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Heather Mizeur: Aiming for the Top

by John Riley
Saturday Jan 25, 2014

According to most pundits, Heather Mizeur is the clear underdog in her bid to win the Maryland Democratic Party's nomination for governor in the June 24 primary.

The lesbian delegate from Montgomery County doesn't have the millions raised by Attorney General Doug Gansler, who's had his eye on the state's top office for quite a few years. Nor does she have the blessing of party's political establishment, like Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, whose chief backers include Gov. Martin O'Malley, both of the state's U.S. senators, four U.S. House members, the Maryland Senate president, the Speaker of the House of Delegates, and dozens of General Assembly members.

Yet despite her status as the potential dark horse who will need to come from behind, Mizeur seems to take it all in stride. Relaxed, always smiling, and highly optimistic, Mizeur maintains her focus, staying on message and enunciating her policy proposals and vision for the state.

It's a tall agenda, and an unabashedly liberal one at that. Mizeur has proposed a millionaire's tax, a living wage, earned sick leave for workers, the legalization and taxation of marijuana to pay for universal preschool, a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing -- aka "fracking" -- for natural gas until a full environmental-impact study is complete, and campaign-finance reform.

Flagged as a rising political star since her election to the House of Delegates in 2006, she has served as a campaign surrogate for major causes, from the fight to legalize marriage equality in Maryland to passage of the state's DREAM Act granting in-state tuition to undocumented students. As a campaign surrogate for President Obama and Democrats, Mizeur found herself debating former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) -- and "outperforming him by many accounts," she adds -- on WJLA's NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt. DePuyt even joked after the debate that his show had featured a showdown between the "former governor and the future governor."

"This is where I think being an openly gay person has impact on your world outlook and how you present in the world," Mizeur says of her fearlessness. "When you have to learn at a young age to tackle your biggest fears and walk from a place of truth, when you learn how to reconcile those religious questions about external opinions versus your own, using your own heart's North Star, when you get to a place of being out of the closet and stepping forward -- we have a skill set that we can apply towards all kinds of situations that are similar.

"The external forces that have been telling me for months that there was no way I could be a viable candidate for governor because it wasn't my turn," she continues, "and because I wasn't next in line, and I wouldn't be able to raise the money, and I wouldn't be able to convince people that I was a candidate that could go all the way -- nobody's saying that anymore. You just learn to close down fear, and naysayers and your own doubt, to go in and have confidence in what speaks through you and yourself."

Mizeur's life experiences have prepared her for her political career. Growing up in the 1,100-person village of Blue Mound, Ill., Mizeur was the eldest daughter of a United Auto Worker and welder at the local Caterpillar plant and a member of a fifth-generation farming family growing corn, soybeans and wheat. She vividly remembers being 9 years old and accompanying her father to the picket line when workers at the Caterpillar plant went on strike, forcing her family to eke out a living on $45 a week in strike pay.

"It was an early exposure for me to the political process, to Democratic values of sticking together to fight for fairness for all our families, to have the courage of our convictions, to work together to ensure that everyone's struggles became a united common purpose, and I carried those lessons with me for a lifetime in the General Assembly in my work," she says.

It was during the strike that Mizeur remembers meeting one of her political idols, Penny Severns, an unsuccessful congressional candidate who went on to be elected to the Decatur City Council and the Illinois State Senate. Watching Severns talking to the workers on the picket line made her aware that politics could be a way to improve people's lives.

But the dawn of Mizeur's political awareness predates the picket line.

"I was always the weird kid that liked to watch the presidential debates," she says. "When I was 8 years old, I was taking notes on the 1980 presidential debates, and I'd always make up my own palm cards for my family. My dad has 11 siblings, and I would put together 'Heather's Recommendations' for who you should vote for at every level for the family on recipe cards, and would give them to each of my aunts and uncles. I'd individually write them out, and give those to my family, encouraging them to see how to vote."

And how was such advice received?

"I don't come from a political family, and I had a lot of conviction about why I was supporting people, and could explain it," she says. "I was into trying to understand policy issues from a young age, so I would defend and talk about why I thought somebody was the best candidate, and, fortunately, my relatives would treat me with the kind of respect that you would normally afford an adult for that kind of conversation. And they would take the cards with them, so I joke that I've been voting since I was around 8 years old."

Mizeur adds that she even got special permission from her high school principal to take off a half day of school on her 18th birthday in order to be able to drive to the county courthouse and register to vote. On most days -- though not on the day of her interview, per the request of Metro Weekly photographers -- she even wears a necklace with a gold medallion that reads "VOTE."

"I was more excited about my 18th birthday than a lot of kids, who couldn't wait to be 16 to drive, or 21 to drink alcohol," Mizeur says. "For me, it was all about turning 18 and being able to vote, because I had started to volunteer on Penny Severns's campaign, and other races in my area, and was never able to actually exercise the right to vote."

It was also an age when sexual orientation more routinely enters the conversation, ready or not. Mizeur knew she was attracted to women since elementary school, but says it was clear that most people disapproved because of the way her classmates would talk about being gay. Or course, she did come out, when she was a sophomore in college. Although her parents did not take the news well at first, they eventually decided that they did not want Mizeur's news to destroy their relationship with her.

"If you think about the time period, it was the early '90s," she explains. "There was no Ellen Degeneres on TV, Melissa Etheridge hadn't come out. It was still something that people were scared about. And parents were scared about what it meant for your child's future when you found this out. It was still discussed as something that would ruin your kid's life, and take away their happiness, and I was standing firm to show them that what was going to make me happy was living my truth."

Even after coming out, however, Mizeur struggled to reconcile her sexual orientation with her Catholic faith, which remains to this day an essential part of her identity.

"My Catholicism for me was a connection to my social-justice values, of caring for the sick, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and volunteerism," Mizeur says. "The epistle from James that says, 'Faith without works is dead' -- we have to put our faith into action. That's what my Catholicism meant to me.

"And when I would try to reconcile the teachings of the church," she continues, "I would come to a place where I realized that every time I would discern being gay, the only time that I was receiving messages that it was wrong was coming from external places. Inside of myself, and in my own deep relationship with God, I always knew it was okay. The church itself teaches the primacy of your own conscience. While there are teachings from the church to guide, and I certainly disagree with the church on other teachings as well -- I'm pro-choice -- that, at the end of the day, what mattered was my own conscience and my own discernment with Christ. ... That was very liberating, when I got to the place of realizing that I was torturing myself, and living in fear and having to struggle, only because I was listening to external forces trying to dictate to me what was right. And that was at odds with what I knew in my own heart to be the right thing."

Mizeur went on to work in politics for three different members of Congress, focusing on domestic issues, particularly health care, before going to work at the National Association of Community Health Centers, a nonprofit organization that advocates for improved access to health care for the uninsured. She later returned to Capitol Hill to work for four years as John Kerry's director of domestic policy -- when he was a senator from Massachusetts -- before, during and after his 2004 presidential run. During her time working for now-Secretary of State Kerry, Mizeur ran for public office, winning a seat on the Takoma Park City Council in 2003.

Working on the Hill, she also met the woman she would marry, Deborah, with whom she's so far spent a decade. Initially, the two only knew each other as fellow health care policy analysts, and the relationship was purely professional.

"There came a period where we were each single, but I never knew that she was gay," Mizeur recalls, smiling from ear to ear. "I had a lot of respect for her professionally, but I thought she was a straight woman, and the thought had never really crossed my mind. Meanwhile, she had harbored a three-year crush on me and never bothered to tell me. Finally, when she did tell me that not only was she gay, but that she had this massive crush on me, it was like the sun and the moon and the stars all aligned."

Love and Marriage

After a year, they were engaged. After another year, in 2005, the couple married in a small ceremony on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where the two make a second home on an organic herb farm in Chestertown.

"While we knew we weren’t going to have the law recognize our marriage in Maryland at that time, we wanted to make a statement that we were going to get married in our state, that we were going to work really hard -- for the rest of our lives if necessary -- to make sure that the state not only protected our marriage, but the marriage of every other family like ours," Mizeur says of marrying in Maryland prior to marriage equality becoming state law.

She and Deborah legally wed in California in 2008 prior to the passage of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. Because their California marriage was legal at the time, a 2010 opinion by Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler recognized their marriage as legal in Maryland, even though Maryland had not yet passed its own marriage-equality law.

"Deborah and I had a conversation early on, after I was elected," Mizeur says. "We felt together that we could make a difference in moving the needle on marriage equality in Annapolis after we got here, that it would be a lot harder for my colleagues to have a negative view of marriage equality once they got to meet a lesbian couple with such a strong marriage.

"Deb came with me to a lot of social functions to get to know my colleagues. People always invited us with them, to go out to dinner and to engage in social activities, because they liked us as a couple. And we could just see the shift, that we weren’t just the ’token lesbian couple’ that they were inviting to come around, but that they honored and respected our marriage. And then it became important for us to slowly and respectfully educate those colleagues about how differently we were treated under the law, and how protections that anyone else might take for granted in their marriage wouldn’t apply to us."

Throughout the long-term battle to have same-sex marriages treated as equal to opposite-sex marriages under the law, Mizeur says she and Deborah never took personally some of her colleagues’ reticence or refusal to support marriage equality. In fact, the couple offered some of Mizeur’s fellow legislators a "safe space" and the opportunity -- off-the-record and behind closed doors -- to ask any questions about homosexuality or same-sex marriage that they might have had. She adds that there were some "smaller victories" that she and her fellow legislators in the legislative LGBT Caucus won in the run-up to the passage of marriage equality in the state.

"Legislators’ spouses all get badges, and they get access to the garage for parking the cars. They get to come in the side door, and not have to go through one door of security. We really pushed the envelope early on, saying, ’This is my wife and she deserves a spouse badge,’ Mizeur says, recounting the conversations she had. "’Well, but the state doesn’t recognize her as a spouse.’ ’Well, we need to figure out a workaround on this, because you’re treating me differently than all of my other colleagues.’"

She continues: "There were consistent things that we would need to point out and try to change, but I think those little things build on each other. First, it’s the recognition from the gallery. Next, it’s the badge that gives you access. Then you’re trying to make sure that the state employee health plan covers our spouses the same way as every other legislator’s. For every new breakthrough, as tiny as it might be, they were all building blocks that helped lay another brick in the pathway towards full equality."

Despite the progress that Maryland has made in legalizing marriage equality, Mizeur says there is still work to be done on LGBT issues. Specifically, that means a law to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations for people based on their gender identity. Mizeur notes that while the state has dragged its feet on the issue, a handful of counties -- including the very socially conservative Baltimore County -- have made their own inroads by passing nondiscrimination legislation that protects transgender residents.

"It was ironic that in the same year, in 2011, where the Senate passed marriage equality and the House failed to pull the votes together, the House passed gender-identity protections and the Senate failed to pull those together, so nothing got done," Mizeur recounts. "Then in 2012, we came together and we were able to win on marriage equality, but, unfortunately, what then happened politically was this sense that ’We did a gay bill already.’ And that’s frustrating, because at a policy level, marriage equality and gender-identity protections are two totally separate issues. They’re championed within one LGBT community, and they both deal with protecting people, but for us to wait one more day, one more week, to protect people who are losing their jobs, losing their homes, or being harmed in public accommodations because of their gender identity or expression is something really wrong that we need to step up to correct."

Mizeur is hopeful a gender-identity protection bill will pass the General Assembly in the current session, but says if politics prevents the bill from passing, she will dedicate time and resources to ensuring a bill passes once she becomes governor.

To that end, having served as a longtime proponent of LGBT rights, Mizeur remains "puzzled" that official LGBT groups are not rallying behind her candidacy. Though Mizeur has racked up support from several women’s rights and pro-choice groups, the state’s primary LGBT civil rights organization, Equality Maryland, recently announced it was backing her opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, and his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, in the Democratic primary.

"I saw it as a puzzling choice, based on our records," Mizeur says of that endorsement. "There is no ticket in this race that has done more for the LGBT community than the Mizeur-Coates team. On top of the work that Deborah and I did during our years in the General Assembly, not just on marriage equality, but on health insurance protections, gender identity, a whole range of issues important to our community, we were always there, doing everything we possibly could to make it happen. And on marriage equality, we didn’t just have to win in the General Assembly -- we had to win at the ballot box.

"And I will also say that at key moments during the marriage-equality debate, some of these organizations and members were pushing to be okay with civil unions as a backup strategy. And I never wavered from my advocacy and my voice that we had to stay strong on marriage equality and hold our colleagues accountable to being on the right side of history on this, and that if we pushed it, and made clear that we were going to settle for no less than full equality, we could get there."

Mizeur also points out that her running mate, the Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of the 8,000-member Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George’s County, was a leading pastoral voice in favor of marriage equality, even serving as the "face" of the religious argument in favor of the Question 6 ballot initiative, which allowed Maryland’s same-sex marriage law to take effect, by appearing in television commercials and persuading other pastors to support the measure.

"I’m confident that if the selection were based on which team has done the most for the LGBT community, and which team has the best vision for the future of our state, that we would have been selected," Mizeur says. "But I think, clearly, that the selection process was dictated by other considerations."

Similarly, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund is a national organization with a mission to get qualified LGBT people elected and appointed to political office, but has not endorsed Mizeur’s gubernatorial campaign, though neither has she made such a request.

"I’m not sure yet that we come at this process from the same place," she says. "I think we might have a difference of opinion on how to calculate viability in a race. As we saw with Chris Quinn’s race in New York, the candidate with the most money and the most endorsements isn’t always the one who wins. But I think that’s still the key strategy that’s used by that organization to determine who they’re going to back."

Pressed further, Mizeur points to Victory Fund’s recent endorsement of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) in the Maine gubernatorial race. Though Mizeur has tweeted well wishes to Michaud in his campaign, she also points out that he is only recently out of the closet -- and came out in the middle of a campaign as he was about to be outed by political foes.

Mizeur is more comfortable when she is talking in-depth about policy matters. Whether it’s health care, education or drug policy, her eyes light up as she dives into the nuts and bolts of what makes good legislation. She says her background in health care policy, as a Hill staffer, as an analyst and from her work in the General Assembly expanding insurance to children has prepared her for the current fight over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), particularly the rocky rollout of Maryland’s insurance exchange, which was overseen by her top political rival, Brown, in his capacity as lieutenant governor, and the expansion of Medicaid.

"I share Marylanders’ frustrations," Mizeur says of the rollout of the ACA. "This has been a colossal failure. And it’s hurting families. The Washington Post has called the O’Malley-Brown administration’s handling of this issue a ’scandal of incompetence.’ My concern is the solutions we put on the table to fix this should be about covering the uninsured, and not covering up our mistakes. ... If I had been in charge, this never would have happened, and when I’m governor, it will never happen again."

When asked if she can appeal to people outside of the populous Baltimore-Washington corridor that serves as the backbone of the state, Mizeur says her campaign message is universal.

"My message doesn’t change. I’m not someone that promises one set of things to the Baltimore-Washington corridor and talks a different game in the rural parts of the state," she says. "I’m being very clear in what my priorities are for the state, and the vision I’m articulating that I hope people will get excited about. And they are, from every region of the state, because they’re excited about candidates who are running with an honest approach toward solving our problems.

"On a personal level, being someone who’s as comfortable talking agricultural policy -- like the price of soybeans -- and being on my tractor on the Eastern Shore as I am going into some nuanced health care policy issue in Montgomery County has its advantages. I think people are excited about someone who’s real and not afraid to be open about what I think and believe. ... We’re running a true grassroots campaign. You don’t have to give money to our campaign to have five seconds with us at a big fundraiser."

The past weekend, Mizeur and Coates held a "weekend of action" where they held 18 events in eight different counties across the state in a span of 32 hours. As part of her campaign, Mizeur has also led teams of volunteers in various service projects, fixing up old playgrounds, picking up trash, and holding food drives, which have helped her gain positive press. Through it all, Mizeur wants to ensure she’s running a true grassroots campaign.

"I have been moved beyond measure by the number of people who have been ’points of light’ in this campaign, who know in their hearts, that this message, that these ideas, that this movement that we are building has an opportunity to transform our communities, the way we interact with each other, and to let Maryland live up to her full potential," says Mizeur. "We don’t have to accept that status quo, establishment approach to dictating that the guy who is next in line is always the one that has to win; that the one with the most money is the one who has to win; that the one with the most political-insider endorsements is the one who has to win. No, the one who gets to win is the one that has the support of the people. This is an option for something different. ... This campaign is going all the way and is going to win because of that initial army of believers, all across the state, that planted the flag to say, ’Enough is enough. We can do this differently, and we’re going to make this happen.’ "

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