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On the Fence and in the Spotlight

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The first time Hillary Clinton called, Heather Mizeur didn't pick up. Listening to the message, she heard Clinton's voice and assumed it was a campaign robo-call. But then the New York senator and Democratic presidential candidate asked Mizeur to call back -- and left her personal cellphone number.

In the weeks that followed, Mizeur's iPhone was besieged. Chelsea Clinton, Bill Clinton and Terry McAuliffe called to check in. So did Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), three other senators and four governors. Melissa Etheridge called, too, and invited her backstage at her next concert.

Mizeur, a freshman state legislator from Takoma Park, is a superdelegate. And through this topsy-turvy campaign, she has remained undeclared -- adamantly, stubbornly undeclared.

Today, Mizeur's exhilarating odyssey as an uncommitted superdelegate comes to an end. After last night's contests in Montana and South Dakota, she has decided, finally, to jump off the fence.

Unlike many of the other 795 superdelegates -- governors, members of congress, former presidents and party elders -- Mizeur is a relative nobody in the world of presidential politics. But her status as undeclared through six months of primary voting transformed her into a somebody.

Through it all, Mizeur, 35, has kept a journal. There are the pages listing the cellphone numbers of senators, governors and the candidates themselves, who have lavished her and her partner Deborah Mizeur with attention. There are the notes from her private talks with Clinton and Obama. There are the handwritten letters from elderly women across the country asking her to choose Clinton.

Then there are those episodes that Mizeur left out of the diary but that she remembers all too well. Such as the day she walked home from the Takoma Park Metro station and a neighbor screamed at her, "Obama! Obama! Obama!" Or the mornings when she's been heckled at Savory Cafe, her neighborhood coffee shop.

"Heather has had to withstand a tremendous amount of pressure from all kinds of places, including from her constituents," said Deborah Mizeur, a former health care policy aide in Congress. "A lot of people use very harsh words, and it's difficult for her to do what she wants to do and wait."

Just last week, during lunch with a reporter, Heather Mizeur's phone rang. Not recognizing the number, she let it roll over to voice mail.

"See, I don't answer calls like this anymore," she said. "The most dangerous place to be right now is between a superdelegate and her cellphone."

A Surprise Spotlight

Mizeur never imagined it would get this intense. In fact, she hardly knew what a superdelegate was when she ran in 2005 for one of Maryland's four seats on the Democratic National Committee.

Mizeur was a Takoma Park City Council member and a top aide in Kerry's Senate office who helped run his 2004 campaign in Maryland. "For me, the DNC position was about building a good party," Mizeur said.

Political activism is not new to Mizeur, who was raised in a blue-collar, Catholic family in Blue Mound, Ill., population 1,100. She recalls standing on picket lines with her factory-worker father and laboring in cornfields to pay her college tuition.

A history buff, Mizeur came to Washington in her 20s to be a Capitol Hill aide and worked for three representatives before becoming Kerry's domestic policy director.

She first met Barack Obama in July 2006 on the Senate subway, an encounter that would be replayed during this year's courtship.

Obama and Mizeur shared a political mentor, Penny Severns. Before dying of breast cancer, Severns represented Mizeur's home town in the Illinois state Senate and sat next to Obama when he arrived in Springfield.

On the subway, Mizeur told Obama, "My parents are your biggest fans. They still have your 2004 campaign sign in their yard."

Two weeks later, Mizeur's parents received a letter from Obama, who wrote to thank them for hanging onto the yard sign. Mizeur found Obama's letter thoughtful.

As the presidential campaign began, Mizeur decided her job as a DNC member was to stay neutral and support all the candidates. "We have a democracy, not a monarchy," Mizeur said. "We're not about coronating candidates."

So she remained undeclared after Obama won Iowa. Undeclared after Clinton's rebirth in New Hampshire. Undeclared after Obama swept Maryland. Undeclared after Texas and Ohio, after Pennsylvania, after Oregon.

Pulled in Both Directions

For Mizeur, being neutral did not relegate her to the sidelines. Before January's Iowa caucus, she and Deborah drove to Cedar Rapids for two days of campaigning.

Deborah liked Clinton and volunteered for her in Iowa. But Heather hopscotched among campaigns. She volunteered at rallies for Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards and helped the Clinton campaign arrange rides for elderly voters.

On caucus night, Mizeur was romanced by Obama's message of change. She couldn't separate Hillary Clinton's candidacy from a repeat of Bill Clinton's presidency.

"The visual I kept coming back to was a moving truck pulling up in front of the White House. When I would think of Barack, Michelle and their kids jumping out of the moving truck, it excited me. It represented a new start and change, versus Bill and Hillary dusting off all of their things and putting them back where they were."

But her views would shift many times. After the New Hampshire primary, the campaigns started wooing superdelegates. Mizeur collected voice mails from Hillary Clinton, her daughter and her campaign chairman, McAuliffe.

"I started to become a little paralyzed about how to return those calls," Mizeur said. "When do you call a major presidential candidate and not interrupt them while they're having debate prep or at a major fundraiser or at a campaign rally? And what do you say?

"But then they kept calling again and again."

One day, she called Chelsea and asked whether it would be okay to return her mother's calls.

"My mom really wants to talk to you," Mizeur recalled Chelsea saying. "Call her anytime. She doesn't give out her cellphone to many people, and when she does, she wants you to call her back."

Mizeur returned the calls. Hillary Clinton invited her to chat backstage before a Feb. 10 rally at Bowie State University. Although Mizeur promised to stay uncommitted as a superdelegate, she decided to cast her ballot for Clinton in the Maryland primary. But she never made it to the polls.

"I was stuck in Annapolis in the ice storm," Mizeur said. "It was the first election I've ever missed in my entire life."

The Pressure Increases

In the months that followed, the campaigns ratcheted up their pressure on Mizeur. The media focused on superdelegates as decisive in the deadlocked race, and CNN's Anderson Cooper, radio talk show host Diane Rehm and others called Mizeur asking her to go on the air. Mizeur turned them down.

On April 21, Obama called. He was traveling between events in Indiana and had been trying to beat back questions about why he couldn't close the deal.

Obama sounded testy, Mizeur said. "It's time to stand and be counted like the rest of the nation that's behind me," she remembered him saying. "He said this thing needed to be wrapped up now because it was getting too negative."

Unlike Clinton, who had been warm and chatty, Obama was detached and businesslike, she said.

Later that month, Mizeur got a voice mail from an unusual Obama surrogate: Melissa Etheridge. The rock singer said she felt "a little like a telemarketer."

On May 6, Mizeur called Etheridge back at her California home.

"When [the campaign] asked me to call you," she recalled Etheridge saying, "I said, 'I can't call a superdelegate. What am I going to say to a superdelegate?' They gave me some talking points and your bio, and after I read through your biography, I said, 'Aha! They want the gay one to call the gay one.' "

The two hit it off, talking for 40 minutes about Etheridge's deep ties to the Clintons -- she came out as a lesbian during Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural ball -- and why she picked Obama over Clinton.

Etheridge invited the Mizeurs to be her guests when she performs in Washington this summer.

Three days later, Mizeur met Kerry for lunch in Boston. The two talked about their desire to change politics, and Kerry put on the hard sell for Obama.

Mizeur was leaning toward endorsing Obama. But on May 14, she changed her mind again, after a private meeting with Clinton.

Clinton had swept Obama in West Virginia the night before, but as Heather and Deborah Mizeur arrived for the 7 p.m. meeting, news broke that Edwards was endorsing Obama. They were ushered into a conference room. There Clinton was. The room was empty, except for a staffer working in the corner.

Clinton poured them glasses of water and put them at ease. She asked Heather Mizeur about her bills in the Maryland legislature. Then they talked health care.

"All three of us just wonked out for a bit," Mizeur said. "We're all health policy geeks.

"There was no doubt in my mind as I sat there that this woman would be an amazing president. But that's not to say Barack Obama wouldn't be."

A Decision Must Be Made

Throughout May, as Obama's lead over Clinton grew, Mizeur thought about endorsing him. She was impressed by his potential to change the electoral math in the general election and his ability to expand the party's donor base.

But she found herself getting emotional. Clinton had showed a resilience that Mizeur found inspiring.

"I was really relating to Hillary and appreciating the strength she's shown through all of this," she said. "I was getting the feeling that she was being bullied out of this race.

"I felt, you know what, if I came out now for Obama, it'd feel like I was kicking her in the teeth. I'd just be another one of the bullies telling her to get out."

Mizeur kept her pledge not to endorse until the last primaries. She talked with Kerry again Monday night.

Yesterday, Mizeur was sitting in her dentist's chair when Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kan.), called on Obama's behalf. Hours earlier, Mizeur was on Capitol Hill and bumped into Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), an Obama supporter who formerly represented Mizeur's home town in the House.

Today, she plans to notify the campaigns of her endorsement.

"It's time for everyone to rally around our nominee. I intend to pledge my support for Barack Obama. I am going to extremely enthusiastically support him."

There were times she questioned whether staying neutral was the right choice. For her and others, these are uncharted waters. There is no guide to being a superdelegate.

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