City Paper: Checking in with Heather Mizeur on her frantic final push to election day
Early voting has ended and all that’s left in the primaries is Election Day on Tuesday, June 24th. City Paper caught up with upstart Democratic candidate for governor, Heather Mizeur, after a long day on the campaign trail on Thursday. Waiting for her at Spro in Hampden, we watched her smooch her wife Deborah goodbye by the parking meter before coming in. She had already attended a roundtable with teachers and parents about education, did a meet and greet with voters at the Towson farmer’s market, stopped by the Maryland Food Bank to meet with people and help package up meals for delivery around the community, and was planning a stop by election headquarters to thank volunteers for their work this year, and then was heading to an early voting rally with her fellow Democratic candidates. Asked if she’d like a cup of coffee, Mizeur (who told the Sun that the proper pronunciation of her name rhymes with brassiere, queer, and volunteer) said no, she’d had plenty already. That busy schedule has been a near-constant one in a year that has seen her go from a boutique name to a household one (read City Paper‘s January profile of Mizeur, “The Quiet Revolution“), and she’s hoping that work will help her pull an upset on Tuesday. Here’s what she had to say as the campaign winds down.
How long have you been campaigning?
We formally entered the race on July 17th, and it’s been like that for almost a year now. For a large portion of the campaign I would spend equal parts of my day on the phone reaching out and introducing myself to voters, having to do a lot explaining who I was. I was raising resources for the TV and radio ads I knew we would need to win this election. Now that we are in the home stretch, we’re making closing arguments.
What have you learned in a year of traveling around the state of Maryland?
We are a very diverse state that has a lot of unifying needs. No matter what community you go to, everyone is looking to have the income inequality gap addressed. Middle class families, seniors on fixed incomes…there’s a real desire to figure out how to pay for college, to figure out how to pay for health care. Middle class and small business tax relief are both really popular. Everywhere I go people want the achievement gap in schools to be addressed, and they’re really excited about our plans. We were in Western Maryland yesterday, for example, four different towns for four different events. And whether we are in Western Maryland, the Eastern shore, or Baltimore City, we are America in miniature in Maryland.
But we’re also really fair people working hard who want good governance. There’s a real resonance in our state that I’m not sure is in other states, for positive campaigning. I don’t know for sure if this sort of campaign would resonate in other states, but the fact that we’re publicly funded and not taking corporate or special interest money, not engaging in negative campaigning, really focusing on positive messaging about what we can get done to help us all live up to our potential is really striking a chord in Maryland. Winning debate performances, getting our ads on the air, the start of early voting, we hear people saying, “Yes, we can do this, we can vote for Mizeur!” It’s really catching fire at this exact moment that’s necessary to win this in the next five years. And what we’re hearing is that if Eric Cantor can lose in Virginia, Heather Mizeur can win in Maryland.
I’m fairly cynical about politics—corporate money in elections, low voter turnout, etc.—but I have to say, seeing you march in the Pride parade was really something. The uproarious thrill as you and your wife walked by, it brought a tear to my eye. What was that like?
Deborah and I feel that. We recognized that it wasn’t about us. That’s what we wanted it to be about the whole time. It wasn’t about us, it was about a movement we were creating for people who were ready to believe in something again, who were ready to be inspired, excited about something. We can take control, we can take it back. That response we got at Pride was simultaneously a recognition of that, and, Deb’s interpretation of it was, “Heather, do you know how meaningful it is to women, to LGBT communities, to be able to see a reflection of themselves with the courage to do this when everybody said it couldn’t happen.” We’ve been fighting the tide for a year now, people who said, “Why are you in this race? You can’t win.” or “Step aside, it’s not your turn.” This is the negativity we’ve been facing since day one, without even any attack ads running. There was an affirmation that we experienced in that parade that was like, for months we’ve been going up this roller coaster—chug chug chug—and then by the time we got to the Pride parade it was like, we got to go down and raise our hands up and just go, “Wooooo !”
It’s like when you get a taste of freedom, you just get addicted to it.
And that feeling, that has a ripple effect. The reason we can win with less money is that we have unity of message, and we have messengers, and it can just grow on the lips of your supporters who tell their friends, their neighbors, their co-workers, through social media, how it has just taken on a life of its own, that’s what we wanted from day one. And to see it actually come together, it is absolutely wonderful.
There’s been a lot of talk about how voter turnout is so low, and it is expected to be historically low this election, and it seems like if this is the case, we simply do not have a legitimate democracy. What are you doing to get out the vote?
I wear, 9 days out of 10, unless I’m wearing a shirt where it won’t show, a necklace that says “VOTE” on it (note: she was wearing a shirt that would not have shown the necklace), because turning 18, for me, it was a rite of passage, to be able to vote. I’d worked on campaigns, done volunteering, years before I could vote. So yes, getting people to vote is very important. Part of how you increase voter turnout is by running inspiring campaigns. Negative campaigning, a cynical approach to campaigning and governance, that’s what encourages people to stay home, to disconnect from the process. The reason I don’t engage in negative campaigning is one, I just don’t walk through the world that way. I approach everything with unconditional love, embracing possibilities with encouragement. But another is that I believe it is our duty as civic leaders to inspire people to be involved. I don’t want to win because I beat the other guy. I want to win because I inspired you to share my vision, and to be a part of bringing about.
As I’m sure you know, today is Juneteenth, and we’re all celebrating that. I’ve been celebrating by reading about Harriet Tubman, Maryland native, freedom fighter. But still, around the country and in Maryland, your life chances are still determined by your race. What are your plans to really address that gap?
Yes, that’s a huge problem, and it’s been ignored, or just nibbled at around the edges for far too long. Our achievement gap is one that is based on both race and socioeconomic status, and if we do early childhood education, and educate our children from birth to age 5, we increase our opportunity to address that disparity. I’m focused on doing that with a combination of universal pre-K—a whole day for 4 year olds, a half day for 3 year olds—and child care subsidies that actually work, not just for low income people who have been on long waiting lists with vouchers that don’t buy quality childcare. I will end the waiting list and increase the value of the voucher. I will transition the voucher in a way that will benefit the middle class, by increasing the income limit to $54,000 to qualify. That taken together will help to dramatically address the achievement gap in our schools.
Now, in terms of the income equality gap, I want to increase our minimum wage to a living wage of $16.70 an hour by 2022, paid for in part by also closing corporate tax loopholes and using the money to give small businesses tax relief. Small businesses get tax relief up front in exchange for a longer term plan to increase wages. We also want to index wages for inflation, and address tipped-wage workers, who are often women, people of color, so that we have more than $3.63 an hour. It should be pegged at 70% of the threshold amount.
I’m also addressing the gender pay gap which is one that breaks down along racial lines as well. We have women making about 85 cents to the dollar that men make in our state. But if you’re an African American woman? It’s 67 cents on the dollar, and if you’re Latina, it’s 46 cents on the dollar. We have to address this with a sense of urgency. We can’t just say great, we’re at 85 cents, that’s better than the national average. I want to pass a Maryland Paycheck Fairness Act while Congress is stalled on that.
Our criminal justice platform is full of things that address inequalities in the system. I don’t just want to be tough on crime, I want to be smart on crime. And you’ll find in my platform everything from an end to the cash bail system, so we’re not putting a price on people’s heads for freedom anymore. Someone can be sitting in detention just because of a backlog. They’re nonviolent offenders, stuck in detention for a month, they lose their jobs…it creates this whole cyclical impact. We need to use a risk-release system: you’re detained if you’re a threat to society, but otherwise you’re going to be released until your court date. It’s so much more fair, especially for people of color who get unfairly wrapped up in the criminal justice system. I want to end mandatory minimum sentencing, because we need to return discretion to the judge. We want to stop incarcerating and trying youth as adults, and get to a place where we’re no longer doing youth detention at all, but we shift to the Missouri model of community-based resources and prevention strategies. And we’ve got Ban the Box and shielding and a whole range. And we need to rev up our reentry programs. We need to be preparing for reentry at entry. We’re not doing a good enough job keeping violent criminals behind bars and disconnecting nonviolent offenders from a life of crime.
One of your major plans is to legalize and tax marijuana. What kind of response are you getting to that plan as you talk to people for whom that idea is simply outrageous, who maybe have addiction issues in their family, or are morally opposed to drug use? How are you talking people into such a radical idea?
You know, I wasn’t just wanting to reform our marijuana laws to fund our early education programs, though that is important. We need to bring new revenue to the table if we’re going to do something as substantial as attacking the achievement gap. What called me more to this reform was the racial bias in how those laws are enforced. African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates. African Americans are three times more likely to go to prison. We are distracting our law enforcement from focusing on more serious crimes. And as we allow that underground economy, all that money is fueling drug dealing gangster activity.
We bring that economy into the light of day, we let the state be in charge of regulating it. We’ll only be selling to people over the age of 21—no drug dealer is carding for ID—we can tackle the demand from youth by putting $4 million into a campaign to educate youth on the damage the drug does to developing minds. But for adults, we know this is a substance that’s no more toxic, and less addictive than alcohol and tobacco, why are we treating it so differently? Tobacco is 32% addictive, alcohol is 14%, marijuana is 9%—why are we treating as criminal adults who want to make the decision in the privacy of their own home, to use this substance? And we can generate as much as $160 million in new revenue that I dedicate to the early childhood education initiative. And if you talk to the mayor of Denver, CO, he wasn’t necessarily in favor of the referendum that was brought by voters, not political leaders. But he sees now that it’s not only a meaningful revenue source, but he’s seen crime drop. This is an important issue for Maryland to make the right policy. And when I walk people through this, and we start talking more, and people loosen up, it’s almost giving people permission to have a dialogue about it. There’s been so much stigma attached to for so long, people were even scared to talk about it, but we’ve broken through that. Meaningful conversations are happening, and we’re seeing polling that shows over 50% of Marylanders support this. And we’ll have a mandate to get it done when I win this election. Nothing changes things in Annapolis faster than a mandate from voters. I’ve been very clear in this campaign that this is one of the things we’re going to get done, and I’ll have my colleagues’ support when I win this election.
Let’s talk about public financing. There’s this idea that if you don’t have a lot of money, you can’t win an election. You don’t have a lot of money compared to the other guys. What makes you think you can win?
We made a decision to take public financing for a couple of reasons. We wanted to restore integrity in the election process. We wanted to have voters understand that we were returning Annapolis to the people. We will be accountable only to the voters. We have even placed limitations on ourselves that aren’t required of publicly financed campaigns. We’re modeling behavior we want to bring in as change. We’re not taking corporate money, and we’re not taking state contractor money. We can’t always tell—we don’t go through and ask people what they do. But we have raised over $2 million in small dollar donations. 92% of the money we’ve raised has come in increments of $250 or less. We’ve always said we could be outspent, but we wouldn’t be outnumbered, and we wouldn’t be outworked. The support we are receiving from the grassroots has a multiplying effect to it. We get that message out there. As important as it is to get our ads on television and in people’s living rooms, it’s more important for Dawn (a woman at the coffee shop who Mizeur chatted with about drug education, mid-interview) to talk to her neighbor about why she’s supporting me than for her neighbor to see my ad on her tv. Having that support is how we build the foundation of a successful campaign, and we’re seeing it come together.
People want to see some hard proof that something can be done before they will believe in it. There was a real interesting switch that flipped with Eric Cantor lost his race. It wasn’t just about him losing. It was about him losing to a candidate who was underfunded, who wasn’t establishment the way he was. In many ways that battle there in Virginia was on the right, is the same battle I’m undertaking on the left. I just saw a collective exhale here of people saying, “Ok, wait a minute. Right. This can happen.” Of course anything can happen if we just believe in it, if we manifest it and make it so. If everyone who believes in my message and what we’re trying to get done shows that with their vote, we win. Since when did we turn voting into a bet on the Preakness? This isn’t about backing the perceived winner. This is about making a winner by all of us coming together to support the right candidate.
So, have you voted yet?
No, I’m waiting for Election Day, partially out of always loving to vote on Election Day. I’m a huge fan of early voting, because not everyone has the flexibility to vote on Election Day. What is most important to me about this Election Day is that my parents are driving up from Illinois, they’ll be with me, and I want my mom and dad to see me as I press that button.