Profile: Heather Mizeur (IL ’94), Maryland Delegate

mizeur

Growing up in rural Illinois, Maryland Delegate
Heather Mizeur (IL ’94) never
thought that her first Washington, DC, job would lead to a life there, let
alone a successful political career in one of DC’s suburbs. Although believing
she would return to the Midwest, this self-described “old soul” knew from an
early age that she was gay, that she held strong Catholic spirituality, and
that she saw her life in elected public service.

“I always thought I was heading back to
Illinois” Mizeur said. “I moved to DC in 1994 and didn’t rule out moving back
to Illinois until 2001―when I set roots and bought a house in Takoma Park,
Maryland.”

Those roots quickly flourished. She ran
and won a seat on the Takoma Park City Council in 2003. After serving for two
years, she later ran for the Maryland House of Delegates, winning a seat in its
20th district in 2006. In the Maryland House, she has led on health care and
LGBT equality, working specifically on a bill that increases low-income
children’s access to health care. She successfully won reelection for her
second term in 2010, and The Advocate magazine recently named
her as one of the “Forty Under 40” emerging LGBT leaders.

Interview with

Heather Mizeur (IL
’94), Maryland Delegate for the 20th District

By Adam Amir (FL
’09), Policy Analyst, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg

April 26, 2011

AMIR: What was your public service
passion as an undergraduate and how has it changed, if it all?

MIZEUR: Health
care has always been the issue I’ve been most passionate about. I got my start
in politics as a child of the labor movement. My father was a member of the
United Auto Workers. My Catholic background also tied me closely to social
justice. I volunteered in missions in the Yucatan region of Mexico as an
undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In terms of a
policy issue in this country, I have always been tied to health policy:
Medicare, Medicaid, and state child health insurance programs, and trying to
expand access to these services. It’s what I focused on the federal, state
level, and in my private practice.

AMIR: What
do you think about the budget cuts proposed by the House Republicans? Is the
gutting of Medicare or Medicaid merely political posturing?

MIZEUR: I
think it poses a real threat. We need to mobilize seniors and low income folks
to stand up for health care programs in the same way that the other side
mobilized people to voice their opposition to health reform at town hall
meetings last summer. We’ve got to take these cuts very seriously, agitate, and
defeat these proposals. I had to work really hard this session to avoid a $20
million Medicaid cut in Maryland. In tough budget times, we need to be smart.
We should still pay for it (Medicaid coverage) because people will still be
sick no matter what. We can pay for their care in an emergency room where it is
expensive or we can give them health insurance. You might as well give people
access to primary care, which is more affordable. I don’t see it as a budget
saving mechanism to be whacking away at the Medicaid program. 

AMIR: Insurance and Medicare are such
complicated issues. How do you simplify the messages?

MIZEUR: I
think about how I would explain it to my parents and my grandparents back in
Illinois. I try to use human stories and explain what it means for individuals
in a tangible way, rather than just talking about esoteric policy. But it’s an
interesting blend, because in my district, I represent people who work in
government and like to talk about policy specifics. I get to have it both ways.

Sometimes you have to use the media to
get the message out, to larger constituencies. That’s where the message does have
to be a little more simplistic.

AMIR: I saw that you had worked for
John Kerry. Many in the Truman Scholar community work or have worked for an
elected official. How do you transition from staffing an elected an official to
becoming one?

I was with Senator John Kerry for
almost four years. I think the biggest difference is that as a staffer you have
one-fifth of the issues a legislator must understand. As a staffer, you’re
really an expert on a certain small cadre of issues. You watch your principal hoping
that they say the right thing. As a staffer, you compete with other staffers to
push the issue you care about most and hope the Member agrees.

Now as the elected official, I can work
on issues I cared about while working in other levels of government. Many of
the good ideas I had staffing for a Member of the House of Representatives in
the minority party, I later retooled to be part of my campaign platform—
initiatives like expanding insurance coverage for young adults, allowing them
to remain on their family’s plan until they are 25 years old. I worked with
Senator Kerry to make this an element of his 2004 Presidential health reform
plan and then turned it into a state initiative, and I actually got it done
three years before it became a part of national health reform. It sounds
cliché, but states really are the laboratories of democracy.

AMIR: Shifting gears a bit, I wanted to
know how the disparity in partner benefits for same-sex couples affects you on
both a personal and policy level.

MIZEUR: Well
there are different tiers of discrimination. Even if we fixed everything at the
state level, until the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is repealed there will
still be unfair treatment of tax on the federal level. I’ve experienced this in
Maryland. At one point, the Governor decided to bring domestic partners onto
state employee insurance plans. My wife would be eligible to be on my state
insurance policy, except that she would have to pay taxes on that benefit at
the federal level. Something no straight married couple must pay. There are
about 425 state benefits that come with a marriage certificate and nearly a
thousand more at the federal level.

We have had a parallel approach in the
General Assembly in Maryland. While working ultimately for marriage equality,
my colleagues and I have attempted to address a range of individual issues like
inheritance rights, visitation rights, and burial decisions for same sex
partners at the state level.  We’ll chip
away at those 425 rights, one-by-one, until we get full marriage equality.

AMIR: In a passionate and emotional
floor speech about a marriage equality bill in the Maryland House, you
described yourself as an “old soul.” What did you mean by that?

MIZEUR: The
technical term might be more “self-actualized at a young age.” I knew at age
seven a lot of things about myself that it takes others a lifetime to find out.
I knew I was gay. I knew that I wanted a career in elected public service. I
was also very tied to my Catholicism, and knew that it informed my identity,
drive, and relationship with God. Sometimes it required extra work to reconcile
these seemingly conflicting identities, but they motivated me at an early age.

AMIR: My last question is very
controversial. Where is the best place to get blue crabs in Maryland while
you’re in session?

MIZEUR: It’s
not crab season during session in Annapolis. Though you can get crab cakes in
the winter, you should  ask if they are
pasteurized because they are not as good without fresh crabmeat. During the
summer, my favorite place to pick get crabs is in Rock Hall, Maryland at a
restaurant called Watermans.

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