Mikulski keeps balance in D.C. and Baltimore Image: Despite a reputation as a blunt-speaking outsider, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski handles the politics of Washington shrewdly.

August 24, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Out on the stump, Barbara Ann Mikulski sometimes trips over key phrases, and her blurry "l"s and "r"s complicate an already strong East Baltimore accent. What animates her, and what propels her listeners, is not eloquence but the seeming force of her conviction.

Not quite 5 feet tall, a bit jowly and two years past 60, Mikulski somehow stands out by the virtue of being unremarkable. After almost 30 years in public life, including a dozen in the U.S. Senate, voters still call her by her first name and claim her as one of their own: an unflinching outsider championing the little guy.

"She is tremendous," said Mary Alice Marks, a Democrat from Frederick who recently caught sight of Mikulski on a damp day at the Monocacy Dam. Mikulski stood in a yellow rain slicker near an immaculately groomed Hillary Rodham Clinton and self-deprecatingly compared herself to a school crossing guard. "There is only one lady like her in the country," Marks said, "but she tells it like it is."

The Maryland Democrat draws heavily on that blunt-spoken, populist image as she makes her bid for a third six-year term in the Senate against a pack of political unknowns. Yet that's not the Mikulski her colleagues see in Washington, where she is regarded as a shrewd player in the cutthroat game of power politics.

Mikulski doesn't fight the system. She works the system. She is the system -- working the process to get what she wants, shedding her relatively liberal views when they prove inconvenient and deftly courting the special interests who bankroll re-election campaigns.

"If she were a 6-foot white guy, would she be as noteworthy?" asked Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst, describing most of Mikulski's Senate colleagues. "Barbara Mikulski definitely is an insider. She is atypical purely on the basis of looks."

Her political horse-swapping has alienated a few former supporters, such as J. G. Bell of Pittsboro, N.C. In January, the Mikulski campaign contributor read a magazine article by Sen. Dale Bumpers, an Arkansas Democrat, that was highly critical of federal subsidies to companies that conduct mining on federal lands in Western states. Mikulski voted for the continued subsidy, which is backed by many Western senators.

"I know what Barbara has to do -- she has to trade her vote for something that's more important to Maryland," said Bell, a retiree who contributes to liberal candidates active on issues affecting women and the environment. "I thought, 'OK, Barbara, you'll get no more money from me.' "

Doing what's necessary

But Mikulski's ability to work the system -- which she uses most often to collect pork barrel projects for Maryland -- cements her popularity with some conservative constituents who might otherwise object to her advocacy for women's rights, abortion rights and union causes.

"She is so demonstrably good for the state that regardless of what political [stripe] you are, it's hard to imagine being against what she's done," said Baltimore banker H. Furlong Baldwin, a prominent Republican who nonetheless contributes to Mikulski campaigns. "She's delivered the goods."

In a pair of recent interviews, Mikulski said she has been able to juggle her interest in women's rights and abortion rights in the Senate with a keen focus on the more parochial, bread-and-butter concerns of her constituents. "I did it all," she said.

Characteristically prickly, and unreflective about her years in Washington, Mikulski also contended that she has not changed since entering the House of Representatives in 1977.

"I am consistent, whether it was working in my father's grocery store as a kid, to doing volunteer work in high school and college, to doing social work and what I'm doing now," Mikulski said.

Yet Mikulski, like Maryland and much of the nation, seems to have listed to the right over the past few years.

In her earliest days in politics, she clearly could be found in the liberal wing of her party. Eighteen years ago, while still a member of the House, Mikulski bucked the Democratic Party leadership to support Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in a primary battle against President Jimmy Carter, whom she considered insufficiently attentive to the needs of the poor. For a brief stretch during the early 1980s, applicants for jobs in her office were judged on the degree to which they agreed with the feminist writings of a Marxist academic, then a close Mikulski friend.

Senator has mellowed

Nowadays, while still capable of an occasional anti-Republican tirade, Mikulski has emerged as a fixture in the nation's political establishment. She is currently the third highest official in the Senate's Democratic leadership. And her chief of staff is Shaila R. Aery, who served as higher education secretary for Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond when he was governor of Missouri.

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