CLINTON, Md. — Hundreds of people had already taken their seats inside the sprawling Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George’s County on May 28 for a concert to celebrate Rev. Delman Coates’ 10th anniversary as the congregation’s senior pastor as he began to make his way toward the sanctuary.
A church employee nervously tried to shield Coates from any surprises that might have been planned for him as he greeted some of his congregants. Staff and volunteers cheerfully spoke with him before he returned to his office to talk about his decision to become state Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery County)’s running mate in her gubernatorial campaign.
“I’ve been fully content with my work as a clergy leader in this community, across the state and around the country,” Coates told the Washington Blade. “It’s not something that I imagined and so I was really honored when Heather approached me about partnering with her.”
Coates spoke with the Blade 27 days before Mizeur faces Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
He repeatedly stressed to the Blade that he and Mizeur had already worked together on a number of issues before she first approached him last summer to become her running mate. These include reducing foreclosure rates in Prince George’s County that remain the highest in the state and opposing the expansion of gaming in the state.
Coates — whose church has 8,000 members — in 2012 testified in support of a same-sex marriage bill that Gov. Martin O’Malley ultimately signed. The Prince George’s County pastor later played a prominent role in the campaign supporting the law ahead of a referendum on it.
“I led on marriage equality as a Prince Georgian, as a black Baptist pastor in Prince George’s County when it wasn’t popular in some quarters,” said Coates. “I led on the issue at a time when others did not.”
Equality Maryland late last year endorsed Brown’s gubernatorial campaign in an apparent snub of Mizeur.
Coates told the Blade he was “not able to comment” on the role Brown played in the campaign to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples in the state. The Prince George’s County pastor did say that many of his colleagues told him he had “committed professional suicide” when he testified in support of the gay nuptials bill.
Coates said more than 1,000 people joined his church in 2012.
“It’s convenient after the fact to say I supported an issue,” he said. “We were clear leaders — visible, vocal and unapologetic leaders on the question of marriage and I continue to be nationally.”
Wife, children ‘fully invested’ in campaign
Coates told the Blade that he spoke with his pastor, Rev. Cynthia L. Hale of the Ray of Hope Christian Church in suburban Atlanta, and former New York Congressman Floyd Flake, whose Jamaica, N.Y., church has 23,000 members, before he agreed to become Mizeur’s running mate. He said he and his wife of 18 years, Yolanda, also spoke with Flake and his wife about balancing his responsibilities to his church with the demands of a statewide political campaign.
Coates said his four children who range in age from 4 to 11 are “really excited” about the campaign.
“They’re really excited about what’s happening,” he said. “They’ve been fully invested; my wife as well.”
Mizeur and Coates have championed a number of progressive issues during the campaign.
The Montgomery County Democrat last November announced she supports the legalization of marijuana as a way to fund early childhood education in Maryland. The ticket also backs raising the state’s minimum wage to $16.70 an hour by 2022 and reinstating the so-called “millionaire’s tax” that Mizeur argues will allow for an income tax cut for middle class Marylanders.
She is also the first gubernatorial candidate in 20 years to accept public campaign funds.
“We need elected officials who are going to be accountable to the voters,” Coates told the Blade. “This issue of accountability is really why I felt it was important to join Heather.”
Mizeur would also become the country’s first openly gay governor if voters in November elect her to succeed O’Malley who is term-limited.
“We’re not running on making history,” said Coates. “We’re running on making a difference for the state of Maryland, but the idea of a black Baptist minister partnering politically with an openly gay member of the state legislature is a compelling national narrative. It dispels the myth that is often told about the relationship between blacks and gays that really fuels this presupposition that African Americans, African-American people of faith are opposed to LGBT equality.”
Coates: I believe in separation of church and state
Mizeur and Coates have received high marks during recent debates, but they continue to face questions about their viability as a ticket with recent polls showing they trail Brown and Gansler going into the June 24 primary.
Their first television ad debuted on Tuesday — and they hope to court the significant amount of undecided voters that remain during the campaign’s final weeks.
“Whenever we have the opportunity to be heard, they’re supporting our message, our vision for the state of Maryland,” Coates told the Blade.
Coates has also faced questions from some progressives and even other people of faith about whether a pastor should run for statewide office.
Democrats and LGBT rights advocates repeatedly criticized E.W. Jackson, a minister who unsuccessfully sought to become Virginia’s next lieutenant governor in 2013, over anti-gay statements he made that include comparing gay men to pedophiles and describing them as “very sick people.” Jackson also reportedly said during a speech at a Shenandoah County church last September that he disagreed with Pope Francis’ suggestion the Roman Catholic Church has grown “obsessed” with same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.
“I’m a progressive,” Coates told the Blade. “I really believe in the separation of church and state.”
Coates noted he recently met with one of the men who filed a lawsuit against the Carroll County Board of Commissioners last year over its decision to open each of their meetings with a prayer.
“I affirmed his effort there,” he said. “I’m a progressive Christian. I believe that what makes America so great is that people have freedom of and from religion. And it’s a value that I affirm.”
Mizeur on Tuesday described Coates as “one of the great civil rights leaders of our state” during a telephone interview.
“He is a social justice advocate that has the courage of his convictions to stand up on a range of progressive priorities for helping Maryland live up to her full potential,” she said. “He’s just the total package that I was looking for to be the perfect teammate for me in this journey.”
Mizeur also responded to questions about whether a pastor such as Coates should run for statewide office.
“What he does on Sundays is one job and what he will do all the other days of the week is another job,” she told the Blade.