SILVER SPRING – From a young age, gubernatorial candidate and Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Takoma Park, knew politics was her calling.
“My mom jokes that I came out of the womb ready for politics,” Mizeur said with a smile, on a recent morning at her Silver Spring campaign headquarters.
The office, used for her lobbying business, the Mizeur Group, has been transformed into busy campaign headquarters, where to-do lists and strategies are scrawled on white dry-erase boards. Young staffers talk excitedly about working on their first campaign.
Mizeur, who grew up in rural Illinois, said her exposure to politics began as a child. Her father was a factory welder and part of the United Auto Workers union, she said.
Sometimes, the 40-year-old Mizeur reminisced, she would tag along with her dad to the picket lines, where she “witnessed in a very personal way what it meant for my dad and his colleagues to come together in solidarity, to have the courage of their convictions to stand up and fight for fairness and their families.”
It was there that Mizeur met Penny Severns, an Illinois state senator who was close to the labor movement.
“I got to see how she interacted with the guys on the picket line and the speeches she gave about protecting middle-class families. She was the first person I looked to, to say, ‘Wow, girls can do this,’” Mizeur said.
Mizeur started volunteering on Severns’ campaigns at 14. Because she wasn’t old enough to drive, her mom would drop her off at the campaign headquarters, Mizeur said.
Unlike other teenagers, Mizeur said her 18th birthday was the most important birthday in her life because she could register to vote.
“The necklace that I wear every single day has a medallion that says ‘vote’ on it,” she said, pulling off her red scarf to reveal the gold necklace.
Since those early days of working for politicians, Mizeur has become the sort of elected official she looked up to as a kid. In 2003, she won her first elected office as a city councilmember in Takoma Park, where she lives with her wife Deborah Mizeur.
The couple also owns a 34-acre organic farm in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore, and a lobbying group called the Mizeur Group.
The Mizeur Group has one client left, Mizeur is no longer involved in daily operations and they don’t represent anyone’s interests in Maryland, said Steven Hershkowitz, a spokesman for the Mizeur campaign.
Mizeur has been a member of the Maryland House of Delegates since 2007.
“I believe in the ability of government to improve peoples lives,” Mizeur said at a recent Silver Spring campaign event before a crowd of about 40 people.
Mizeur’s run for governor in Maryland is unprecedented: If elected she will become the first female governor in Maryland’s history and the first openly-gay governor in the nation.
However, a place in the history books is not her motivation to be Maryland’s next governor.
“I often remind people that I’m running not to make history, but to make a difference,” Mizeur said.
Mizeur has rolled out plans on education, jobs and the economy, and marijuana legalization. Additional policies will be released over the course of the campaign, she said.
Her early childhood education plan offers pre-K programs to some 3-year-olds and all 4-year-olds in the state, taking a step further than plans presented by Democratic primary opponents, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler.
And her 10-point jobs and economy plan is aimed at growing the middle class. Some of the things she said it will do are increase the minimum wage, close corporate tax loopholes, invest in job training and reinstate the taxes on Maryland’s wealthiest citizens.
Mizeur’s longtime focus has been healthcare reform. She was former U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s director of domestic policy, writing much of his healthcare platform for his 2004 presidential campaign.
“That’s my area of background and expertise, and that’s one of the big social justice issues I feel strongly about,” she said.
As a delegate in Annapolis, she sponsored and passed the Family Coverage Expansion Act, that allows young adults to stay on their family health plans until 25, which was later picked up at the national level, she said.
When asked to describe her most notable legislative achievement, the self-described, “government geek”, said, “it’s like asking a mother to pick her favorite child.”
In 2008, she championed the Kids First Act, which allowed the state to identify uninsured children who were eligible, but not enrolled in state coverage.
“The result is that we’ve covered an additional 50,000 children in the last 8 years,” she said.
But, she said in some ways she is most proud of working with Tea Party Caucus member, Delegate Michael D. Smigiel, R-Cecil County, to pass the Family Planning Works Act.
The act expanded family planning services, giving 35,000 additional women in Maryland access to free family planning.
Mizeur said as governor she wouldn’t reject ideas just because they come from Republicans.
“I think that the tone gets set at the top and I’m looking forward to being the kind of leader that offers that olive branch,” she said.
She’s collected the endorsement of a former Republican congressman, Wayne Gilchrest, of Kennedyville, who has worked with her in the past.
“I just see someone who has what is needed in the 21st century. I see someone with an imagination, with a vision, with initiative, and the intellectual capacity to tie it all together and become a wise old sage,” Gilchrest said.
As a person who takes an unconventional approach to politics and life, Mizeur has run a very different campaign than her opponents.
“It’s nice to have a candidate outside of what you would expect,” said Delegate Shane Robinson, D-Montgomery County, at a Mizeur campaign event.
Mizeur recently announced the Rev. Delman Coates, a Prince George’s County pastor and an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage who has never run for political office, will be her running mate.
“I think she made a really good choice. Reverend Coates is very well respected in Maryland. He’s known for his civil rights work and his social justice work. And I think he’s really been able to bring a lot of people together on those issues,” Robinson said.
Coates said that when he has been approached by elected officials urging him to run for office, “the focus has been upon making history.”
“I trust you understand what I’m referencing,” he said, before a group at a Mizeur campaign event. “But when Heather approached me, she approached me with a different appeal. She said, ‘Delman this campaign is not about making history. It’s about making a difference.’ And when I heard that, that sold me.”
While campaigning, Mizeur has racked up nearly 30,000 miles on her electric Chevy Volt driving across the state volunteering in different communities, attending house parties, and going to community forums, she said.
“She helped organize volunteers. No show about it, no publicity, and worked with a lot of people in my community,” said Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who endorsed Mizeur for governor.
This approach is an effort to make a statement that the way she campaigns is the way she will govern, Mizeur said.
“We’re not just doing community service projects but we’re also talking about core issues, and not in a typical campaign style approach where you talk generically about a topic and make a big promise,” Mizeur said.
But with low name recognition across the state, winning against two candidates with greater funds and endorsements might prove to be a challenge. An October Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll showed Mizeur with just 5 percent of statewide support.
According to Todd Eberly, political science professor at St. Mary’s College, naming Coates as her running mate has made her ticket the most exciting, yet he sees a difficult road ahead of Mizeur if she wants to win, he wrote in an email.
Despite poll results, Mizeur said she has high hopes.
“We’re eight months out from this election and we’ve always known that our challenge was just getting my name out there,” she said.
Mizeur pointed to Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor-elect, who began with lower voter support but ended up winning the primary election with more than 40 percent of the vote, as an example of a politician who has beat similar odds.
“I’m the Bill de Blasio in the race for governor,” she said with determination in her voice.