Sixth in a series of profiles of candidates for governor.
Not long into her campaign for governor, Democrat Heather R. Mizeur coined a response to the question still dogging her today: Can she win?
To the pundits and the radio hosts, to donors and supporters across the state, to everyone who says she's an intriguing choice but seems a long shot, Mizeur gives the same optimistic answer: "This campaign is about breaking the illusion of impossibility."
The improbable, if not impossible, would be an astronomical ascent in Maryland politics from the House of Delegates to the governor's mansion as the state's first female governor and the first openly gay person to be elected governor in the country.
And it would be winning next week's primary election after running on a shoestring budget and a platform to the left of some Maryland Democrats. She has, among other proposals, pledged to raise the state's minimum wage to $16.70 an hour and to pay for universal preschool by taxing legalized marijuana.
Loyal supporters across the state are confident she can pull it off, provided that enough voters encounter her message in the next six days.
"This is what happens again and again: You get a personal connection, you understand what she is about, and then you get sold," said Karen Stokes, a Baltimore activist who became the de facto leader of the grass-roots group Bmore4Mizeur. "She is a very different candidate."
Part policy wonk and part idealist, Mizeur is a former Washington lobbyist and Capitol Hill staffer who says her ideas resonate because they address issues of inequality. She has campaigned on taxing millionaires and closing corporate loopholes, then giving working families and small businesses tax relief; on expanding child care subsidies and mandating paid sick leave for all workers.
Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said her platform could turn off some voters as it energizes others. "It may be that they're not quite ready for the marijuana business," he said. "In the general election, the Republicans would make that a bull's-eye."
Mizeur, 41, was the first candidate in two decades to opt into the state's public financing system, virtually guaranteeing that she would be outspent by her better-financed rivals in the Democratic contest, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. She spreads her message by working the radio talk show circuit, attending house parties and letting her army of volunteers pave the way for her.
"She's just one or two steps ahead of the other candidates on progressive issues," said veteran Democratic strategist Mike Morrill. "She has run a really, really powerful grass-roots campaign. Her supporters are passionate and motivated in a stronger way than either Anthony Brown's or Douglas Gansler's. She connects with people. She's very inclusive in the ways she talks to them about their lives."
The campaign doesn't have cash for yard signs or T-shirts or buttons, so volunteers make their own. On Tuesday, unbeknown to the Mizeur campaign, a woman stood on an overpass above the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, waving to motorists beside a pink, handmade "Vote Mizeur" sign the size of a bedsheet.
Recently, as Mizeur traveled from one radio interview to another in the back seat of the Chevy Volt she bought for the campaign, she recalled the different memory devices she has had to create to help people correctly pronounce her name: brassiere, queer, volunteer.
"Maybe it's a sign of momentum," she joked. "Most people are saying it right now."
Inside a WBAL radio studio, host Clarence M. Mitchell IV noted that most of his listeners tend to be conservative-minded men, then asked why Mizeur had no notes like other candidates usually do.
"You can just spring it on me," Mizeur said. "I brought my game."
Mizeur grew up in a politically active family in the small Illinois farming community of Blue Mound, where her parents and sister still live a few doors apart. On the campaign trail, she promotes her blue-collar roots by telling voters about how she joined her father, a welder, on the picket lines as a child.
She left the Midwest in 1994 after her junior year at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign for an internship in Washington. The internship turned into a job offer on Capitol Hill. Though Mizeur had been awarded a prestigious Harry S. Truman scholarship to pay for graduate school, she walked away from finishing her undergraduate degree to accept the job in Washington. There, she eventually became then-Sen. John Kerry's domestic policy director and met her wife, Deborah Mizeur.
Mizeur got her start in Maryland politics as a policy director for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's gubernatorial campaign in 2002. In 2003, she was elected to the Takoma Park City Council, and in 2004 led Kerry's presidential campaign in Maryland.
In 2006, she was elected to the House of Delegates, where she has worked to expand access to health care, legalize same-sex marriage and decriminalize marijuana.
She and her wife live in Takoma Park. They run a small lobbying shop for health care companies and are converting a 34-acre farm on the Eastern Shore into an organic operation they hope will one day supply the herbal medicine business that Deborah wants to launch.
Mizeur has drawn celebrity endorsements from comedian Rosie O'Donnell, talk show host Chelsea Handler and "Wire" actress and community organizer Sonja Sohn. But Mizeur plays down the significance of her sexual orientation. Aside from one vulgar death threat left on her voice mail at 2 a.m., she says, "my being openly gay has been the least interesting thing about me in the campaign."
She has significantly increased her support in the polls, but still runs a distant third to Brown. A poll for The Baltimore Sun this month found Brown with 41 percent support, Gansler with 20 percent and Mizeur 15 percent.
As Brown and Gansler have slugged it out on the airwaves and in debates, Mizeur has stayed focused on her own message.
"What Heather could hope for is that there is an increase in acrimony between Brown's and Gansler's campaigns, and that she would be the beneficiary," said Lara Brown, director of the graduate political management program at George Washington University. She noted that former California Gov. Gray Davis pulled a come-from-behind victory in 1998 against two better-funded candidates in his Democratic primary, winning in a landslide.
Mizeur's political opponents have praised her.
"I have got to tell you, I think Delegate Mizeur has run a very good race," Gansler said Friday during a radio interview on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." "She has added a lot to the dialogue of the race, and it's been a pleasure running with her."
A few days earlier, Brown jumped to Mizeur's defense when Gansler pointed out publicly that she had never graduated from college. "If Doug Gansler is suggesting she isn't qualified, then he is simply ignoring the important contributions Heather has made on issues of critical importance to Marylanders, such as domestic violence, women's and children's health, and education, just to name a few."
But supporters of Brown and Gansler caution that her policies might go further than Maryland voters are ready to consider.
Baltimore Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who worked with Mizeur on Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, attended her wedding and considers her a friend, said that "her views and policies tend to go left of everyone else."
And Mizeur's environmental stances fighting hydraulic fracturing in Western Maryland and a natural gas distribution plant on the Chesapeake Bay could alienate business interests. "There are those in the business community who would have concerns with her," said Mitchell, who is backing Gansler.
Tim Maloney, a lawyer and former state delegate from Prince George's County who backs Brown, questioned whether most voters would embrace all of her ideas.
"I don't think people are ready to legalize marijuana, tax it, and use it for pre-K," Maloney said. "It's hard to see how much of her platform would ever come to pass."
Mizeur thinks party leaders have underestimated the voters, and thus her campaign. She thinks many of her proposals appeal to women, who she believes also would welcome having a woman at the helm of state government.
"I'm not running to make history," she told a group of Democratic women last month. "But how wonderful would it be to have Maryland elect its first female governor and still have a kick-ass first lady?"
Thursday: Anthony G. Brown
Heather R. Mizeur
Job: State delegate; Owner, The Mizeur Group, a health care lobbying firm
Experience: Domestic policy adviser to Sen. John Kerry; member, Takoma Park City Council
Education: attended University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
Home: Takoma Park
Running mate: The Rev. Delman Coates