Could A Pro Pot Lesbian Become The Next Governor Of Maryland?

Heather Mizeur, a two-term Maryland delegate, is running for governor in an attempt to make the safely Democratic state a laboratory of liberalism.

Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post, via Getty

There’s no such thing as a Maryland liberal. Terms like “California liberal” or “Massachusetts liberal” are well known (and, depending on whom you ask, pejorative) terms in the American political lexicon. But “Maryland liberal”? Not so much. It sounds clunky and sort of hilarious. This could all change if Maryland decides to veer left and elect Heather Mizeur, a wonky, pro-pot married lesbian, as governor.

Heather Mizeur has just finished explaining everything, seemingly every public policy issue, in exacting detail to a group of surprisingly still-awake seniors and stray nearby supporters at the Springwell Senior Living Community in Baltimore City. We’re talking: criminal justice reform, drug policy reform, tax cuts, tax hikes, school construction policy, wages, fracking, campaign finance, health care, more health care, family planning, corporate tax loopholes, universal pre-kindergarten, and marriage equality, to name a few. Mizeur, a two-term member of the Maryland House of Delegates, brings to bear her encyclopedic memory of acronyms and best practices research from across the country (“Five states across the country have tried this… Georgia, of all places, did this… In Oregon there was a program to… This has worked in Kentucky….”) She’s smart, maybe too smart. She speaks in thick paragraphs that her staffers probably wish they could condense and sharpen at times.

The assembled crowd of about 50 in this Northwest Baltimore retirement castle have been receptive to her pitch. They stay well into the evening hours, applauding her policy planks at regular intervals. There’s no sign, at least visibly, that this elderly crowd would have any hesitation about supporting a platform to legalize marijuana, presented by a 41-year-old lesbian whose short hair and flowing arm and hand gestures whiff of an even younger, star Ph.D. student preparing for her oral exam. It’s a welcome sign for a campaign that’s banking on the premise of an emboldened, cross-demographic progressive electorate to put her in the governor’s mansion this November.

But November is hardly the problem in Maryland, a blue-as-can-be, one-party state. June’s Democratic primary is the more pressing concern. And in that three-way field, she’s either running in third or a tie for second, depending on how flexibly one applies margins of error. Let’s call it a tie for second, because both she and the state’s deeply ambitious but gaffe-prone Attorney General, Doug Gansler, who is running on a platform to roll back certain tax increases, are currently well in the rear view mirror of Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, whom the state party establishment has anointed. There’s no question, though, that Mizeur is running on the most left-wing platform of the bunch.

And so after a couple of policy questions, someone in the group asks that most annoying of all political questions: “How can you actually win this election?”

“By all you going out and voting for me on June 24th!” she says.

She rattles off a couple of well-rehearsed caveats about her standing in the polls: the primary is months away, so few voters are paying attention; she’s barely even begun to spend her (admittedly limited, public-finance matched) campaign funds; she’s the “only candidate” gaining in the polls while her opponents are “either losing or holding their percentages.” That last one is true, but her gain has still only been from 5 to 10 percent. She cites a Baltimore Sun editorial about this still being a “wide-open race.”

Right now, the race between Mizeur, Gansler and Brown to replace outgoing two-termer Martin O’Malley is, boringly, about name recognition. And Mizeur is the only of the three who doesn’t hold a statewide-elected position. Whether this lefty is able to claw her way to the top in the home stretch, Bill de Blasio style, is a test of how progressive—not just Democratic-voting—the state has become in recent years.

“Maryland has this reputation of being ‘blue on paper,’” she says, but not really “doing much” with that status to lead the country in progressive innovation. The state’s political debate in recent decades instead has revolved around the mundane issue of slot machines. But that’s started to change in recent years, as the state legislature has passed a number of high-profile pieces of liberal legislation.

This transformation hasn’t happened because of a progressive awakening in the state, yet. Instead, it’s largely because Governor Martin O’Malley is contemplating a presidential run. This means positioning himself and his priorities in a way that would appeal to Democratic primary voters nationwide in 2016. And so, in recent legislative sessions, the Maryland General Assembly has passed and he has signed into law bills legalizing same-sex marriage, instituting a state-level “Dream Act” offering in-state tuition to certain undocumented immigrants, putting in place strong “common-sense gun safety measures,” and repealing the death penalty. Both the same-sex marriage and Dream Act measures were upheld by surprisingly strong margins in statewide referenda on the 2012 general election ballot.

Mizeur’s career in state government has entirely overlapped with the O’Malley administration. She was elected to the House of Delegates in 2006, the same year O’Malley became governor, representing the ultra-crunchy left-wing Washington suburb of Takoma Park. And the theory behind her campaign to succeed O’Malley is that Maryland voters are more progressive than their elected officials have given them credit for.

“There was a stiffening of the spine, if you will, of a lot of Democrats that in their heart wanted to be in support of things that they weren’t sure the electorate was for,” Mizeur says in an interview. “And once we saw the sleeping lion wake up in that 2012 election cycle, where they had their say and it was very clear where the support of Democratic voters were on progressive policy issues in our state, that created an opportunity for getting additional things done in the following session.”

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“I think that there is a growing sense among progressive activists in this state that our time has come,” she says, pointing to the success of Bill de Blasio’s 2013 election as mayor of New York City as a model. “Bill de Blasio wasn’t the guy with the money, wasn’t the guy who was running well [early] in the polls, wasn’t the guy that anyone thought could win, but he was the person that was running on his core values, and excited the people, and pulled this thing off,” she says. “And I think that there have been a lot of similarities between the kind of campaign that he ran in New York and that we set out from day one to run here in Maryland.”

Her platform, then, contains nearly every next-wave energizing idea in liberal politics—the sort of stuff that, she thinks, by 2016 or 2020 will be a necessary on Democratic presidential candidates’ primary platforms.

The central item is a plan to legalize and tax marijuana and use the receipts to fund a pricey universal pre-kindergarten program. She wants to increase the minimum wage up to a living wage—$16.70/hour and indexed to inflation—gradually by 2022. She’s outspoken on environmental issues and has fought the fracking industry in natural-gas rich Western Maryland. In the criminal justice system, Mizeur wants to eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences and replace the cash bail system with a risk-assessment program. She would reinstate the state’s lapsed “millionaire’s tax” on upper-income earners and give a modest income tax cut to everyone else; similarly, she’d fund tax rebates for small businesses with the revenue derived from closing the “combined reporting” loophole that allows certain large companies to avoid paying the state’s corporate income tax. On health care, her immediate goals are to put in place a series of measures to make Medicaid enrollment smoother. By 2017, though, she intends to make use of an innovation waiver for which states will be eligible to “look at ways to go above and beyond what was ever laid out as a vision for health reform under the Affordable Care Act”—meaning, perhaps, eliminating the insurance “middleman” altogether.

In fact, of all the issues that launch her into long, wonky policy speeches—and there are more than a few of them—health care reigns supreme.

You could see her perk up, for example, at a late February candidates’ forum in Bowie, Maryland. About 20 members of a local synagogue were getting an extraordinary amount of attention from a total of four Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates (Mizeur and Gansler were there, Brown wasn’t.) Amid a number of cranky questions about why the gas tax was so damn high or why it’s so friggin’ hard to get from Annapolis to Baltimore, an upper-middle-aged woman named Marla asked about her long-term care insurance plan. She said her premiums have started to go up 15-20% a year and now she’s worried she won’t pay able to keep it.

Mizeur didn’t even wait for Marla to finish the question. “I know, I know—I was a health care policy specialist in the private sector and in my time in Congress, I know about this.” She explained that insurers offering these long-term care plans “take your money while you’re healthy” and then jack up premiums once you “start to reach an age where you might use this, hoping you’ll drop your plan.” She discussed a few consumer protection measures she’s either sponsored or working on. (She has seemingly either sponsored or is working on a bill on everything.)

Health care policy is the issue that landed her where she is today.

She was born in the downstate Illinois town of Blue Mound in 1972 and still carries traces of the Midwest in her voice. Her father worked for Caterpillar and was a member of the United Auto Workers. Mizeur vividly describes her father taking her, when she was 9 years old, to the picket line of a six-month strike, and she claims that early taste of solidarity formed her political worldview.

After attending from the University of Illinois (where she came out of the closet) she worked on Capitol Hill, eventually working her way up to be John Kerry’s domestic policy advisor. From that perch she drafted much of Kerry’s 2004 health care plan.

While she enjoyed working with Kerry on health care—“He was willing to take risks at that time that others weren’t willing to take”—she was ready to test out her own set of progressive beliefs in her own political career. And after a stint on the Takoma Park city council and two terms in the House of Delegates, she’s testing them out for the first time statewide.

But any story about statewide Democratic politics in Maryland nowadays is, in part, about Governor Martin O’Malley: what he’s done in Maryland, what he wants to do after Maryland, and what Maryland wants to do after him. And Mizeur wants to be the liberal true believer to O’Malley’s liberal opportunist.

Her attitude towards O’Malley is formally polite, appreciative of certain actions, but overall, cool. Some of this is put on. The frontrunner she’s trying to bring down, Brown, is O’Malley’s lieutenant governor and heir apparent. It is not in her political interest, then, to go out of her way praising the O’Malley-Brown administration. Even on issues where O’Malley did the “right” things—signing marriage equality, “common-sense gun safety restrictions,” the Dream Act—she’s quicker to credit an emboldened General Assembly for pushing him into making the right decision.

“Governor O’Malley didn’t start out supporting marriage equality,” she says, matter-of-factly. “He was one of these ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’ guys when I was first elected.”

She pauses to take a more cutting approach. “And it wasn’t lost on us that New York succeeded [in legalizing same-sex marriage first], and Governor Cuomo and Governor O’Malley are contemporaries, competing for a potential national stage.” She’s alluding to a fairly widely accepted public theory that O’Malley only became a full-throated advocate of legalizing same-sex marriage after his possible 2016 presidential primary rival, Andrew Cuomo, enhanced his own standing by pushing it through his legislature.

Is Mizeur saying that when O’Malley’s acted on these high-profile issues, it’s been for presidential political purposes?

“I don’t want to speculate.”

Her road to victory still will be tough, though. While polls suggest some 40 percent of Democratic primary voters are still undecided, Brown has a commanding 20 or so percent lead over Mizeur and Gansler, despite his involvement in the state’s disastrous rollout of its Obamacare healthcare exchange. The incumbent Lieutenant Governor also has the support of most of the prominent Democratic establishment players and voting blocs. As Mizeur admits, it is a state with a reputation for nominating the “next guy in line,” and that’s Brown.

Even those who think highly of Mizeur as a candidate think that name recognition alone will be enough to doom her chances.

“Mizeur is a strong candidate with an even stronger future in the party,” says Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a columnist for the Baltimore Sun. “I expect her to be a statewide nominee at some point down the line.

“But she’s at least one cycle ahead of her time: Not because she lacks the skills or a natural constituency among Maryland liberals—she has both, in fact. But because, as is almost always the case, statewide Democratic primaries in blue Maryland are crowded affairs and tough to win. And frankly, the difficulties facing House Delegates in their effort to win a Democratic gubernatorial nomination are similar to those of U.S. House members trying to win presidential nominations: Their platform is too small.”

But while Mizeur may have a small platform, she’s hoping that fellow Marylanders share her bold vision for the Old Line State to become that progressive haven on the Chesapeake that it’s always wanted to be, if only it weren’t so buttoned up. Not just a state that passes cutting-edge liberal legislation after New York has tested the waters, but a national leader.

“For too long my frustration has been that Maryland sits back and sees, ‘How does this play out in other states?’ before aligning ourselves with these approaches,” she says. “And I think that we really can be a leader in establishing a new dialogue on a range of progressive policy issues that can bring about transformational change for our communities.”

The question is whether Maryland Democrats are ready to get that fired up about policy that they elect a liberal underdog. The state’s Democratic primary, tantamount to a general election in the dark blue state, is June 24.