun violence, sentencing, drug treatment, educational opportunities or workforce training, we Democrats and Republicans need to look at all of these issues.
On Sept. 12, the Judicial Proceedings Committee and the Baltimore City Senate Delegation will hold a hearing on the increase of violence in Baltimore City. Members of the public are invited. We must have a multi-faceted approach to violence prevention.
Do you have political aspirations within or beyond Maryland?
No, not right now. I enjoy being a citizen legislator. The founders of Maryland purposely created a citizen legislature. People would come in for three months, legislate [and] go back to their jobs. Teachers, bar owners, farmers — it’s really important that they bring those perspectives from the real world to the legislature.
I run a small business, and I write paychecks every month. That responsibility helps me to be a better, more knowledgeable legislator. I’m really satisfied with what I’m doing. I love the law. I really enjoy changing the law to help people.
Washington is not the right place for me. Friends in Congress complain about how little time they spend with family. Right now, my kids are everything to me. I want more time with them, not less.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.
- Bobby Zirkin Speaks at Jews United for Justice Meeting
- What Jewish Political Leaders Have In Mind For 2017
Top photo: Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin (D-11th) (Photo by Jim Burger)
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