Maryland gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur poses for a photograph at her home with her dog, Chester, on June 15 in Takoma Park. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The female political activists packed the Rockville living room, with Del. Heather R. Mizeur and her wife, Deborah, looking on from the back. One by one, women running for public office took turns pitching themselves.

A school board candidate started to list what she would do if elected, then carefully corrected herself: “Or, as Heather says, when I’m on the board.” A candidate for the House of Delegates explained, “I’m running — like Heather said — to make a difference.”

Maryland’s top leadership has long been largely white and male, with men outnumbering women by more than 2 to 1 in the General Assembly in Annapolis. Those women gathered on that May evening were part of Montgomery Women, a group launched in 2001 to try to change the status quo. They were eager to acknowledge the influence of Mizeur, one of their own, who is running to become Maryland’s first female governor and the first openly gay person elected governor of any state.

Her platform includes a living wage, mandated paid sick leave, free pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds, legalization of marijuana and higher taxes on the wealthiest residents so that 90 percent of taxpayers can pay less.

The Takoma Park Democrat wants to reach not just progressive Democrats but anyone who is tired of the usual progression of power in state government. When Mizeur supporters explain why they like her, a commonly used word is “refreshing.” Her critics call her presumptuous, asking why she is running for governor instead of taking the time to build additional experience and support.

“I’m not running to make history. I’m running to make a difference,” Mizeur, 41, told the women that night. “However . . . how cool will it be for Maryland to elect its first woman governor — and still have a kick-ass first lady?”

With five days until the Democratic primary, Mizeur is hoping for an upset that standard polling can’t predict. She was 30 percentage points behind Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in a poll of likely Democratic voters conducted by The Washington Post this month. She was only 7 percentage points behind Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, however, and she raised twice as much money as he did from May 21 to June 8.

Still, as of June 8, Mizeur had about $670,000 to spend, compared with Brown’s $1.97 million and Gansler’s $1.75 million.

Mizeur calls such campaign metrics the “old, cynical playbook.” She looks instead to her Facebook page — which has many more “likes” and comments than those of Brown or Gansler — and the near-constant buzz about her on Twitter.

On June 10, when the Internet was churning with the news that U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had been unexpectedly ousted in a Republican primary in Virginia, a self-described lesbian college student tweeted a comparison to the Maryland gubernatorial contest: “i wish heather mizeur was gonna win her race.”

Mizeur quickly responded: “I AM going to win. We have the momentum to do this. Join us to make it happen!”

Del. Heather Mizeur, Democratic candidate for Governor in Maryland, gives her perspective on implementing health initiatives after the laws have been passed. (Courtesy Maryland Public Television)
Early influences

Mizeur’s first television ad focused on her father, a welder at a Caterpillar factory in central Illinois who went on strike in the early 1980s. Mizeur narrated: “Walking a picket line with my dad when I was 9 years old, I learned the importance of fighting for what’s right.”

The family couldn’t afford vacations or fancy things, especially when strike pay was only $45 a week. But they savored the time together. Dale Mizeur would throw hay bales in the back of the pickup truck and take Heather and her sister for rides in the country, stopping to let them wade in their favorite creeks.

At one point, Dale was offered a company job at the factory, along with more money and stability. Mizeur remembers her stay-at-home mom, Doris, saying: “That’s not who you are. That’s not who we are.”

“My dad retells the story and says, ‘Yeah, I’m not really a sweater dude,’ ” Mizeur said. “He’s never regretted it.”

The strikers had a hero. Penny Severns, a Democrat who unexpectedly won a seat in the Illinois Senate in 1986, at 34, defeating a longtime Republican incumbent. In a heavily conservative district, union members such as Mizeur’s dad were Severns’s grass-roots base.

“She was somebody that encouraged ordinary people to believe that they could do extraordinary things,” Mizeur said.

Mizeur was obsessed with politics, decorating her bedroom with pictures of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. She diligently watched presidential debates, taking notes so she could compose voting guides for her relatives.

Severns became a role model. At age 15, Heather persuaded her mother to drive her 13 miles to Decatur so she could volunteer on Severns’s reelection campaign — stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors, but also watching the senator take on the problems of people in her district. Severns hid much of her personal life from public view, for reasons that would become clear years later.

“Penny was the first person I met that opened my awareness that that kind of service — community service and elected position — could be done by a woman,” Mizeur said. “I just kept thinking, ‘Gosh, I hope that I can do that someday.’ ”

Valedictorian of her high school class of 33, Mizeur was the first in her family to go to college, enrolling at the University of Illinois. Each semester, the family barely scraped together enough money to keep her there.

During her sophomore year, Mizeur told her parents what she had known since elementary school: She was attracted to women. During her junior year, she interned in Washington and picked up part-time, paid work in the office of Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.). Soon, she was offered a full-time job.

Mizeur had already secured a Truman Scholarship to pay for graduate school. Now she had to pick between finishing her bachelor’s degree and continuing her education or starting her career right away.

She stayed in Washington. By age 23, she was the legislative director for Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.), largely focusing on health-care issues.

“No one ever asked, and I would never offer it up,” Mizeur said of her age. “I acted very much older. I’m an old soul in a way.”

Raising her profile

Mizeur left Capitol Hill after four years, in 1998, to work for the National Association of Community Health Centers, helping states implement a law that provides health coverage to children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid. She returned in 2003 to work for then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and wrote his health-care platform for the 2004 presidential campaign.

She was living in ultra-liberal Takoma Park and serving on the City Council. As she grew frustrated with Washington’s partisan gridlock, she decided she could get more done in deeply blue Maryland.

She became a lobbyist, specializing in health-care policy, and was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2006.

She was successful in sponsoring legislation that had failed nationally, including measures that extended health-care coverage to some young adults and to some children from low-income families.

Mizeur and her wife openly advocated lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights when related issues came before the legislature. The two had met on Capitol Hill, bonding over a wonky love of health-care policy and the potential of a properly functioning government to do good.

They married in 2005 near the Chesapeake Bay, a union recognized by their families but not by the government. Deborah Mizeur’s father, a staunch conservative, gave a blessing. When California briefly legalized same-sex marriage in 2008, the couple rushed to make their vows official.

Although there were other openly gay lawmakers in the General Assembly, Heather Mizeur was the first with a spouse. The Mizeurs tried to show in subtle ways that their relationship was not something to fear. At the same time, they appealed to lawmakers’ sense of fairness, pointing out that, unlike other spouses, Deborah Mizeur was not allowed to park in a garage for legislators.

“You could see the ice melt,” said Deborah Mizeur, who recently started a second career as a clinical herbalist and nutritionist. “We’re not scary. We’re not crazy. We’re just here.”

When same-sex marriage legislation was debated on the Maryland House floor in 2011, Heather Mizeur spoke in deeply personal terms about the issue as Deborah sat in the gallery.

“You can’t stop us from loving each other,” Mizeur said. “You can’t stop us from getting married. . . . All you can do is make it really, really, really difficult for us in the worst, most challenging times.”

The legislation failed in 2011 but passed in 2012, with just one vote to spare in the House. The Mizeurs then traveled around the state, fighting a movement to overturn the law through a referendum. Along the way, Mizeur said, Marylanders encouraged her to run for governor.

Last year, Mizeur’s home state legalized same-sex marriage. As the issue was debated, it became public that Severns, Mizeur’s childhood mentor, had been in a largely secret relationship with a female statehouse reporter.

Severns served in the state legislature for 11 years, mentoring a young Barack Obama, among others, and she ran — unsuccessfully — for lieutenant governor. She died of breast cancer in 1998, at 46.

“She would have been the governor of Illinois at some point,” Mizeur said, “that governor that Illinois deserves to have had.”

Impatient for change

Just as she had in Washington, Mizeur became frustrated with the slow pace of change in Annapolis. Socially progressive causes such as same-sex marriage eked their way into law, but lawmakers reacted cautiously to economically progressive causes, such as increasing the minimum wage.

She decided to enter the governor’s race, even though many Democratic power brokers told her that it was too soon. She should wait, gain experience, maybe run for another statewide office, they said.

To wait “would be to make this be a career choice,” Mizeur said. “That’s not why I’m doing this. I’m trying to advance causes. And there’s a price that comes with waiting on these issues.”

There’s also a price to challenging the sitting lieutenant governor. None of the bills Mizeur introduced passed last year or this year. Her colleagues, mentors and friends lined up to endorse Brown, not her. Even Equality Maryland — the driving force for LGBT rights in the state — backed Brown.

Mizeur realizes that people make politically calculated decisions. But it still stings.

She has received endorsements from national groups, including Emily’s List and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Political Action Committee. But her campaign has not drawn the national exposure that some had expected. Her supporters contend that reporters unfairly hurt her chances by writing more about Brown and Gansler.

Still, Mizeur said she thinks she can pull it off by standing up for the hardworking but far-from-wealthy Maryland residents who most need her help. Just as Severns did in Illinois.

“We too often in life self-sabotage our chance of getting something done because we’ll hook into someone else’s belief that it can’t be done,” Mizeur said. “I’ve spent my life trying to always step forward with the courage of my convictions.”

This is the third of three articles profiling Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidates Anthony G. Brown, Douglas F. Gansler and Heather R. Mizeur.