The Mizeur Effect

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 26, 2014

After the polls closed at 8 p.m. on June 24, it quickly became clear that Heather Mizeur was not going to be the Democrats’ standard-bearer heading into November’s general election, much less Maryland’s first gay, woman governor elected by tapping into the state’s public campaign-financing system. But judging from how her supporters reacted as they gathered on election night at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore to hear her concession speech, she—and they—somehow still seemed victorious.

“Heather! Heather!” the crowd of a couple hundred supporters and campaign workers cheered, as Mizeur basked in the intense glow of the TV news teams’ lights.

“We now have a core, organized movement going forward—I have names and numbers,” said Karen Stokes, the Mizeur campaign’s Baltimore City coordinator and the executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. State Del. Mary Washington, who represents Northeast Baltimore, added that “no one feels tonight that they’ve lost. They’re moving the progressive agenda forward. Their voices were heard. This is exciting. Six months ago, could anyone imagine her breaking 20 percent?”

In a telephone interview two days after the election, Mizeur makes it clear “I was in it to win it,” but says the campaign was “never really about winning an election as much as it was about raising consciousness and encouraging people to stay involved.”

Mizeur did break the 20-percent mark, getting about 100,000 votes from Maryland’s Democratic electorate, only 11,000 or so fewer than Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, a well-established statewide political figure who came in second behind the overwhelming victor, Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, whose campaign raised and spent many millions. Not bad for a two-term state delegate from Takoma Park.

“Maryland politics will never be the same,” declared Delman Coates, the Prince George’s County pastor who ran for lieutenant governor as Mizeur’s running mate. “This is not a moment in time, but a movement,” he said while addressing the crowd, adding that Mizeur “compelled us to believe in new things to make our communities better” and “did not run for governor to make history or further her political career,” but “to make change.” Addressing Mizeur directly, Coates added: “You have started a movement and I will happily ride with you.”

When Mizeur spoke, she declared that her supporters “have shown the power a movement can have when we work together for positive change.” Claiming that “the pundits, the media, the politicians all agree: We ran, hands down, the best campaign in this election,” Mizeur exhorted the crowd for having “changed the way campaigns will be run in Maryland” and argued that “we have restored so much integrity to the electoral process” by showing that voters “can come together to build community again.” That process, she continued, “does not stop with an election”—after “building this movement” and having “changed the conversation” in Maryland, her supporters need to make sure “Maryland becomes a truly progressive state and heeds your call for change” by creating “Maryland’s new ruling progressive class.”

The progressive policy template that Mizeur touted on the campaign trail was tailored to advance basic notions of societal equality though targeted government policies. Tax relief for working families and small businesses, educational reform funded in part by legalizing and taxing marijuana, assuring workers earn a living wage, ending what she calls the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” created by existing criminal-justice policies, and expanding access to affordable healthcare—these and many other proposals she advanced on her website, her campaign advertising, during media interviews, and in the televised debates.

The extent to which Mizeur’s ideas resonated with Maryland’s Democrats can be measured not only by the 100,000 votes she received, but by the grass-roots fervor reflected in her campaign finances, as compared to Brown’s, during the final weeks leading to the election. Brown’s campaign took in almost 1,300 contributions totaling more than $1.1 million since May 1, for an average donation of almost $900. At the same time, Mizeur’s campaign got more than 3,800 contributions, yielding around $420,000 in private contributions (another $270,000 or so came in the form of matching funds from the state’s public-financing system), for an average contribution of just over $100. That’s an impressively broad base of citizen donors.

The preliminary election results show where Mizeur’s campaign did best. While nearly 60 percent of her votes came out of Baltimore County, Baltimore City, and Montgomery County, she led the pack in Kent County on the Eastern Shore—where she and her wife, Deborah Mizeur, have a farm—and came in second in Baltimore City and Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, and Howard counties.

After Mizeur’s speech was over, the crowd slowly thinned and the camera crews broke down their equipment. In the days following, City Paper contacted some of Mizeur’s Baltimore-area supporters to see if they thought Mizeur’s stab at the State House could have a lingering effect on Maryland politics.

“I think other politicians will take notice of the type of campaign she ran and realize that they can run positive, idea-driven campaigns and thrive because of it,” suggests Keith Gayler, a former research director at the Abell Foundation and policy analyst at the Maryland State Department of Education. “She ran an unapologetically progressive campaign when progressive is often used as term of derision,” Gayler continues, adding, “who else was really talking about inequality, the issue of our time?”

Thomas Dolina, a lawyer who says he first met Mizeur when both were at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, says Mizeur’s qualified success as a gubernatorial candidate is partly due to the fact that “she’s a progressive without demonizing those who disagree with her, and I find that to be a rare attribute.” He says the fact that she performed so well at the polls “while making a sacrifice not to take money” the way campaigns traditionally do—without the constraints of the public-financing system, which limits a campaign’s fundraising and spending—”creates a model where that kind of methodology is successful.” He’s not so sure that the progressive coalition that backed Mizeur will be able to keep its momentum going. “I’ve seen that happen so many times,” he says. “It’s a ripple. It might turn into a wave.”

Joanne Nathans, the founder of the Job Opportunities Task Force, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that seeks to economically empower the working class and unemployed, says Mizeur “carried off a really impressive grass-roots campaign” in which “a large number of people supported her and her ideas” even though “she sort of came out of nowhere. She’s now a force to be reckoned with.” As for the “future impact” of the campaign, Nathans notes that Mizeur is “a progressive, principled person” who “respects the voters” and “became a credible candidate despite having very little name recognition initially,” so “other candidates will pay attention to how Heather conducted herself in this campaign.”

Mizeur says her campaign organization and supporters “have loosely discussed having a retreat to explore how to keep everyone engaged” after the election. The issues her campaign sought to address, she continues, “are not going away, so I’m thinking about the best way for me to continue to make a difference” through “this movement of people who are pressing our government and leaders to make these changes.”

In particular, Mizeur says she believes work needs to be done to change the culture at like-minded, progressive institutions in the state that “support me on the issues, but weren’t willing to back the campaign because they are part of the establishment. There’s a sense that some of these organizations have become part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we have to figure out how to harness that.”

Despite the loss, Mizeur says she is committed to continuing the work her campaign started. “There are lots of ways for me to serve,” she says, “and I’m very open to figuring out the best way. I’m not walking away from this work, or this movement, or this state that I love so dearly.”

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