This weekend, I marched in a parade with the woman I hope will be Maryland’s next governor. Heather Mizeur would be the first female to hold that office and the first openly gay governor in American history. I think she’s so inspiring that I drove eight hours from New Hampshire just so I could be home to walk with her in our Labor Day parade.

Maryland's Next Governor?

Maryland’s Next Governor?

I confess: although I call myself a recovering lobbyist, I am still addicted to politics if it gets anywhere near me, especially if it marches past in a parade or a protest. Placards and chants are way more compelling than factsheets and lobby meetings.

I can’t help myself. There is something about the idea of making a difference – “being a change agent,” as they say – that is irresistible to me.

After all I’ve witnessed in my career on Capitol Hill, I don’t know why I still believe that one person can make a difference. It’s irrational.  Our democratic system is a hot mess, and corporate power and political corruption are even more out of control than they were when I was a baby lobbyist thirty years ago.

Yet I still hope.

Political Sickness

Most politicians care only about getting re-elected, which usually translates into money. I’ve seen more than one idealistic candidate win an election and then slowly — or rapidly — lose the very values and principles that drove them to run for office in the first place. There seems to be a contagion in the air vents of the U.S. Capitol and in statehouses around the country, and nobody is immune.

The virus is not new; it’s just more widespread these days. Historian Lord Acton’s famous quote from the 1800s is timeless:  “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The first proper English dictionary, published in 1755 by Samuel Johnson, defined a politician as “A man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.”

True Stories

  • A congressman from West Virginia told me about his colleague on the Appropriations Committee who said, It was a good day – I got me a bridge. Now all I have to do is build a river to go under it. Voters like bridges – it was probably named after the congressman.
  • A drunken congresswoman told me in a sloppy tearfest that she didn’t have time for environmental issues anymore because a House Leader had threatened to take away her committee chairmanship if she didn’t raise more money for her political party.
  • Once, a normally pro-oil senator unexpectedly voted to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling. We were still congratulating ourselves on the power of grassroots activism when we found out that the guy’s vote had been the result of a tennis bet between senators. He never voted with us again.
  • Even my biggest hero, the late Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota, voted against environmental protection when it came to agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. I think ADM owns half of the Midwest, and they spent $864,000 on political contributions last year (that’s in addition to the one and a half million they spent lobbying).
  • Another congressman chased a female colleague of mine around his desk trying to kiss her. That’s just gross. She had come in to talk to him about toxic pollution that was being passed to babies through their mothers’ milk.

Don’t you think I could be forgiven for being cynical? I have every reason to tune out and every reason to give up.

Maybe This One’s Different

Still, as I watched Heather Mizeur running from one side of the street to the other shaking hands and gathering energy from the cheers and thumbs up, I couldn’t help hoping. She’s young, she’s energetic, she cares passionately about justice and fairness and protecting the environment. She’s smart as all get-out and strategically savvy. She has what it takesshe could really make a difference.

And I could make a difference in getting her elected.

I caught myself thinking, maybe this one’s different; maybe she won’t be infected by the cash contributions and the tennis bets and the sticky egoic matter that pollute the cold marble halls of power.

Those “in the know” say she’s a long shot. She’s a woman. She’s gay. Her opponents include the Attorney General and the Lieutenant Governor, a couple of guys with strong political and financial connections. Heather’s a state rep.

Whatever happens with Heather, it seems inevitable  that when hope calls, I’ll pull out the poster board and magic markers and start making signs…

Photos from Friends of Heather Mizeur’s Website — I’m the one w/ the homemade sign. She’s the one in the stripes.

After all, what good is living in a democracy if we can’t hope to make a difference?