Mikulski breaks the glass ceiling

March 06, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — An article in Sunday's Sun on Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski should have stated that Jimmy's restaurant is in Fells Point. A photo caption accompanying the article should have stated that Ms. Mikulski was introducing President Clinton last year at a forum on Summer of Service, a pilot project for the Clinton administration's initiative on voluntary national service for young people.

The Sun regrets the errors.

WASHINGTON -- You can almost see the 4-foot-11-inch politician rise in stature as she excuses herself from a Senate committee meeting, saying that, regrettably, she must leave because she has an appointment at the White House.

You can almost hear her piling up political chits as she discusses a piece of the Clinton health care plan with a group of union leaders, saying, "Mrs. Clinton has really pressed me on this."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

With Democrats in high places and her hand on federal purse strings, Barbara A. Mikulski sits at the apex of what she calls "a unique convergence" of political stars.

It is a convergence that has propelled her, in the second year of her second term as a senator, from her role as scrappy, abrasive East Baltimore firecracker to that of bona fide Washington player. And it has moved her onto a grander, more visible and nationally oriented stage where she has a piece of everything from health care reform to space exploration.

"You name it and I'm in it," says the 57-year-old senator.

Coming on the heels of a year in which five other women followed her into the nation's most exclusive men's club, Ms. Mikulski's ascendancy is seen by many as the next chapter for women in politics. Having proven that a woman can get elected to the Senate, the junior senator from Maryland is now proving that she can amass real power.

But as she wields a mightier hand as dean of the Democratic women, as a member of the Democratic leadership, and as one of the 13 so-called cardinals -- the members of the Appropriations Committee who slice up the federal pie -- there's an ever-increasing gap between the gritty Baltimore street pol who comes home to her old neighborhood every night and the Washington insider and power broker who is watching bowl games on New Year's Day with the president and several hundred of his heavy-thinker friends.

"She wants to take a giant leap -- and I think she's taking it," says state Del. Maggie McIntosh, her former campaign manager.

It is a delicate dance that she does now, rising in senatorial stature while holding onto the true blue-collar Bawlamer style -- including the foghorn voice that smashes vowels like a crab mallet -- that has been her calling card.

"I know she's been thinking about it," says Ann Lewis, a prominent national Democrat who is part of a "strategy group" of high-powered women who advise the senator regularly. "She's thinking, 'How do you move forward in national leadership and still represent your state? How do you balance that?' "

Ms. Mikulski doesn't acknowledge any conflict, insisting that her rise in the Senate is only putting a strain on her time, not changing her agenda.

"I didn't get here by trying to assemble a glittering resume or getting my ticket punched," she says in an interview.

"I have always focused on people's day-to-day needs, what we can do to enhance that, and yet simultaneously look at the long-range needs that would affect them. So I regard every moment as my moment."

After 10 unremarkable years in the House, where her abrasiveness didn't play well among colleagues, she has surprised many by her effectiveness and rapid rise in the Senate.

Elected in 1986 as the first Democratic woman to win a Senate seat in her own right, Ms. Mikulski set out to play the game just as the boys did.

"She made sure that those men who were up there on Mount Rushmore -- [Robert C.] Byrd, [Majority Leader George J.] Mitchell -- knew she was in their corner," says Melissa Line, a Goucher College political scientist who studies women in Congress.

She toned down the brusqueness -- trading in the "Schwarzkopf with earrings" bit for a more decorous, conciliatory air -- and aggressively pursued a seat on the coveted Appropriations Committee.

She particularly cultivated West Virginia's quirky Senator Byrd, then majority leader and the committee's ranking Democrat, who says he admired the freshman's "spunk" and made her something of a protege. Like the city mouse and her country cousin, these two Senate eccentrics, who rose from humble beginnings to national prominence, make for one of the oddest pairs on Capitol Hill.

"She came to me, and I worked hard to get her on there," says Mr. Byrd, now the committee chairman.

After only two years on the panel, and the retirement of several lawmakers, Ms. Mikulski catapulted to the chairmanship of the subcommittee that controls funds for veterans, housing and urban programs and 25 federal agencies.

After defense, the subcommittee's $80 billion purse contains the biggest bundle of dollars for lawmakers to divide.

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