Support for Mikulski defies anti-incumbent clamor CAMPAIGN '92

August 16, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

It's early morning at Jimmy's restaurant, a cacophony of clinking plates and shouts for coffee. The talk turns to the nation's capital, and Calvert Lamke's mood turns sour.

"There's got to be some changes in Washington," grumbles the 69-year-old Foster Avenue resident, perched on a counter stool waiting for his ham and eggs. "What we got in there ain't so good."

Congress is out of touch. The economy's in a shambles. Average voters are forgotten, says Mr. Lamke and other diners, mostly working-class people angry and bewildered by America's decline.

The door swings open. In strolls a member of Congress, right here in Fells Point.

Mr. Lamke swivels around. "Hi, Barb," he says cheerily to the junior senator from Maryland, as Barbara A. Mikulski greets him and winds her way through the room, with an outstretched hand and a ready name. "Oh, Barb, she's a friend of mine," he confides, turning back.

And you'll vote for her? "Oh yeah," Mr. Lamke says without hesitation, a response echoed by others in this anti-incumbent crowd. "She does a lot of fighting for the elderly people, fighting for the veterans. I've known her since she was a kid. She's got a good reputation."

In this turbulent political year, replete with record-breaking congressional departures and a voter mood bordering on torch-bearing insurrection, Ms. Mikulski's re-election effort appears to be as calm as the misty harbor waters off Thames Street.

A Mason-Dixon poll of 815 registered voters taken in early June found that 61 percent would back her re-election, up from 53 percent in February.

Her GOP opponent, Alan L. Keyes, was the choice of 28 percent of those polled in June, down from 36 percent in February.

Del Ali, Mason Dixon's vice president, expects Ms. Mikulski to win easily in November, calling it "the safest Senate seat in the country."

Yet, behind her support is a glaring irony: While voters clamor for spending cuts, Ms. Mikulski is an old-fashioned, big spending liberal. She flatly says that the federal budget has been trimmed enough.

The senator is aided by the voters' own ambivalence toward the federal budget.

They decry federal spending -- but not the millions spent for their favored programs and projects.

"It's infrastructure improvement if it affects me," explained one Capitol Hill aide. "It's pork barrel if it affects you."

Ms. Mikulski's success in keeping federal money flowing to Maryland, her dogged constituent work and her liberal views are recipe for success, allowing her to carry the urban ethnics, blacks and the suburbanites who dwell around the state's two vastly different population centers: Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

Her efforts at keeping the Curtis Bay shipyard open in Baltimore and providing money for the Veterans Administration Hospital win strong plaudits from blue-collar Democrats.

Meanwhile, her votes against Supreme Court Justices David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas and her pro-abortion rights stand plays well in such tony areas as Montgomery County.

"Barbara knows the formula [for victory]," says a longtime state political analyst.

As long as Ms. Mikulski carries the Baltimore-Washington corridor, it matters little in a statewide election that her politics are largely rejected by the more conservative -- and sparsely populated -- areas of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

A savvy campaigner, this bread-and-butter Democrat is something of a chameleon on plaid, adjusting to the political hue of the moment. When she announced for re-election last fall, she highlighted a middle-class tax break for "my favorite endangered species."

More recently, amid calls for change from the electorate, the middle-class tax cut has faded into the background and she touts herself as a "pro-change incumbent" -- even though she has become one of the inside players on Capitol Hill.

During the Democratic National Convention in New York, she was given two prime-time televised chances to trumpet the change theme, introducing a string of female Senate candidates and then nominating Senate colleague Al Gore for vice president.

Six years ago, observers and critics doubted that this brash, pushy five-term Baltimore congresswoman with the 4-foot-11-inch swagger and the booming voice was "senatorial" enough.

But she swamped two high-powered Democrats, Gov. Harry Hughes and Rep. Michael D. Barnes of Montgomery County, to win the primary. Then she went on to easily dispatch the conservative GOP nominee, Linda Chavez, a Reagan administration official with few ties to Maryland.

Arriving in the Senate as the first Democratic woman elected in her own right, she won a spot on the powerful Appropriations Committee, rising to head its subcommittee that oversees spending for federal housing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Through her subcommittee chairmanship she has kept Maryland awash in federal money.

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