Mikulski vs. NASA: They better look out, hon

March 14, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

OF BARBARA A. Mikulski, the junior U.S. senator from Maryland, it used to be said that she never saw a road she didn't hate, and that she and her grass-roots supporters in East Baltimore were the enemies of progress.

This was more that three decades ago, when Mikulski and her bedrock supporters in the Southeast Community Organization took on the formidable powers that were. These powers wanted to build an interstate highway through East Baltimore. Mikulski argued, correctly, that the road and the heavy traffic it would bring would shatter the shaken old neighborhoods of Fells Point, Highlandtown and Canton.

They killed plans for that road eventually. And as for progress, if they had not killed it, the beautiful redevelopment of East Baltimore with its trendy dwellings, eateries, saloons and shops might never have happened.

The fight against the road was then. Now, Mikulski is expected to be re-elected this November to a fourth term in the U.S. Senate. She and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, both natives of East Baltimore and graduates of the Institute of Notre Dame on Asquith Street, are two of the most powerful women in the country.

Now, Mikulski -- who went from community activist in 1971, to a seat on the City Council from 1971 to 1976, and served 10 years in the House of Representatives before she was elected to the Senate in 1986 -- is fighting for progress and for a road of sorts.

This road is the path being discovered and revealed to us by the Hubble Space Telescope. Last week, astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute at our own Johns Hopkins University, displayed a stunning collection of photographs sent back to Earth from the Hubble telescope, revealing galaxies so ancient and distant far away they are within a "stone's throw" of the Big Bang itself. The problem with this road is that it's about to be dead-ended.

The Hubble's batteries are running out of juice. Unless the power supply is replenished, the Hubble could will die in as few as three years. The original plan was for that work to be done by astronauts aboard a space shuttle, but that plan ran into a very serious problem after the Columbia space shuttle fell apart on re-entry 13 months ago, killing all the astronauts on board.

Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, said he wouldn't send another shuttle to fix the Hubble, and Mikulski and other politicians and scientists set up a clamor demanding that he consult experts before making a firm decision. Last Thursday, O'Keefe said he had decided the shuttle definitely would not be sent to save the Hubble. Given the Columbia disaster and its causes, he asserted that it would be "fundamentally irresponsible," to send a shuttle.

O'Keefe said that sending the shuttle would not be compatible with the work being done to meet safety guidelines demanded by the board that investigated the Columbia accident. "Could we do this and take the risk? Sure," O'Keefe said. "But somebody else has to make that decision -- not me."

This does not seem in the spirit of Lewis and Clark. And let's face it, the "someone" would probably have to be the president, and he's no Thomas Jefferson. Bush is so obsessed with Mars these days, you'd think there was oil up there.

Mikulski was not pleased. "The future of the Hubble cannot be made by one person alone," she said. At least that's what she said publicly.

Mikulski is an influential member of the committee that oversees NASA's budget. If O'Keefe thinks he has heard the last of her, he ought to consult Baltimore political ghosts, some of them once titans of the city's political machinery for whom the tiny woman from East Baltimore became a fatal wrench in the works.

When Mikulski ran for the City Council from East Baltimore's 1st District in 1971, the notorious "Fighting First" was run by political bosses who liked to make deals in back rooms. They had names like Hofferbert and Bertorelli, of the Hofferbert-Bertorelli organization, a direct descendant of the D'Alesandro machine, named after "Old Tommy" D'Alesandro Jr., who had been mayor and congressman.

Two unrivaled captains of the organization were city Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro and his pal, Joseph S. Bonvegna, who became a state senator. Between them, they had difficulty speaking intelligent English, but they knew the wards and precincts and who voted, and maybe even how often.

Also in the district was Sen. Joseph J. Staszak, a former tavern owner. He was once asked if he saw a conflict with his ownership of a bar while he was serving on the Baltimore liquor board. The arrogance of the small bosses of his day was manifest in his reply: "It don't conflict with my interest."

(Staszak was convicted in 1979 for the conflict that didn't conflict with his interest, and for not paying taxes.)

Mikulski beat these guys at their own game. By the time she and the reform interests (and prosecutors) were finished, Bonvegna sounded like he was crying uncle.

"We don't have an organization and I'm not the leader," he told me in 1979.

Yeah, added DiPietro, "This is a new trend. The old way is out."

Now Mikulski did not do this to the bosses single-handedly. She could schmooze with the best of them after getting her way. It was what she represented and what they did to themselves. But they knew she was not to be fooled with.

O'Keefe ought to look at the history before he butts heads with Mikulski.

This is one tough, not-so-gracious lady. Got that, hon?

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