Even if that meant serenading a parrot.
“Gua-ca-mayo, gua-ca-mayo,” Mizeur began crooning, using the Spanish word for the bird. “Hey, hey, hey.”
The parrot, Ragu, silently obliged. His owner, Republican Heather Martz, was far more amused. “Do you want to see his wings?” she asked, as Ragu ruffled his feathers.
Martz was exactly the kind of voter that Mizeur, 49, and her Democratic opponents ultimately will need on their side if they want to flip a district that the Republican incumbent, Andy Harris, has held for the past decade. Martz told Mizeur that although she identifies as Republican, she votes on the basis of the candidate, not the party, and Mizeur’s eyes lit up.
“I’m not a big fan of him at all,” Martz said of Harris, noting that she was bothered that he had voted against the coronavirus relief package that helped her family, even though she knew her party didn’t like the bill’s price tag.
“Well, thankfully, you have another option,” said Mizeur, who leads the three-person Democratic field in fundraising. “My approach is, you know, not just encouraging people to vote against him, but giving you something to vote for.”
Flipping the 1st District to blue in 2022 became an urgent priority of Maryland Democrats, particularly because Harris objected to the certification of presidential election results after the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and opposed awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the police for their response that day. Whether Democrats can flip the district, however, is still in question. Mizeur and her Democratic opponent Dave Harden have said Harris’s actions in the aftermath of the insurrection inspired them to try to unseat him, describing him as a right-wing extremist who poses a threat to American democracy. A third candidate, Jennifer Pingley, is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Harris for the second time.
On the heels of the decennial census, the Maryland General Assembly this month passed a new congressional map that will put the conservative Eastern Shore-anchored 1st District in play for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections. But many political analysts still consider Harris the favorite — meaning whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee to challenge him will need to energize not only as many Democrats as possible, but also independents and center-right Republicans such as Martz.
The idea that Mizeur could be that candidate would have been a hard sell 10 years ago when Mizeur, as a member of the General Assembly, represented arguably the state’s most liberal bastion: Takoma Park. Her critics, including Harden, have pointed to Mizeur’s liberal record as a critical liability in one of the state’s most conservative regions.
“This still remains a very, very rural district,” said Harden, 49, a first-time candidate and former longtime Foreign Service officer. “Democrats lose 90 percent of rural districts — you know why? Because they run people like Heather Mizeur. They don’t know the people and the culture and the issues.”
Mizeur argues that, having grown up in rural Illinois, she always has. And since leaving the General Assembly and running unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014 — when she positioned herself to the left of other Democratic candidates — some things have changed. Mizeur moved to a medicinal-herb farm on the Eastern Shore in Kent County with her clinical-herbalist wife, spent years in self-reflection, started a nonprofit organization focused on healing political divisions with a mantra of “radical love,” and now, she argues, has emerged best-equipped to oust Harris.
Mizeur has raised more than $1 million vs. Harden’s $200,000. Mizeur has raised nearly double what Harris has raised this cycle, although Harris still has $1.3 million on hand.
Throughout the campaign, Mizeur has framed her liberal record in the General Assembly as being ahead of the curve, labeled progressive only in its time. Her first ad emphasized her support for legalizing marijuana, fighting for marriage equality — and her and her wife Deborah’s personal experience in doing so — and restricting fracking, among other things.
“All of those things in 2014, when I was running for governor, were seen as liberal, and now in 2021 are absolutely mainstream,” Mizeur said, “and that’s why I reject labels in general. I just stand up for what I believe in, call it as I see it in the moment that we’re dealing with on how to solve a particular problem.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Harris said he thought he earned voters’ trust by focusing on local issues important to his district and offering responsive constituent services; and he said he believed the new map would be of no consequence.
“I’m confident that when the election comes, voters in the newly gerrymandered 1st District will support me — and reject the radical left wing Democrat agenda that is leading to record inflation, an agenda backed by potential opponents like Dave Harden and Heather Mizeur,” he said.
The Maryland General Assembly redrew the lines of Maryland’s 1st Congressional District — the only Republican district in the state’s eight-seat congressional delegation — over Republicans’ accusations of partisan gerrymandering. The new 1st District crosses the Chesapeake Bay to encompass parts of blue Anne Arundel County, including Odenton, a change that some Republicans argued appeared intended to dilute Republican votes in the district and put an 8-to-0 congressional shutout within reach for Democrats. Two lawsuits have been filed challenging the map.
Mizeur had cheered efforts to make the district more competitive for Democrats and invited supporters to testify at public redistricting hearings, while her campaign staffers said they would get in touch with those supporters to offer guidance beforehand. Harden and Pingley accused Mizeur of seeking to influence the redistricting process and opposed what they said was an unfair Democratic gerrymander.
“It’s not to say that if Republicans were in power they wouldn’t do it, and that tends to be the argument I get, but my argument is that we’re supposed to be better,” said Pingley, 39, who placed third in the Democratic primary last year.
Still, even with major changes favoring Democrats, analysts say the district remains far from a cozy place for a Democrat to run. While President Donald Trump won the 1st District by nearly 20 points in 2020, Joe Biden would have won the newly redrawn 1st District by only 0.3 percentage points.
And with Biden’s low approval rating, high inflation and infighting over Biden’s agenda all cluttering the national atmosphere, the Democratic nominee is going to have to battle difficult head winds unless things change drastically, said Dave Wasserman, a redistricting expert at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“If [Democrats] nominate Heather Mizeur, then it’d be possible for Republicans to paint her not only as pretty far on the party’s left, but also as a carpetbagger who has no business representing the Eastern Shore,” Wasserman said. “When you put the national environment and that together, I would still consider Harris the favorite heading into 2022.”
So far, Pingley and Harden have sought to position themselves as moderates compared with Mizeur, while all three have sought to defend the strength of their connections to the Shore. Pingley, a registered nurse, is running a low-budget, health care-centric campaign, with one of her top priorities being to increase access to primary care physicians in the district. She argues that her background as a nurse — and her longtime roots on the Upper Shore — makes her well-positioned to take on Harris, who is an anesthesiologist.
Harden, who has a small farm in Westminster, was drawn out of the district after the new map was passed, and he is considering buying a house on the Eastern Shore. Harris’s home in Cockeysville was drawn out of the district as well, though he has a second home in Dorchester County on the Shore.
Harden said he realized it could be a challenge to explain to voters how he would apply to the Eastern Shore his international experience in the Foreign Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development — managing famine, natural disasters and humanitarian crises from Botswana to Yemen. But he argued that his skill set in figuring out how to spur economic development in forgotten communities could still translate to a political platform focused on boosting economic opportunity in the district.
He scoffed at Mizeur’s list of high-profile political endorsers, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) — saying he would take the endorsement of the head of the Delmarva Fisheries Association any day over the support of the “Democratic establishment.”
Political science professor Todd Eberly said the fact that Harden and Pingley are seeking to position themselves as moderates sets the tone for the race, allowing Mizeur to avoid needing to run to anyone’s left as she did in 2014. Eberly, who teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, pointed to the evolution of current Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Franchot as an example of one Takoma Park liberal who has redefined himself as the state’s fiscally disciplined tax collector.
“You look at someone like Peter Franchot, who was an incredibly progressive member of the General Assembly, and that is not how people view him anymore,” Eberly said. “His argument being: ‘I reflected the constituency that I represented.’ ”
Len Foxwell, who advised Franchot for nearly two decades and is now a Democratic consultant on the Eastern Shore, said he thought Mizeur was Democrats’ “most plausible bet” to defeat Harris, believing the other candidates’ lack of experience in public office and minimal name recognition could prove too much of a hurdle.
“I think Dave Harden is running a spirited campaign, and he’s raising important issues … but it’s a tough challenge,” Foxwell said. “Heather Mizeur, while she is a more of a traditional liberal candidate, does have a proven ability to expand her political network and base beyond her natural guardrails,” he said, referring to her 2014 gubernatorial campaign. “I think she has a unique ability of presenting progressive ideas in a way that comes across as palatable to moderate and independent voters.”
In Martz’s front yard in Odenton, Mizeur was working on it. She emphasized her support for banning fracking to keep the environment clean, lowering prescription drug costs and backing the child tax credits that were part of the coronavirus relief package, a program that Martz said “was so helpful.”
Mizeur offered Martz campaign literature, jumping past the Democratic primary to ask if maybe she could count on Martz’s support in November. And who knows, Mizeur joked — perhaps the parrot’s, too?
“Maybe he can say, ‘Vote for Heather,’ ” she said.