Montgomery County’s 'Other' Gubernatorial Contender

Straw poll results energize Mizeur, supporters

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The odometer on Heather Mizeur’s Chevy Volt has racked up 15,000 miles since she purchased it last October.

“Every evening, I’m in some different corner of the state, and Saturdays and Sundays are usually filled with three to five events in any one day,” the two-term Takoma Park delegate related in an interview this week.

While Montgomery County’s higher profile gubernatorial contender, Attorney General Douglas Gansler, continues to play coy — he isn’t expected to declare until fall, and was even quoted recently as saying he hadn’t ruled out running again for his current job — Mizeur is talking and acting very much like an announced candidate in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.

The alternative of seeking re-election to her state delegate seat in District 20 – where several potential successors already are positioning themselves – seems to be off the table. “That’s not where my head is right now,” said Mizeur, who served a term on the Takoma Park City Council before being moving to the General Assembly. “The strong enthusiastic response I’m seeing as I’m meeting with voters from Cumberland to Ocean City is making me think we’re on the right track here.”

While saying a “formal decision” won’t come until this summer, Mizeur is holding house parties across the state to introduce herself to voters, while working actively to raise funds for a gubernatorial run. (As of this past January, she had $380,000 in the bank – compared to $5.2 million for Gansler; $1.6 million for Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who formally announced last week; and $2.1 million for Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who is widely expected to become Brown’s running mate.)

Mizeur touted the precedent-setting aspects of her candidacy as she expressed confidence in her ability to narrow this gap.

“The energy that is behind a candidacy like mine and the interest in breaking a few historic barriers – I would be Maryland’s first woman governor and the nation’s first openly gay one – opens up an energized donor network that is interested in helping to move this campaign forward,” she said.

Owing perhaps to at least one of those historic barriers, Mizeur’s candidacy was widely regarded as something just short of quixotic until late last month, when she unexpectedly finished second in a straw poll at a gathering of western Maryland Democratic in Hagerstown. Mizeur — along with Brown, Gansler and Ulman – addressed the gathering. While Brown topped the straw poll with 62 votes, Mizeur garnered 37, trailed by Gansler with 25 and Ulman with 17. Mizeur supporters believe they might have done even better had some of the ballots not been cast prior to the speechmaking.

Notwithstanding the limited size of the straw poll sample, “it gives you some sense of where the hearts of the real party activists are,” said Todd Eberly, associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College. “The western Maryland poll shocked a lot of people. She kind of came out of nowhere – particularly given what the press had been saying prior to that – and Gansler fared horribly.”

Gansler’s life could be further complicated if Mizeur ends up as the only credible contender in the contest besides himself and Brown. While she remains a longshot candidate, even a strong showing by Mizeur could split the vote in Montgomery County and other areas of the state on which Gansler must rely to counter Brown’s base among African-American voters.

If Brown’s campaign has avoided highlighting the prospect of his becoming the state’s first black governor, Mizeur downplayed her potential status as the first woman governor — even if she may emphasize it for purposes of fundraising.

“I’m running to make a difference, not to make history. But I do hear from a lot of women – and even many men in this state – that they’re looking for a different kind of leadership,” she said. “Not just different because I’m a woman – but different because I’m someone who has always been very clear in articulating what I believe in, and how I bring people together.”

Of course, the difference that may provide the greatest test of her candidacy – to say nothing of Maryland’s reputation as an increasingly progressive bastion – is sexual orientation.

“I hate to say it but I think two things would prevent her from winning the nomination,” said Eberly. “1) prejudice and 2) a concern among primary voters that prejudice would make her a weaker general election candidate.” Eberly likened it to former Rep. Kweisi Mfume’s narrow loss in the 2006 U.S. Senate Democratic primary: Some voters, while wanting to see election of the state’s first black senator, feared Mfume’s race and aspects of his earlier life would make him unpalatable as a general election candidate – so voted instead for the eventual winner, now-Sen. Ben Cardin.

But Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams, who two decades ago became the state’s first openly gay elected official, downplayed the political impact of sexual orientation  — even prior to last year’s referendum upholding the same-sex marriage legislation.

“I can honestly say I don’t think it’s an obstacle.  I’ve never perceived it as an obstacle in all that I’ve experienced in 20 years in elected office,” said Williams, while noting: “I’ve spent a fair amount of time in some fairly conservative areas of Maryland…And even though there was no obstacle, I think that things have gotten a whole lot more open, just in the last year or two.”

“Who I am married to is inconsequential,” declared Mizeur, who exchanged vows with her spouse, Deborah, in 2005. Mizeur paused, and then boasted: “But I will say that she’ll be a fabulous first lady.” It was, perhaps, an unwitting affirmation that she’s in the race to stay.

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