Skip to main content
Commentary Election 2022 Government & Politics

Josh Kurtz: A Bridge Too Far — Or Not Far Enough?

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr. (R) and District 1 congressional candidate Heather Mizeur (D) share a fist bump at the 2021 J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake. Hogan and his allies plan to sue to overturn a new congressional map that helps Mizeur’s run for Congress. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

A month ago, I was preparing to write a column calling Heather Mizeur the Jaime Harrison of 2022.

Harrison, you’ll recall, was the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in South Carolina last year who raised tens of millions of dollars in a futile quest to knock off Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Democrats just kept giving and giving, even though the notion that  Harrison could win that race seems absurd in retrospect. He wound up losing by 10 points, and one wonders what Democrats who lost more narrow elections in the 2020 cycle thought about all the investments the party and its donors made on Harrison’s behalf.

I couldn’t help but think about Harrison when Mizeur, a former Democratic state delegate, announced last month that she had raised more than $1 million in her quest to oust Maryland’s lone Republican congressman, Andrew P. Harris. It’s an impressive figure, to be sure, and another reminder of the moxie and hustle that Mizeur routinely displays as a candidate.

But is that the smartest investment to help Democrats in Maryland? I didn’t think so initially, but now I’m starting to wonder. The Democrats in the General Assembly did Mizeur a favor last week by significantly changing the contours of the 1st congressional district so it would come across the Bay Bridge and into Anne Arundel County instead of going to some of the most conservative territory in Baltimore, Harford and Carroll counties.

But how much of a favor did they do, really? In the view of the sages at the Cook Political Report, the 1st District went from favoring Donald Trump by 20 points in 2020 to voting for Joe Biden, 48.9% to 48.5%. In the Cook parlance, the district went from being +14 Republican to +4 Republican.

That makes it much more competitive, without a doubt. But is it competitive enough for Mizeur — or any Democrat — to win? Mizeur herself took a properly low-key approach to the legislature’s work.

“I’ve always said that no matter what the district map looks like, I’m dedicated to being a fierce advocate and strong voice for all of our communities,” Mizeur said in a statement last week. “Throughout the redistricting process, I’ve advocated for a competitive and balanced First District that requires candidates to compete for every vote, and allows voters to render a verdict on their representative’s job performance. The newly finalized map creates a toss-up district that could be won by a Democrat or a Republican in any given election, similar to the First District that former Congressman Wayne Gilchrest represented as a moderate Republican for 18 years.”

But in the quiet opinion of many Democratic activists and even some elected officials, the legislature could have done so much more to put the 1st District in play. The website Slate in particular laid the reluctance to heavily gerrymander the district at the feet of two Maryland congressmen who did not want to give up certain territory, Reps. Kweisi Mfume and John P. Sarbanes, along with state Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and state Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) (Elfreth’s office denies this, while the other three basically offered neutral statements).

We may never know the true story behind the machinations, but it’s easy enough to argue that the Democrats blew an opportunity to take out Harris and instead offered a half-measure — which they will nevertheless be criticized for by political reform groups and Republicans like Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.

At the same time that they are now grandstanding on the issue of crime in Baltimore, Hogan and other Maryland Republicans are suggesting that the new congressional map violates the Voting Rights Act. It’s a neat trick and a reminder of how Republicans will seek alliances with Black voters and their elected leaders when opportunity strikes.

There are certainly arguments to make that the newly passed congressional map in Maryland could do more to promote opportunities for candidates of color. But dragging the 1st District across the bridge into Anne Arundel County doesn’t appear to specifically be part of that problem. Ultimately, the courts will decide.

‘The 1st District deserves a pragmatic problem-solver’

When considering the 1st District boundaries and how next year’s election might play out, it’s important to consider the cast of characters — and it must be pointed out that Mizeur is not the only Democrat currently running. A lot of news accounts and pundits and political professionals have suggested that Mizeur is out of step with most of the 1st District electorate, and that she is a “Takoma Park liberal” who just happens to have moved to the Eastern Shore with her wife to start an herb farm.

But I think that characterization does Mizeur, who is sui generis in Maryland politics, a disservice. And I know a thing or two about Takoma Park liberals because I’m surrounded by them every day.

Yes, Mizeur is a progressive and once represented the lefty haven in the legislature and is doubtless to the left of most 1st District voters — and a little uncomfortably New Age-y to boot. But she also has a unique ability to meet voters where they live, to seek out and see other points of view, and to show tremendous empathy no matter who she’s talking to.

In short, she’s a pretty good politician — not shape-shifting, like some other prominent Maryland politicians, but nimble and open-minded. She grew up in a small Midwestern town. Her dad was a union worker. She’s been a policy analyst on Capitol Hill. She has tried to empower women in politics. She brings all these experiences to bear as she campaigns for Congress.

It’s also important to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of the six-term incumbent, Harris. There are certainly Republican voters in the 1st District who admire Harris’ steadfast conservative views; who support his adherence to the Trump narrative and playbook.

But there are also Republicans who are embarrassed by Harris’ embrace of the Big Lie and his admission that he had prescribed ivermectin to treat COVID-19 (he’s an anesthesiologist) and the fact that he was one of 21 House Republicans who voted against awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the police officers who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. That’s why Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R) took such a serious look at running for the 1st District seat this election cycle and why he or another like-minded Republican could wind up running for it in the not-too-distant future.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, believe a more moderate candidate than Mizeur might prosper in the newly redrawn district — someone like Dave Harden, an international trade consultant who is one of Mizeur’s opponents. Or someone like Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, a military veteran who is transforming his once downtrodden city and who endorsed Hogan over Democrat Benjamin T. Jealous in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

This conversation is part of the broader argument about what direction the Democratic Party needs to travel generally. Right now, it looks like Mizeur will be the nominee, so there will be a certain playbook from this election and lessons to be learned for the future.

Would Mizeur try again in 2024 if she loses this time? 2022 looks bad for the Democrats where we sit right now, and 2024, a presidential election year, automatically translates into higher Democratic turnout. So it might be a better bet for her — or any Democrat.

Although Mizeur finished third in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor, she built a loyal following and carried a certain political momentum out of the primary. Instead of building on it — even to set up a progressive organization, the way former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean did after his 2004 presidential campaign flamed out — she largely faded from the scene for a while.

There was instant enthusiasm for Mizeur’s congressional bid this year, which she announced just days after Jan. 6. But how far will that carry her, even in a district that looks better now than it did a week ago? Here’s Mizeur’s own take:

“The 1st District deserves a pragmatic problem-solver who will bring bold, compassionate, and dignified representation to our communities and inside the Congress,” she said last week. “You can count on me to be that person.”

[email protected]


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our website. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

If you have any questions, please email [email protected].

To republish, copy the following text and paste it into your HTML editor.


Creative Commons License AttributionCreative Commons Attribution
Josh Kurtz: A Bridge Too Far — Or Not Far Enough?