Former Cecil County Del. Mike Smigiel, taken from us too soon last month at age 64, was a devoted husband and father, a proud former Marine and a dedicated public servant. He was also my dear friend and valued colleague.
Mike’s passing is not just a grievous loss for those of us who knew him, but a reminder that even in these times of deep division, we can hold up our most cherished beliefs without putting down those with whom we disagree. That was Mike’s approach to politics, and it’s one we can all learn from. He and I often viewed issues from quite different perspectives, but we were able to work together and find common ground because our relationship was rooted in friendship, respectful listening, and a desire to understand one another.
Serving together in the House of Delegates a decade ago, we made for an unusual pair in Annapolis. But what brought us together was the passion to do good for the people we represented, and our willingness to reach across the aisle when it could advance progress. This led us to team up on legislation guaranteeing family planning services for low-income women, decriminalizing personal possession of small amounts of marijuana, and protecting pit bulls from being banned as a bully breed in our state.
Whether it was our late-night conversations about marriage equality, or discussing gun policy over lunch at Molly’s Place near my home in Kent County, we loved learning from each other’s insights and life experiences. Mike and I relished the opportunity to invite new ways of spirited collaboration, bridging divides in both our public and private lives. Our friendship was heart-driven and full of purpose.
Make no mistake: Our differences ran deep and were painful at times. Mike felt strongly that abortion was wrong, while I believe unequivocally in a woman’s right to choose. I fought for marriage equality in Maryland, and although I know Mike respected me for who I am, he still opposed my right to marry my wife. Relationships can’t always overcome deep conviction — but they force us to see the other person as fully human, with the same range of hopes and fears that we ourselves have.
In an unpublished essay that Mike wrote and shared with me earlier this year, he noted that, “Unfortunately, the culture in Annapolis frowned upon those in different parties working together except for some very safe issues upon which everyone already agreed.”
Mike went on to write: “I find all too often that pinning labels on a political opponent is just lazy shorthand before you get to know them. Heather and I chose to ignore the labels … and instead took the time to get to know one another. One reason why we teamed up is that I trusted Heather. We built a friendship over the years that transcended our political and ideological differences. I knew that Heather would be a straight shooter with me, and I believed her word to be her bond. I believe she held me in the same respect.” I most certainly did, Mike.
I often say that polarization is the greatest threat to our national security, because it encourages us to think of our fellow Americans as the enemy. I fear for our future if we consider our neighbors to be a worse threat than our foreign adversaries. If we constantly assume the worst of our fellow citizens, we can’t achieve the great things that Americans are capable of when we pull together in common cause.
It is almost a cliché to speak of “disagreeing without being disagreeable” — but sadly, the desire for a more civil, respectful politics that brought me and Mike together seems increasingly rare. That’s all the more reason to make its achievement a priority. Without it, I worry we are doomed to ever-increasing polarization in a world where opponents are viewed as enemies and politics is blood sport. But the odd-couple partnership I formed with Mike Smigiel shows that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Heather Mizeur, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, is the Democratic nominee in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District. Her email is email@example.com.