Heather Mizeur, a lesbian member of the Maryland House of Delegates, said she’s seriously considering a run for governor in an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade this week.
“I’m taking a very serious look at it,” Mizeur said. “I can’t say for sure what 2014 is going to bring but … I know that I would make a good chief executive. I have good ideas for keeping Maryland moving forward.”
A run by Mizeur would mark another key milestone in the LGBT rights movement. If successful, she would be the first to win election as an openly gay candidate for governor in the country. Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey announced he is gay and then promptly resigned from office in 2004 after disclosing he’d had an extramarital affair with a male adviser.
Mizeur said she only recently began thinking of running and was inspired by the results of last week’s elections.
“Right now we’re taking stock of what happened in the last election,” she said. “It was incredible to see a big win with Tammy Baldwin being elected the first openly gay senator and Kyrsten Sinema making history in Congress. It really has inspired us to keep pushing forward. So, yes, I’m seriously considering running for governor because we need more diverse voices at that level of government.”
Mizeur, who turns 40 in December, is a Democrat who represents the 20th District, which includes Silver Spring, Takoma Park, White Oak and other areas in progressive Montgomery County. She was first elected to the legislature in 2006.
Marylanders will elect their next governor in November 2014. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley is serving his second and final term. Several high-profile figures are expected to run for the office, including Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Douglas Gansler, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.
Mizeur’s potential competitors have a significant advantage when it comes to cash on hand. Gansler has more than $4 million in cash on hand as of an April report; Ulman had $1.3 million as of June; and Brown had $810,841 according to a January report. Records show Mizeur had about $216,000 in cash on hand, according to a January report.
“That’s one of the biggest things I’m weighing in deciding to get in the race,” she said regarding fundraising. “I only started thinking about this race recently and the other candidates planning to run have been planning to do this for a really long time so they have a head start in the money chase. I also spent 2012 raising money and working on winning Question 6, rather than raising money for myself.”
She added that she won’t get in the race unless she can be competitive financially. Mizeur would certainly tap a national network of donors from her seven years as a Democratic National Committee member and experience working on the Hill and on political campaigns. She worked for former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s campaign and famously endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 after attracting national attention over whether she’d back him or rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. Additionally, a Mizeur candidacy would likely attract support from the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund given the opportunity for a barrier-breaking race and from EMILY’s List considering there is only one Democratic female governor currently in office in the country. The Victory Fund endorsed her in 2006 and 2010 but said it is premature to discuss another endorsement at this time.
“At this point, our work to grow the number of out elected officials in America involves a lot of firsts, a lot of milestones,” said Victory Fund President and CEO Chuck Wolfe, when asked about a potential Mizeur run for governor. “One of those would obviously be helping to elect an out candidate as a governor, which has never happened. With more than 100 openly LGBT state legislators now in office, and the most-ever out members of Congress preparing to be sworn in, that day may come sooner than many imagine.”
When asked whether he had any thoughts about Mizeur’s potential gubernatorial campaign, O’Malley told the Blade on Tuesday, “Not really, I’m supporting Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown wholeheartedly for governor of Maryland.”
Mizeur declined to say when she expects to make a final decision on the race, noting that right now she’s dedicated to preparing for the upcoming legislative session in Annapolis. But to be competitive, she would likely need to make a final decision by early spring, just after the session ends.
“We have a robust slate of issues to address next year, including fracking, paid sick days for employees and job creation efforts,” she said.
Given the expected competition from a sitting lieutenant governor backed by the popular O’Malley — not to mention Gansler, who has long been vocal about his support for marriage equality — what makes Mizeur think she can compete?
“I’m out giving speeches and working with people across the state and they’re encouraging me to get in this race,” she said. “They’re telling me we need your passion and message — I’m not the candidate that’s just next in line or seeking a professional promotion; I’m out there expressing what I believe and trying to rally communities around those ideas and common purpose. And that’s where this came from — from the ground up.”
Some have speculated that Mizeur is positioning herself for lieutenant governor, a rumor that she dismissed with a curt, “I’m usually not a plan B person.”
Mizeur said Maryland’s next governor must focus on jobs and the economy. In a high-profile split with O’Malley earlier this year, she came out against ballot Question 7, which ultimately passed and allows for an additional casino to be built and for table games at existing casinos in the state.
“I spent a lot of time speaking against gaming as a failed form of economic development for the state and instead talked about a range of ideas for job creation — rebuilding schools, transportation is at a crisis point in the state … workforce development.” She said that construction of the Purple Line in the D.C. suburbs would create 27,000 jobs while Baltimore’s proposed Red Line would create another 15,000. She also noted that the state’s health care needs should bring another 120,000 related jobs over 10 years to the state. She has long worked on health-related issues and looks forward to playing a role in implementing the federal health care reform law.
Mizeur married her spouse, Deborah Mizeur, in 2005 at a ceremony along the Chesapeake Bay.
“We married in front of family and friends and God; we just didn’t get any rights associated with it,” she said. “Seven years later, here we are.”
The couple traveled to California and were married just before voters there enacted Proposition 8 in 2008, which ended same-sex marriage, though couples already wed remained legally married. She said they won’t have another ceremony now that Maryland has approved marriage equality, because their California marriage is now fully recognized here. The two live in Takoma Park with a dog, Chester, and two cats and own a consulting business, the Mizeur Group, which does federal policy analysis work. They also own an organic herb farm in Chestertown, Md.
She and Deborah spent election night at a Baltimore celebration along with O’Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
“Deb and I were all smiles — we hugged and embraced and said this is what a happy legally married couple looks like,” she said, upon hearing that Question 6 passed. “It’s still hard to put into words. You never want to have your civil rights put to a majority vote but it was incredibly fulfilling knowing that Marylanders across the state … stood up to do the right thing.”
The battle over Question 6 was a contentious one with a diverse coalition of in-state and out-of-state groups claiming a piece of the credit for its passage, sometimes leading to heated accusations. One advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, accused Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson of telling a “big fat lie” when touting his organization’s contributions to the fight. Josh Levin, campaign manager of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, said that although Mizeur was helpful, she could have done more.
“Del. Mizeur helped raise some money for the campaign, but wasn’t closely involved,” Levin said. “She helped with a few events, but others did far more and her attention was clearly more focused on other priorities, including a potential statewide run.”
Mizeur disputes that characterization, noting her participation in fundraising events, testifying on behalf of the bill and delivering an emotional floor speech prior to the vote. Mizeur said she and the other seven openly gay and lesbian members of the state legislature devoted much of 2012 to the marriage cause.
“Each of us was working hard in our own way,” she said. “My entire public schedule was Question 6-related for months.”
With that fight over, she said the next job for the state’s LGBT advocates is to push for non-discrimination protections based on gender identity and to work on causes important to those who joined the coalition for marriage equality.
“It’s important for our community to be seen as coming together to work on issues that are outside LGBT priorities,” she said. “We only won Question 6 because we had an amazing coalition that crossed party lines, age, race. We can’t just be seen as fighting for this form of equality and turning a blind eye to other causes.” She cited hunger, school achievement gaps, living wage and reforming the criminal justice system as priorities.
Mizeur talks openly about her Catholic faith but said she did not encounter any anti-gay sermons over the marriage issue this year because she goes to parishes run by Jesuits who are more progressive. Despite the Catholic Church’s prominent role in funding anti-gay causes around the country, Mizeur contends it’s important not to abandon the church.
“We have to fight for change from within,” she said. “If all progressive Catholics left, there’d be no reason to live up to the church’s potential.”
Mizeur was raised in a tiny farming community in rural Illinois called Blue Mound, population 1,100. She’s from a fifth generation farming family, but her father was a factory worker and UAW member his entire career. She spent time with him on picket lines, which helped inspire her pursuit of public service.
The experience of walking picket lines “taught me the value of sacrifice and hard work and standing up for the courage of your convictions,” she said. “Catholic teachings on social justice also inspired me.”
Michael K. Lavers contributed to this report.