Josh Kurtz: Heather Mizeur, Superstar

By Josh Kurtz

Last fall, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was set to headline a rally of Maryland Democrats in Silver Spring. Dozens of elected officials, from Gov. Martin O’Malley on down, were scheduled to attend. But it was state Del. Heather Mizeur (D) who was invited to introduce Wasserman Schultz to the crowd.

It seemed like a no-brainer: Mizeur is the Democratic National Committeewoman for Maryland, and the gathering at Montgomery Blair High School was in her legislative district.

But Mizeur declined the honor. In fact, she told event organizers that she wouldn’t be attending at all – she had long before committed to speak that night to a group in Ocean City.

And that tells you an awful lot about Heather Mizeur.

Now Mizeur may be contemplating something even more audacious: running for governor or some other high office in 2014. She has the chops – and achievements – to do it.

With another legislative session in the books, pundits will be anointing their winners and losers from the previous 90 days. Mizeur surely deserves a spot on the winners’ list. But more than that, she is poised to be that rare Annapolis lawmaker who matters beyond the legislative session.

Between her DNC work and the likely referendum battle over the new same sex marriage law, Mizeur will find herself in the headlines for the rest of the year. In fact, you can fairly argue that while the looming referendum fight might not be great for the cause of gay marriage, it could do wonders for one of its greatest advocates.

So it isn’t too soon to ask: What’s next for Heather Mizeur?

At age 39, she’s only six years into her legislative career (she also had a stint on the Takoma Park City Council). But no one thinks the House of Delegates will be her last political stop. The state Senate, Congress, governor, comptroller, Montgomery County executive – Mizeur’s future seems as limitless as her intense ambition.

So what does Heather want? And how does she get there? Will she be running for something other than her current seat come 2014, which promises to be a year of great upheaval in Maryland politics?

Asked the question, Mizeur, while hardly shy about her accomplishments, was circumspect about what’s ahead.

“I wake up every day looking for new ways to help Marylanders stay safe, healthy and prosperous,” she told me yesterday. “I’m lucky that as a public servant, I have a daily opportunity to solve problems and make a difference in our communities. I’m thrilled with what I’ve been able to accomplish in the legislature. I’m always looking for ways to magnify the impact on the issues I care deeply about. By using my role at the DNC, working with colleagues around the state, and developing a reputation as someone that works hard and cares about people, I’ve been able to tackle big issues and win. I look forward to continue making a difference in whatever way I can.”

Fair enough. That certainly leaves all options open. But first, let’s acknowledge two potential political handicaps for Mizeur as she ponders what’s next: 1. She’s a lesbian. 2. She represents the most liberal district in the state, and her record largely reflects that.

Face it: Even though Maryland is a Democratic stronghold, Mizeur’s record, and especially her identity, may be too much for some voters.

And then there’s this: Mizeur is so hard-charging that she occasionally rubs political associates the wrong way — they complain that she overstates her role in legislative triumphs and simply won’t wait her turn, a time-honored tradition in Maryland politics.

But Mizeur is one of the canniest politicians in Maryland today. She doesn’t run from her beliefs or her natural constituencies. Instead, she offsets them – or more to the point, she augments them – by working other issues with appeal in different parts of the state.

Take the fracking issue, which Mizeur has owned in Annapolis. Although one of her key bills on fracking safety went down to defeat in a Senate committee last night, she’s now a hero to a wide swath of Democrats and environmentalists in Western Maryland.

Or take Mizeur’s push to create a nonprofit foundation for school construction in Baltimore City. It did not win widespread support among her colleagues from the city at first, but many educators embraced it. And it never hurts to curry favor with the city’s political and education establishments.

She may live in the People’s Republic of Takoma Park, which seems like a foreign land to many of her colleagues, but she has an innate ability to disarm them with her Blue Mound charm. That’s Blue Mound, Ill., population 1,017, where she grew up. And her position as Democratic National Committeewoman gives her ample opportunity to legitimately travel the state and familiarize herself with issues and players.

On same sex marriage, Mizeur will be front and center in the campaign to defeat the referendum that seeks to overturn the new law. There are eight openly gay lawmakers in Annapolis, but Mizeur often seemed like the face of the Maryland gay community during the past two years of contentious debate. She has the best national political contacts among the gay legislators, and she’s best equipped to pull in the big money needed to turn back the referendum. You can be sure she’ll be criss-crossing the state – even in some unlikely places – stumping to defeat it.

On the national level, many Democrats, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who will be chairman of the national convention this summer, are pushing the party to include a pro-gay marriage plank in its platform – another high-profile battle where Mizeur could be at the forefront.

And she is also one of several Democratic National Committee members who pressured President Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that has been much in the news of late. When pipeline foes surrounded the White House last fall, speakers included nationally known environmentalists, labor leaders, ministers, entertainers – and Mizeur.

So what does all this exposure mean for 2014 – and beyond?

First, there’s the possibility that Mizeur’s state senator, Jamie Raskin, will run for attorney general. That could put Mizeur on a collision course for Raskin’s seat with her fellow delegate, Tom Hucker, a fight that both seem to be spoiling for, but one progressives would surely rue (why can’t two of the legislature’s best and brightest get along?).

On the other hand, you get the impression that the state Senate isn’t a grand enough prize for Mizeur. How about Congress? Chris Van Hollen isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And having worked as an aide there for a decade, Mizeur doesn’t seem all that enamored with Capitol Hill.

It’s possible that Mizeur could wind up as the No. 2 on a gubernatorial ticket. But Doug Gansler and Peter Franchot won’t pick her and she may conclude that Ken Ulman is too much of a long shot. And while she admires Anthony Brown, a ticket with a black man and a lesbian may simply be a bridge too far for too many voters.

It’s also entirely possible that Mizeur simply runs for re-election in 2014. But given her energy, acumen and wealth of contacts, it’s hard to imagine her not taking bold action at a time when so many powerful positions are up for grabs.

Consider this: three or four men are going to be seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Only men may be running for comptroller. Mizeur could, late in the cycle, see an opening and be able to mobilize quickly, using her state and national admirers to build and fund a statewide campaign.

She had $248,000 in her statewide account as of January – impressive for a delegate, though obviously far less than Messrs. Gansler, Franchot, Ulman and Brown. But it was far more than any potential candidate for comptroller, not including the $250,000 of his own money that Jim Rosapepe used to seed his nascent campaign. And it was way more than any potential candidate for Montgomery County executive had. If Mizuer says go, national women’s groups and gay rights groups and all their fundraising firepower come on board, along with environmentalists and progressive groups.

Mizeur is a risk-taker, and when you think about it, she can put her well-rounded record – with its achievements in health care, economic development and open government in addition to gay rights and the environment — up against any of her potential opponents.

If the Democratic primary in the 6th congressional district last week taught us anything, it’s that voters are seeking something different. In a crowded field of guys, many of whom have been on the political scene for decades, it doesn’t get more different than Heather Mizeur.

Ignore her at your peril.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Striking Back at the Empire

Bad Karma in Annapolis

More Than a Protest Vote

Doug Duncan’s Next Act

Marital Difficulties

Prince George’s Agonistes

Annapolis Bits

A Grown-up David in a World of Juvenile Goliaths