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Election 2022 Government & Politics

Undaunted by long odds, Mizeur maintains sense of mission in battle against Harris

Former Del. Heather Mizeur, a Democratic candidate in the 1st Congressional District, shakes the hand of incumbent Rep. Andy Harris (R) at the Tawes crab feast last year. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

Andy Harris, the Eastern Shore’s Republican congressman, has cruised to victory in his most recent elections, winning by 27 points, 22 points and 36 points in his last three tries.

So it is perhaps the ultimate tribute to Democrat Heather Mizeur’s sense of enthusiasm and mission that she has been able to generate any interest in her efforts to boot Harris from office.

The two are set to face off in debate for the first time next Wednesday at Cecil College, along the northern edge of the sprawling 1st District. It will be a display of vivid contrasts — both personal and political.

Harris is a Trump-aligned member of the House Freedom Caucus who is seeking his seventh term. He has voted against virtually every initiative that President Biden and congressional Democrats have put forward, including those that passed by wide, bipartisan margins.

He and Gov. Larry Hogan, the state’s popular Republican governor, speak infrequently, and Harris has an arms-length relationship with the other members of the state’s congressional delegation (all Democrats). When he holds town hall meetings with constituents, he does so online, so staff can select the questions. The lawmaker rarely speaks to reporters.

Mizeur is a former state legislator from Montgomery County who relocated to the Eastern Shore with her wife following an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2014. A health policy analyst, she is a gregarious campaigner, quick to offer a hug or squeeze a shoulder. Her attire gives the impression that she just stepped off her farm (perhaps to dispel any notion about her years in Montgomery, still perceived as the land of brie and chablis).

Whether it’s practiced or genuine, Mizeur gives every indication that she is enjoying the heck out of her long-shot campaign.

The Democrat has raised a formidable amount of money — over $2.5 million — and her campaign has focused more on delivering “results” than on the types of issues that dominate modern politics. Her most recent ad features a former GOP office-holder and an independent. She appears at the end and only briefly.

Both candidates have raised a lot of money from out of state. Harris, a member of the influential Appropriations Committee, has accepted political action committee contributions; Mizeur has not.

An 11th hour debate

Harris, Mizeur and Libertarian Daniel Thibeault are scheduled to debate next Wednesday, on the eve of early voting, at Cecil College’s Milburn Stone Theater. It will be taped and shown later on Cecil TV. Given the personalities involved, it is certain to be an intense encounter.

Harris will likely stress the impact inflation is having on families and businesses, and he will accuse Democrats at all levels of government of letting violent criminals run wild. On Monday, he posted a video pledging that — if Republicans win control of the U.S. House in November — they will force the White House to stop the flow of fentanyl across the U.S./Mexico border.

Mizeur is likely to steer the conversation toward constituent issues, accusing her rival of failing to be an effective advocate. In interviews, she routinely mentions that he has only passed one bill in 12 years — to rename a post office. She frequently accuses Harris of putting the nation’s future at risk by refusing to certify the 2020 presidential election, despite the lack of credible questions about the outcome.

Harris is loathe to discuss the bloody siege at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and he has never spoken publicly about his participation at an Oval Office meeting the month before, another issue that may come up in debate. (Axios reported that Harris was one of 10 lawmakers summoned to the White House to discuss ways of pressuring Vice President Mike Pence not to certify the election.)

After the riot at the Capitol, Harris was among a group of lawmakers — all Republicans — to oppose a House resolution honoring the Capitol Police officers who fought rampaging Trump supporters.

Mizeur entered the race just a few weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

No fear of being ‘cancelled’

Harris and his supporters reject the claim that he is unresponsive. In an email, a campaign spokesman said the lawmaker worked to secure funding to help eradicate “destructive nutria” from state waterways and to fight other invasive species like the snakehead and blue catfish. An outspoken foe of illegal immigration, Harris has also played “a leading role in getting more temporary worker visas for our critical industries on the shore” and in working to suppress “surprise” medical bills, the spokesman said.

Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County), a former Harris aide who remains friends with him, said he does “great” constituent work, a claim echoed by Caroline County Commissioner Larry Porter (R).

“The things that I look for, in the people I support, is are they responsive when we call with a problem,” Porter said. “There have been times when we’ve called Rep. Harris about issues and he has responded promptly.”

Szeliga said that when she and Harris are in public, constituents routinely come up to express their appreciation. “So many people come up to him and say, ‘Thank you, Andy,’ and you can see it’s genuine.”

With Republicans expected to retake the House in November, Szeliga said they will seek to cut federal spending and improve border security. She also expressed hope that lawmakers will open probes into the “weaponizing” of the FBI and “Hunter Biden’s laptop.”

“He proudly represents conservatives,” Szeliga said of Harris. “He’s not afraid to be cancelled. And in today’s culture, with social media and with the liberal media, a lot of conservatives are tepid on some of the issues that Andy is very proud to be a conservative on.”

Mizeur touts GOP support

A Democrat running in an overwhelmingly Republican district, Mizeur has cast herself as someone who is willing to work with anyone to solve problems. Her most recent campaign ad features Jeff Powell, a Republican who once served on the Dorchester County Commission.

In an interview, Powell said he met Mizeur on a reef restoration project. The two got to chatting, and within days she made good on a promise to connect him with some federal officials he was trying to reach.

“I’ve never been really hung up on the party stuff locally,” Powell said. “I think it’s more [a question of] who can help us get stuff done. I see that in Heather.”

Powell said his willingness to back Mizeur publicly has resulted in some “blowback.” He conceded that she faces an uphill battle, despite a well-funded and energetic campaign. “I’m not naive. This is a very conservative district,” he said. “But she’s working hard. She’s out there.”

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, a Democrat who was elected in a nonpartisan election, said Mizeur “reaches out frequently, with ideas.” He also said she has built relationships with farmers and watermen better than “anybody who’s run for Congress since Wayne Gilchrest,” a former GOP congressman who Harris defeated in a primary a dozen years ago.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has 35 candidates on its “red to blue” list — seats now held by Republicans that the party hopes to flip. The Harris-Mizeur race is not on that list. Still, many in the party would love to oust the hard-charging incumbent, who was a vocal critical of Hogan’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Gilchrest, who now identifies as a Democrat and has mostly endorsed Democrats in the past dozen years, is backing Mizeur.

“Heather Mizeur would be a tremendous asset to our Maryland congressional Delegation as a pragmatic, results-oriented leader focused on lowering costs for families and building rural communities and small businesses,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D) in a statement.

“At a time when extreme MAGA Republicans like Andy Harris want to sow fear, stoke division, and play partisan politics with people’s lives, Heather stands ready to bring people together with common-sense leadership.”

Term limits pledge evaporates

When Harris, a former state senator, first sought a seat in Congress, he said he would serve no more than six terms. It’s unclear when — or why — he decided not to honor that pledge. The lawmaker has enough seniority on the House Appropriations Committee to potentially win a subcommittee chairmanship if Republicans retake the chamber. It would the first leadership post of his nearly 25 years in office.

In the email, Harris’s campaign spokesman said the congressman would use the post to fight “out-of-control government spending,” and to stop the flow of “illegal aliens… some of whom are smuggling the most dangerous narcotic to ever hit our streets, fentanyl.” He said Harris would also continue working to protect the Chesapeake Bay from invasive species and toward a “permanent bipartisan solution” to the H-2b visa issues that have hampered some Eastern Shore employers.

Although he is expected to cruise to victory, the lawmaker remains an enigma to many people outside his district. A Johns Hopkins-trained physician, Harris helped lead a three-day filibuster on a 1999 proposal to increase Maryland’s tobacco tax, a move that led an advocacy organization to run radio spots against him.

“We thought it was important for the people of Maryland to know that a group of state Senators took the side of tobacco companies against our kids,” said Vincent DeMarco, a leading health advocate.

If Harris is sweating the challenge from Mizeur, he is not showing it. Until just recently, his campaign website prominently featured dire pandemic warnings leftover from March, 2020. They were removed days ago, after a reporter inquired about them. As of Wednesday, Harris’s “issues” tab consisted of media links from his 2020 race.

The incumbent enters the homestretch with more cash on hand than his challenger, thanks in part to funds he’s collected from fellow anesthesiologists.

Mizeur has a website that is brimming with content, including a “10-Point Plan to Boost our First District Economy,” endorsements and glossy video. There is also a section where she answers questions posed by voters.