By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Jan. 15, 2014
More than a quarter-century has passed since Maryland’s last truly competitive Democratic primary for governor in 1986, when Attorney General Stephen Sachs lost to Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. So this year’s polling on June 24 will be historic, simply because two statewide elected leaders – Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler – are on the ballot. Complicating their efforts to attract the most votes from Maryland’s roughly 2 million registered Democrats is a third bona fide candidate: 41-year-old state Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County, a state legislator with sterling credentials as a Democratic Party activist.
City Paper met with Mizeur at the Starbucks on Church Circle in Annapolis to discuss her candidacy. The sit-down occurred on the first day of this year’s General Assembly session-apt timing, given Maryland’s increasingly apparent leftward leanings in recent years, passing laws to repeal the death penalty, ramp up gun control, extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, and grant in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrants.
While Brown and Gansler grapple, Mizeur’s candidacy seems to be tapping into this leftward trend by proposing to legalize and tax marijuana to pay for universal pre-K public education, to raise the minimum wage by nearly $10 per hour over the next decade, and to provide small-business tax relief while closing loopholes that let large out-of-state companies off the tax hook. The small-town Illinois native with working-class roots has toiled in the partisan vineyards since the 1990s: as a staffer for three Congressional Democrats; as domestic-policy director for then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry when he ran in the 2004 presidential election; as a Takoma Park city councilwoman; as a superdelegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention; as a 2009 appointee to the Democratic National Committee’s executive committee; and as a veteran of seven (and counting) Maryland General Assembly sessions.
If elected, Mizeur would be many firsts for Maryland: the first woman governor, the first openly gay governor, and the first same-sex married governor. She would also be the first governor elected using the state’s public-financing mechanism for statewide campaigns, an arrangement that constrains campaign spending but opens up a funding level that might otherwise have been elusive, given the well-established money-pumping machines working for Brown and Gansler.
City Paper: The clock is ticking, with a June primary.
Heather Mizeur: It is, but we take a pause now for a 90-day legislative session with great expectations on what we can get done to make a difference in peoples’ lives. We seem to be unified in trying to increase the minimum wage, and I’m hoping we’ll also get paid sick leave and some small-business tax relief. We don’t have to have either-or economic policy. We can pay people a living wage and have paid sick leave while also providing tax relief to our small businesses as long as we close some corporate tax loopholes that are allowing a handful of multi-state companies to hide their earnings outside of the state and avoid paying any taxes. I think we’re going to be able to make some progress on marijuana policy reform and hopefully protect us from unregulated shale-gas drilling. It’s a big agenda.
CP: Does it change the dynamic, being a candidate running against the lieutenant governor and the attorney general during the session?
HM: I’m sure there’ll be some elbows thrown trying to keep people from being seen as successful. That’s not how I come at this. I come at this as a public servant. I don’t view my opponents in the campaign as my enemies. We’re all good people, trying to get good things done for the state. We just have vastly different visions for where we take Maryland. I’m definitely looking forward to being the one that helps set the agenda for what that will be starting in 2015.
CP: You strike me as the extra-establishment progressive candidate.
HM: What do you mean by that?
CP: You came up in the Democratic establishment and right now, with your candidacy, you are challenging it.
HM: Very much so, because in Maryland our next governor should not always be dictated by who’s standing next in line. The way it typically has worked in Maryland is, once a governor gets elected, insiders start looking at who appears to be next in line and funneling money and building favors and establishing deeper relationships to get in good with them. When a candidate like me looks at getting in, I’m technically supposed to look at the millions of dollars in their bank accounts or the endorsements they’ve already lined up years ago, and say, “Well, I can’t compete against that, I should never get in.” That perpetuates a system of advancing the person next in line to protect the status quo.
My campaign is about re-empowering the people so they have alternatives and choices and can come together and say, “We have a different vision. We believe in something else than what is spoon-fed to us that we’re expected to go along with.” We’re in it to win it, and we’re incredibly thrilled with the support of a robust grassroots base all across the state.
CP: This race doesn’t seem to be a coronation, though, and sometimes those coronations don’t work, like in Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s case in 2002. You worked on Townsend’s campaign, right?
HM: I was Joe Kennedy’s legislative director, her brother, when he was in Congress. Toward the end of that campaign, he asked if I would consider going and helping his sister’s campaign out. And I was very interested for a variety of reasons in trying to help out that effort.
CP: The primary, a lot of people seemed to be interested-but I’m blanking on who actually ran against her.
HM: Nobody. That was the problem. [Actually, Robert Fustero ran against her, getting 20 percent of the vote.] There were a handful of people who were interested in running, but they took a look at money, endorsements, all those things, and decided not to run. I think contested primaries are good for democracy, to engage the electorate to feel ownership over the process. But even a contested primary is usually the next-in-line guys duking it out. It’s not someone like me, who’s seen as jumping the line and not waiting your turn.
I just reject the notion that these elections should be about whose turn it is. This is about the problems our state faces, how to address those problems, and an ability to capture the imagination of the electorate to come together to stand for what is the right course of action. How’s that ever going to be addressed by just looking at who thinks it’s their political birthright by virtue of, “I’ve done this job, and now it’s my turn to do that job”?
When people ask me, “Well, why don’t you run for comptroller or why didn’t you be someone’s running mate?,” I say, “Because that is me trying to set a pathway for my career, and that’s not what this is about.” This is about being in a place and time where my ideas and my willingness to address the challenges facing us are better than the competition. So I am a better candidate and I will be a better governor, and it’s time for me to step forward and give voters that option.
CP: Every state has its own nuanced political geography, but Maryland is essentially three states: the Eastern Shore, Western Maryland, and the Baltimore-Washington corridor, where most of the population lives. You seem to represent a progressive set of beliefs that is often shared by well-educated people in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. How do you address your progressive politics to those parts of the state that don’t share those ideas?
HM: I actually reject the notion that progressive values and ideas are only shared by people of a certain educational attainment or living in a certain region of the state. Progressive values come from a place of being willing to make progress on problems that have plagued us for too long and the solutions have been too risk-averse. I do believe in a one-Maryland approach to governing. I am not just campaigning in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. I think that it is convenient to try to take a progressive viewpoint and put it in the box of one region or another, but I’m finding the depth of support for the ideas that I’m discussing across the board.
Some people might disagree with me on some of the specifics I’m advancing, but they are backing my candidacy because they find it refreshing for a candidate to actually stand up and say what he or she believes. I’m taking very bold, principled stances on a range of issues, providing clear, in-depth policy proposals for the public to determine if they want to support my candidacy based on what I believe. I add a lot of pragmatism to my progressive stances.
People all across the state want to be able to earn a decent salary. Where the concern has been is, you can’t do that without hurting small businesses. Yes, I’m pushing for a living wage, and I’m bringing to the table tax relief for small businesses, but I’m also for holding corporations accountable for their fair share. That might be called a progressive priority, but it is just about fundamental fairness in expecting all of us to play by the same rules. And our failed war on drugs, the impact that marijuana prohibition has had on people’s lives, is something that is resonating in every corner of the state.
I’m not offering up campaign slogans and empty promises and things that will help us do just enough to have a bumper sticker to get reelected in four years. I’m coming in to make transformational change happen, and I’m giving a very clear road map on how I will accomplish it, and that’s exciting a base of people to be engaged and involved in a candidacy that is going all the way to win. I am finding that that spark is catching fire. I have Republicans, Greens, independents reaching out to our office about changing their voter registrations, because they have to under our current system, just to have the opportunity to vote for me because they see this as a real shift in what has been politics as usual in Annapolis.
CP: What types of positions are you finding that people respect, even if they disagree with them?
HM: I have some people say, “I don’t smoke marijuana, not sure I’m all that cracked up about the policy, a little bit worried about a stoner on every corner. But when I hear you connecting the dots to the larger negative impact these laws have on people’s lives and that they detract money from law enforcement focusing on more serious and violent crime, it starts to make sense.” And this new revenue source can go to something they do believe in-having universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, which people understand is expensive, that’s why we don’t have it. It’s not because people in Annapolis are opposed to educating our toddlers. It’s a really expensive thing to do, and no one’s been able to find an appropriate revenue source to pay for it. Changing our drug policy and dedicating that revenue to something that will lift our communities up in a really positive way will benefit everyone by eliminating the achievement gap in our schools and making sure every child enters kindergarten ready to learn.
CP: And the other candidates, are you saying they are prone to platitudes and slogans and lack clear policy proposals?
HM: I think that the style and substance of the three campaigns are very, very different, and the voters are seeing those differences very clearly.
CP: What sets you apart from Brown, for instance?
HM: I was opposed to the casino-gaming expansion as a lazy form of economic development because there are better ways to create jobs that lift our communities up, like putting people to work rebuilding our schools. He was a big backer and supporter of that approach. We have seemingly parted ways on marijuana policy. I fought against the teacher pension-shift last year because we have one policy requirement in our constitution, and it’s related to giving our children an outstanding K-through-12 public education, and we can’t do that without attracting and retaining the best qualified educators in the nation.
I just have a different set of priorities. We share a priority of giving our kids access to universal pre-K, but we differ vastly on how we would go about doing it. He would rely on low-income families losing money in casinos, and his whole plan is predicated on casino revenue hitting a certain threshold to be able to implement it. My proposal is a more stable revenue source that will guarantee that we can follow through.
We’ve both spent eight years in the legislature, and I’d put my record up against his or anyone else’s in this race. Past is prologue, so what have you gotten done in the job you already had? I’ve pushed through a bill that allowed young adults to stay on their families’ health plans through age 25 four years before it was rolled into national health reform. I had legislation to identify and enroll 50,000 of our eligible but uninsured children. I’ve worked across the aisle to get a family-planning expansion passed for 35,000 more women by convincing my GOP colleagues that it’s a win-win for us by lowering the abortion rate and saving the state money while improving maternal health outcomes. I did expansion of coverage for foster kids, led the charge on trying to make sure we protect ourselves against fracking in the state, and marriage equality.
As you can tell, I’m uncomfortable with the question. It is not the kind of campaign I’m running. I don’t want to win by convincing everyone that there is something wrong or ineffective about the other people in the race. I want to win by everyone realizing that I’d be a better governor. Some of the way that gets done is by drawing contrasts, and I’m probably not a great politician from that perspective. Where I come from, from a place of spirituality, doesn’t fit well with trying to make someone else look lesser in order for you to look better. I think people are resonating with the positive campaign that I am running, and the issues that I’m advancing, and I think we’ve done a better job of having a clearer road map on a range of large issues on how our administration would tackle them.
CP: Name recognition is kind of the name of the game when it comes to electoral politics. Yours is still very low.
HM: Suffice it to say that the polls that have been talked about publicly so far were out before I had a chance to make my mark on this race. We started out in July with an early theme of wanting to build and strengthen commitment to public service, and using that as an initial ground force of people. So we built playgrounds, painted schools, read to school kids, cleaned up marshlands, rebuilt homes with Habitat for Humanity in Frederick. While doing that work, we started rolling out our policy initiatives in late October. There’s been no polling done since we’ve done all the great work on our education platform, our detailed 10-point jobs- and economic-development plan, our marijuana-legalization proposal, public financing of campaigns, big environmental initiatives, principals for fixing the flawed implementation of the Affordable Care Act. We are very confident that our message is growing, our support is growing, my name recognition is growing. We’re going to have what it takes to win this election.
CP: Have you been doing any internal polling of your own?
HM: Because of our decision to become a publicly financed campaign, it is very restrictive on how much money we can raise and spend. We have had to make some unconventional decisions on where we spend our money and need to really wait to spend most of our resources on the last efforts. So we are not afforded the same luxury of being able to do consistent polling. But I do benefit from knowing of other polls that are happening around the state, and people tell me that jaws are dropping when the results are coming in, that there’s been some good movement.
CP: Equality Maryland has endorsed Brown. That must’ve been a disappointment.
HM: Of course. There is no ticket that has done more for the LGBT community than ours. Not only me, as an open LGBT member of the caucus who fought for this in a very personal way-my own marriage was at stake-but without Delman Coates [Mizuer’s running mate, who is senior pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George’s County], I don’t know if that would have won the vote at the end of the day in the legislature if there hadn’t been some black clergy that came forward to say it was an important civil rights issue, that we had to separate church and state, that the church can still teach whatever it wants to teach, but we have to treat everyone equally under the law. And Delman helped lead that.
It’s a puzzling selection, but there’s a lot of politics that come into play. The supporters of these organizations anticipate the selection to be based on who they think the best governor will be, who’s been the best on their issues. But people are starting to realize that those decisions tend to more often be centered on who looks like they’re going to win. And who has that crystal ball right now, right? There’s still six months left in the campaign.
I would say this even if they had endorsed me: No community is monolithic, and no one votes based on how an organization recommends that somebody vote. At the end of the day, it is still incumbent upon the candidates to run the best campaigns to inspire and motivate people to vote for them. And I’m very confident of the level of support I have in the LGBT community in Maryland.
CP: You’ve been reaching out to voters of a diversity of ideologies, but in terms of the Maryland electorate’s progressivism, does it seem to be growing?
HM: Maryland has always been more progressive than its leadership. We saw that with the Marriage Equality Act and the Dream Act. We had to fight like the dickens to get both of those bills passed with very razor-thin margins because of the conservative prevailing ideology in the legislative bodies. Then both ballot initiatives won with strong support from the people, not just from the places where people expected it. Marriage equality didn’t just win in big urban areas. There were six jurisdictions that voted for it by majority. So I think the voters of Maryland have been incredibly progressive and have been hoping for their leadership to catch up. My candidacy is offering an opportunity to come out of the closet, if you will.
CP: What is the core problem that’s being addressed in your suite of progressive policy prescriptions?
HM: Economic justice is the biggest one. We have a growing spread of the haves and have-nots, and I think the progressive movement is not just about the people at the bottom rungs, yet that is an important voice-people in poverty who are most vulnerable need a political class fighting on their behalf. But our middle class is seemingly being eviscerated, and we’ve got to make sure that middle-class families are able to earn more and are taxed less. Under this administration, the millionaires’ tax was allowed to expire while taxes were increased on families making between $100,000 and $150,000 a year. That’s backwards from how I see the world, and my tax plan would reverse that.
CP: How are you going to play it in Baltimore City?
HM: We’re working on that every day, and even before I thought about running for governor, I was building relationships in Baltimore City when I walked through city schools and saw the deplorable conditions and started to work with the Baltimore Education Coalition and BUILD and the ACLU Education Reform Project on creating the strategy that became known as Transform Baltimore, to bring in the school construction revenue for the city. I wrote an op-ed with Tom Wilcox of the Baltimore Community Foundation in October of 2011 in The Baltimore Sun that carved the framework and path for the success that we got in the 2013 session.
I was very involved in fighting the administration’s plan to build a youth jail in the city. They wanted to build a 120-bed facility at a cost of $70 million, and I was among the early voices saying we have to end our focus on mass incarceration and the crib-to-prison pipeline and just always looking to build more jails for kids rather than creating affirmative opportunities for them.
In our early-childhood education plan, we have a critical component of fixing the child-care subsidies so that truly middle-class families have access to affordable child care and investments in after-school initiatives and summer programs for our kids. Those are the biggest investments of anything we’ve proposed in this race. They are very big, comprehensive plans that I’ve been talking about how to pay for, but it’s about setting priorities and those are my priorities.
There is no candidate from the city, and I think we’re all working to establish a presence and a base of support. And we will have a robust “Baltimore for Mizeur-Coates” organization that helps us with all of our house parties and community events. I think some of the earned media that we’ve been able to generate in the Baltimore market on our policy ideas has helped. We’re having these conversations directly with the people, and I’m very pleased with the growing support. We’ve got more time left in this campaign than what we’ve already invested in it, to keep up the momentum.
CP: The biggest potential for gaining success in Baltimore City is boosting participation, because turnout is typically so low.
HM: We’re looking at probably less than 500,000 people who turn out for this primary election, statewide. Sad but true.
CP: How do you solve that problem?
HM: By getting people energized and motivated and believing in politics again, that it’s not a dirty profession, that it’s not politicians trading favors with their best corporate sponsors and special-interest pals. That’s part of the reason we made the decision to do public campaign financing. We knew we’d have enough to compete and win under the rules, but it was as important to reestablish trust with the electorate and restore integrity in the process. You don’t have to become part of the problem to win, you don’t have to play by the same rules that have turned everybody off. You can do it differently, build trust with the voters, and have them engage in the process again.
Not only will that be part of our campaign’s theme, but it will be how we govern after we win, showing what can happen when engaged communities come together to awaken our higher selves. We all have dreams. We all have things we believe in. We all have a vision for the kind of community that we want to live in together. Somewhere along the line we stopped talking about that, stopped sharing those dreams, because we stopped believing in each other and our ability to make it happen. We’re going to prove in this campaign that that’s possible again.