TAKOMA PARK – She’s a progressive state delegate who has partnered on legislation with a Tea Party Republican. She used to work as a registered federal lobbyist. And she co-owns an organic medicinal herb farm.
It seems fair to say that Maryland has never had a candidate for governor quite like Del. Heather Mizeur, (D-Takoma Park).
Oh, and if she decides to run and wins, she would be the first openly gay candidate elected to governor in American history.
“I’m taking a very serious look at it,” Mizeur said when asked if she will run for governor in 2014. “I’m not really looking at plan B options right now, my focus is on the upcoming 2013 [legislative] session and weighing through whether or not I get in this race.”
Prior to November’s election, Mizeur was a prominent spokeswoman for referendums to approve same-sex marriage and provide in-state tuition for some children of undocumented immigrants, two issues on which her side won resounding victories.
“It was a big year for progressives in Maryland,” Mizeur said. “Standing on this side, it was incredibly affirming for Marylanders to support the right for affordable higher education for all and to treat everyone equally under the law.”
On these issues Mizeur was firmly on the side of the state’s Democratic establishment. But on another controversial referendum–expanding casino gambling–Mizeur was an outspoken critic, on the opposite side of most prominent Democrats, including Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.
“My concern about the casino expansion is that it is a lazy form of economic development,” Mizeur said. “I think that what Marylanders voted for on Question 7 was that they want more jobs, and we only gave them one option for more jobs and that was casinos.”
Mizeur thinks the state would have been better served focusing on transportation–building the red line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs–and school construction as ways to create jobs.
While she said her focus for the 2013 legislative session will primarily be job creation, most of Mizeur’s biggest legislative accomplishments have to do with health care.
In 2007, Maryland passed a law, which Mizeur sponsored, allowing young people to stay on their parents’ health care plans until age 25. A similar provision was included in the federal Affordable Care Act, allowing young people to remain covered until age 26.
Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, worked closely with Mizeur on a number of healthcare bills.
“Heather was a lead sponsor of the under age 25 law and she worked hard to make sure it was incorporated in the Affordable Care Act,” DeMarco said. “We think Heather’s great and we want Heather to be a key player in healthcare in Maryland for a long time.”
In 2011, Mizeur partnered with Del. Michael Smigiel, (R-Elkton), the chairman of the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Delegates, to pass a bill expanding family planning services to low-income women.
“I went to Mike and talked to him about collaborating on a bill that would lower the number of abortions in Maryland by 2,800 a year and save the state $25 to $35 million a year and he says, ‘What’s the catch?” Mizeur said.
The bill expands access to prenatal care through the Medicaid program. It reallocated a pool of money that was dedicated to postnatal care, and now gives free prenatal care to all women with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level.
Smigiel agreed on the success of their unlikely collaboration.
“I’m chairman of the Tea Party Caucus, you know, and you wouldn’t think that a person who is a gay legislator heading up a very liberal agenda would be able to find common ground, but we were able to, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
“Heather is a very intelligent, very capable individual who has shown that she’s willing to work across party lines,” Smigiel said. “Doesn’t mean I’m going to pick up and vote for her or like her philosophies, but I do respect her abilities and the fact that she argues what she believes.”
Given Mizeur’s day job (state legislators meet only 90 days per year, so almost all of them have other jobs), it’s unsurprising that many of her greatest accomplishments have come in healthcare.
In 2008, Mizeur and her wife Deborah, both former political aides on Capitol Hill, co-founded The Mizeur Group, a lobbying firm that focuses on health care policy analysis.
At its peak in 2009, The Mizeur Group had eight employees and brought in $2 million in revenue from 13 clients, such as Oxfam International, the National Council on Aging and the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, according to Senate lobbying records and Mizeur.
Mizeur said that if she decides to run for governor the business will continue, but will be much smaller–one or two employees–and she will not be involved in day-to-day operations.
While some of her clients have subsidiary interests in Maryland–the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care represents approximately 1,400 nursing homes in 44 states, including Maryland–Mizeur said she is very clear in drawing distinctions between her two jobs and, as of this year, is no longer a registered federal lobbyist.
“We’ve kind of been downsizing both because of the economy and because my attention has been more focused on politics,” Mizeur said. “We have always had a very clear line in the sand on our work. We don’t represent anyone’s interests in Maryland. I don’t do any work in Maryland. I never am working with a client on anything they’re trying to get done in Maryland.”
Mizeur also has another business venture, one that is connected to health care in an entirely different way.
About a year ago Mizeur and her wife bought a small, 34-acre farm outside of Chestertown, on the Eastern Shore. (The Mizeurs’ dog is named Chester, after the town.) Deborah Mizeur, after a career change, is closing in on a master’s degree in herbal medicine.
They bought the farm to grow medicinal herbs–plants like St. John’s wort, valerian, goldenrod, and mugroot–that Deborah will use in clinical practice.
“Any problem that you would treat with Western medicine with a pill, you can usually start out by treating it instead with herbs,” Mizeur said of her wife’s work. “Herbs help stimulate your body’s own ability to heal itself so that you don’t need to have medicine on the backend once an illness manifests and become more intense.”
Fundraising almost always plays a key role when politicians weigh whether or not to run for higher office. As of the last required filing in January, Mizeur had significantly less campaign money than her presumed rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Besides Mizeur, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler, and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman are often mentioned as potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Comptroller Peter Franchot, another oft-rumored candidate, announced Tuesday that he will not run for governor and will instead seek another term as comptroller.
“I don’t know that she would have a real difficult time becoming a contender, with regards to the money,” said Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “She says she’s thinking about running, she’s not blowing smoke, she’s thinking about running.”
Mizeur has been sending out fundraising emails to supporters (including a recent one to celebrate her 40th birthday). She has the kind of profile–Democratic National Committee member, former advisor to a presidential candidate, openly gay gubernatorial candidate–that could draw support from around the country.
There is some recent precedent of gay and lesbian candidates drawing on a nationwide network of donors.
“Generally when a high profile candidate is running, like Tammy Baldwin who was just elected to the Senate (in Wisconsin), there is interest nationally in their candidacy, just because of the historic nature of it,” said Denis Dison, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political action committee. “When you’re talking about Senate races and, I would imagine, gubernatorial races, the days of only fundraising from primarily within the state, those days are gone.”
“I haven’t entirely had an opportunity to test the waters in the fundraising side of this,” Mizeur said. “We’re going to do that in the months and year ahead and make our decision as we continue to have conversations with Marylanders.”