Heather Mizeur at a fundraiser.

Heather Mizeur at a fundraiser. (J.M. Giordano / January 15, 2014)

More than a quarter-century has passed since Maryland's last truly competitive Democratic primary for governor in 1986, when Attorney General Stephen Sachs lost to Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. So this year's polling on June 24 will be historic, simply because two statewide elected leaders-Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler-are on the ballot. Complicating their efforts to attract the most votes from Maryland's roughly 2 million registered Democrats is a third bona fide candidate: 41-year-old state Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County, a state legislator with sterling credentials as a Democratic Party activist.

City Paper met with Mizeur at the Starbucks on Church Circle in Annapolis to discuss her candidacy. The sit-down occurred on the first day of this year's General Assembly session-apt timing, given Maryland's increasingly apparent leftward leanings in recent years, passing laws to repeal the death penalty, ramp up gun control, extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, and grant in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrants.

While Brown and Gansler grapple, Mizeur's candidacy seems to be tapping into this leftward trend by proposing to legalize and tax marijuana to pay for universal pre-K public education, to raise the minimum wage by nearly $10 per hour over the next decade, and to provide small-business tax relief while closing loopholes that let large out-of-state companies off the tax hook. The small-town Illinois native with working-class roots has toiled in the partisan vineyards since the 1990s: as a staffer for three Congressional Democrats; as domestic-policy director for then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry when he ran in the 2004 presidential election; as a Takoma Park city councilwoman; as a superdelegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention; as a 2009 appointee to the Democratic National Committee's executive committee; and as a veteran of seven (and counting) Maryland General Assembly sessions.

If elected, Mizeur would be many firsts for Maryland: the first woman governor, the first openly gay governor, and the first same-sex married governor. She would also be the first governor elected using the state's public-financing mechanism for statewide campaigns, an arrangement that constrains campaign spending but opens up a funding level that might otherwise have been elusive, given the well-established money-pumping machines working for Brown and Gansler.

City Paper: The clock is ticking, with a June primary.

Heather Mizeur: It is, but we take a pause now for a 90-day legislative session with great expectations on what we can get done to make a difference in peoples' lives. We seem to be unified in trying to increase the minimum wage, and I'm hoping we'll also get paid sick leave and some small-business tax relief. We don't have to have either-or economic policy. We can pay people a living wage and have paid sick leave while also providing tax relief to our small businesses as long as we close some corporate tax loopholes that are allowing a handful of multi-state companies to hide their earnings outside of the state and avoid paying any taxes. I think we're going to be able to make some progress on marijuana policy reform and hopefully protect us from unregulated shale-gas drilling. It's a big agenda.

CP: Does it change the dynamic, being a candidate running against the lieutenant governor and the attorney general during the session?

HM: I'm sure there'll be some elbows thrown trying to keep people from being seen as successful. That's not how I come at this. I come at this as a public servant. I don't view my opponents in the campaign as my enemies. We're all good people, trying to get good things done for the state. We just have vastly different visions for where we take Maryland. I'm definitely looking forward to being the one that helps set the agenda for what that will be starting in 2015.

CP: You strike me as the extra-establishment progressive candidate.

HM: What do you mean by that?

CP: You came up in the Democratic establishment and right now, with your candidacy, you are challenging it.

HM: Very much so, because in Maryland our next governor should not always be dictated by who's standing next in line. The way it typically has worked in Maryland is, once a governor gets elected, insiders start looking at who appears to be next in line and funneling money and building favors and establishing deeper relationships to get in good with them. When a candidate like me looks at getting in, I'm technically supposed to look at the millions of dollars in their bank accounts or the endorsements they've already lined up years ago, and say, "Well, I can't compete against that, I should never get in." That perpetuates a system of advancing the person next in line to protect the status quo.

My campaign is about re-empowering the people so they have alternatives and choices and can come together and say, "We have a different vision. We believe in something else than what is spoon-fed to us that we're expected to go along with." We're in it to win it, and we're incredibly thrilled with the support of a robust grassroots base all across the state.

CP: This race doesn't seem to be a coronation, though, and sometimes those coronations don't work, like in Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's case in 2002. You worked on Townsend's campaign, right?

HM: I was Joe Kennedy's legislative director, her brother, when he was in Congress. Toward the end of that campaign, he asked if I would consider going and helping his sister's campaign out. And I was very interested for a variety of reasons in trying to help out that effort.

CP: The primary, a lot of people seemed to be interested-but I'm blanking on who actually ran against her.

HM: Nobody. That was the problem. [Actually, Robert Fustero ran against her, getting 20 percent of the vote.] There were a handful of people who were interested in running, but they took a look at money, endorsements, all those things, and decided not to run. I think contested primaries are good for democracy, to engage the electorate to feel ownership over the process. But even a contested primary is usually the next-in-line guys duking it out. It's not someone like me, who's seen as jumping the line and not waiting your turn.

I just reject the notion that these elections should be about whose turn it is. This is about the problems our state faces, how to address those problems, and an ability to capture the imagination of the electorate to come together to stand for what is the right course of action. How's that ever going to be addressed by just looking at who thinks it's their political birthright by virtue of, "I've done this job, and now it's my turn to do that job"?

When people ask me, "Well, why don't you run for comptroller or why didn't you be someone's running mate?," I say, "Because that is me trying to set a pathway for my career, and that's not what this is about." This is about being in a place and time where my ideas and my willingness to address the challenges facing us are better than the competition. So I am a better candidate and I will be a better governor, and it's time for me to step forward and give voters that option.