Four state senators strongly rebuked a progressive lobbying group, calling the organizations tactics “bullying” and statements made on a website grossly insensitive.
Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, and three members of the committee fired back at posts made by leaders of Progressive Maryland. The group opposes an omnibus crime bill authored by Zirkin, calling it “racially bigoted injustice,” legislation written by white supremacists that is designed for mass incarceration of black people and “genocide.”
“I condemn these folks in the strongest possible terms,” said Zirkin, speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday. “I think it’s disgusting and a tale of the times. To sit there and throw bombs from the very, very, very cheap seats is about as ridiculous as you can imagine.”
Zirkin said he was especially offended by the use of the term genocide as it evokes memories of the Holocaust.
He referred to Progressive Maryland as “lint” and “crazies.”
“When I started, these are the people who you would pick up the phone and say, ‘Who are these crazies’ that you have to listen to,” Zirkin said. “They make these crazy statements that have no basis in fact, and they’re completely asinine. And now we have to watch being tagged in these tweets and on social media.”
The comments by Zirkin and other lawmakers come on the same day Progressive Maryland began an offensive on its website and social media in opposition to Zirkin’s bill.
Progressive Maryland Executive Director Larry Stafford Jr. in an interview acknowledged what he called “strong words” but said it’s intended to get the attention of lawmakers on an issue that is important to progressive voters and minorities.
“We do believe we have an impact on elections when it comes to whether someone has put forward good policies or bad policies,” Stafford said. “We do talk about how voters will be informed about the decisions (lawmakers) have made on a daily basis when it adversely affects (voters).”
The group, on its website, wrote in opposition to the bill that had a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon.
“Progressive Maryland will stand tomorrow and oppose Senate Bill 122, this bill is horribly put together. It offers no protection against police brutality, offers no protection against the increasing number of “hate crimes” and mass shootings that lawfully armed individuals, including white nationalists, perpetrate in American society,”the group wrote in the post. “Instead, Senate Bill 122 offers to incarcerate a generation of black or Latino men and women and to do so during the 2018 election year so as to make the image of incarcerated black and Latino men political fodder during Gov. Hogan’s re-election campaign. Progressive Maryland will not stand behind any member who supports Senate Bill 122, we will be watching the vote on the Bill closely and will consider pulling endorsements from members who support this bill.”
“We have no time for apathy in the face of genocide. Join us in the fight against the racially bigoted injustice that in Maryland goes by the name Senate Bill 122,” the post read.
Stafford was unapologetic about the post, saying that he has had family members and friends who have been victims of crime and family members and friends who have been subject to the criminal justice system.
“We don’t need policies that we know have been time-tested to be ineffective,” Stafford said. “This is an era where we have to be strong.”
Stafford said Zirkin and other Democrats are “falling in line” with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on a crime bill that turns back to mandatory sentences and stiffer sentences rather than focusing on crime prevention and re-entry for those coming out of prison.
Stafford said Democrats are supporting Hogan’s ideas “because it looks good to a certain constituency and because it sounds tough.”
Supporters of the bill say the legislation is a measured response to dealing with the rise of violent crime in Baltimore and not a mass incarceration bill.
Stafford called the bill a return to the failed policies of the 1980s and 1990s.
“We don’t need Democrats in name only,” Stafford said, declining to say whom he was specifically describing. “They have to be strong in policies that uplift black and brown people.”
“We would like the bill better if it didn’t include stiffer penalties and mandatory penalties,” Stafford said.
Sen. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s and a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he has opposed other bills aimed at mass incarcerations of black people but supports Zirkin’s omnibus effort.
“I looked at this bill through those eyes,” Muse said. “What I saw was there are some people who belong in jail whether we like it or not.”
Sen. William C. Smith, D-Montgomery, said he, too, found the Progressive Maryland posts “deeply offensive and detracts from the problems we’re trying to solve here.”
Muse called the group bullies and directed his ire by inference at Stafford.
“I think it’s the leadership of this group, the leadership in particular who also came into my office last year over a bill in which they were totally wrong and to start the conversation by saying, ‘We can make you or break you’ — that’s not the way to be talked to down here,” Muse said. “We came here to do our jobs as best we can and we don’t come here to be bullied. And when groups allow their leadership to come in and bully and they are nasty and they do not know the meaning of the word compromise, it does a disservice to the members of the group who pay their dues. I don’t take lightly to threats, and I don’t take lightly to the threats that they’ll make now.”
The group, in its post, threatens to withdraw election year endorsements of any lawmaker that supports the bill.
Stafford downplayed Muse’s descriptions of a threat.
“We’re not here to throw bombs from the gallery, that’s not what we’re about,” said Stafford. “But we have a right to say whether we agree with something or not.”
And Stafford said his grassroots group of 100,000 members statewide is “very effective” in educating Democratic voters.
“We’re on the ground already, we’re knocking on doors, and we’ll knock on more doors,” said Stafford. “We have a very effective electoral program in this state and we have some decisive victories.”
Zirkin, who said he hoped the leaders of the group were listening to the Senate proceedings, had a message for Progressive Maryland regarding the yanking of endorsements: “Go for it.”