Josh Kurtz: Coates of Armor

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By: Josh Kurtz 

If Heather Mizeur and Delman Coates had children together, they would look a lot like Bill de Blasio’s teenaged kids.

That may sound like a crude observation, considering Mizeur, the state delegate and Democratic candidate for governor, is a lesbian, and Coates, a minister and Mizeur’s new running mate, is a happily married father of four.

But it goes to a greater point: de Blasio, the newly elected mayor of New York, is now the role model for Mizeur and her campaign – as he has become for progressive longshots all across the country. Tapping Coates as her No. 2 burnishes Mizeur’s progressive credentials considerably and helps her wage a de Blasio-style campaign. Whether she can duplicate de Blasio’s success is another matter entirely.

Conventional wisdom will say that Coates is, at best, a puzzling pick.

As a two-term legislator running against two statewide elected officials in the Democratic primary, Mizeur needed a running mate with a lot of government experience, someone who could step in as governor on day one, if necessary. Coates, for all his talents and potential, fails the test.

The CW will say that Mizeur could have gotten some political pop if she’d picked an LG from Baltimore, since Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown went with Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Attorney General Doug Gansler chose Prince George’s Del. Jolene Ivey. Instead of demonstrating her concern for Baltimore, Mizeur has joined the parade of gubernatorial contenders who are dissing political and community leaders in important Democratic territory.

And the CW will rightly note that African-American ministers have not gotten very far in Maryland politics. Just to name two examples, Frank Reid lost his bid for Congress, and Anthony Muse has lost races for U.S. Senate and Prince George’s County executive and is in danger of losing his state Senate seat next year.

But granting all these stipulations, let’s face it: Would a longshot contender like Mizeur have been able to persuade a senior officeholder to join her ticket at this stage of the campaign? And why should Mizeur get any more criticism for bypassing potential running mates from Baltimore than Gansler or Brown? Maybe the three Democratic tickets say something about the shifting geographic balance of power in the state. Maybe they even say something about the quality of potential running mates in the Baltimore area.

Coates is best known in the state for being the rare African-American minister who embraced same-sex marriage during the legislative debate in 2012. But he’s far more than that.

In his nine years at Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George’s County, Coates has grown his congregation five-fold. He’s a crusader against poverty, and a passionate advocate for community-based economic development, immigrants’ rights, and health care reform. He has book smarts, street smarts and political smarts, and is a protégé and close ally of Al Sharpton.   

So if you’re Heather Mizeur, looking to distinguish yourself and your campaign from Brown’s and Gansler’s, what’s not to like? Ulman and Ivey are solid running mates, but they’re conventional politicians, running on tickets headed by conventional politicians. Coates, like Mizeur, is something else.

Traditionally in Maryland statewide Democratic primaries, the most liberal candidate does not win. William Donald Schaefer had Steve Sachs on his left. Parris Glendening had Mary Boergers on his left. Ben Cardin had Kweisi Mfume on his left.

But in recent years, the Democratic dynamic has shifted on the national level, fueled by a new breed of party activist who came of age in the era of social media and hard economic times, and it may be shifting here in Maryland. It’s how Barack Obama was able to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2008 and why there is clamor for Elizabeth Warren to run against Clinton in 2016. It explains the anti-Iraq War and Occupy Wall Street movements. It dovetails with the push for a living wage in states and municipalities throughout the country, and the increasing acceptance of gay marriage. And it helped Bill de Blasio win a crowded and competitive Democratic primary for mayor of New York two months ago.

On the ideological scale, de Blasio and his Democratic primary opponents weren’t terribly far apart – just as Mizeur, Brown and Gansler are pretty close on most of the burning questions of the day. The Democratic candidates for mayor were vying to replace a solid liberal in Michael Bloomberg, just as the Democratic candidates for governor are vying to replace a genuine progressive in Martin O’Malley.

But only de Blasio was able to generate energy and excitement behind his campaign, with his call for wholesale changes at City Hall and his pledge to be a voice for the voiceless. He seemed like a plausible messenger, and his strategy worked.

Among the Democratic candidates for governor, Brown by definition cannot be a change agent and Gansler, try as he might to become one, has way too many establishment ties.

You still wouldn’t want to bet a lot of money on Heather Mizeur at this point. To even be considered competitive a few months from now, she’s going to have to be the beneficiary of a lot of unanticipated breaks, the way di Blasio was, and she’s going to have to build momentum with a strong fundraising report, some surprise endorsements, and a robust and memorable paid media campaign.

But even if it was out of necessity rather than by design, she seems to have found herself a pretty good running mate for the campaign she’s trying to wage.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.