Senate's dean of women


2004 Election

The Race: U.s. Senate

October 24, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Barbara Mikulski couldn't have set up the encounter to better advantage. Two tourists are midway through an autumn lunch on a restaurant terrace a few feet from the brick dock where Mikulski is pointing out what used to be at the tip of Fells Point - and the superhighway she helped to divert that would have replaced the horizon.

The visitors, toying with the idea of moving to Baltimore, recognize Mikulski and ask to shake her hand. That is all it takes for the three-term senator, the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate, up for re-election Nov. 2, to shift full-throttle into candidate mode, pointing out landmarks, rattling off job opportunities at nearby hospitals and needling Julie Kreiner, a computer store inventory manager from Oak Park, Ill., and Harriet Coles, a physical therapist from Chicago, to vote for Barack Obama, a Democrat running for a Senate seat in Illinois. "If you can't vote for me, vote for him," Mikulski says, flashing a fleeting smile.

"Now, about Fells Point: This is the center of everything. If you go up two blocks, there's a Long and Foster Realtor's office. You're in the shadow of Johns Hopkins. Liz," she motions to an aide, "get their information so we can send them something."

Then Mikulski is back on the damp cobblestones where Broadway dead-ends at Thames Street. In real estate, location is everything. Same goes for Maryland's junior senator. This is where her story took root.

Four stories above the lunching ladies, balconies and windows wrap Mikulski's hometown office on three sides.

From the senator's birch desk, the view takes in the curve of Fort McHenry, the former Domino Sugar factory and Federal Hill. Mikulski, 68, daughter of a grocer and granddaughter of a baker, keeps her window cracked open to hear the noises of the working port.

Ground zero

All of this is Mikulski's ground zero, the scene of a disaster averted, a place where harbor would have been earth-filled and hills would have been leveled in a colossal transportation project designed to link Interstate 83 to Interstate 95 in a three-mile dogleg through Southeast Baltimore. In all, 16 lanes of asphalt would have been laid through the Inner Harbor, meeting in a cloverleaf at about the spot where 13 million visitors descend each year on Harborplace. Thousands of homes and businesses several blocks inland on both sides of the water were plowed under, and thousands more were slated for demolition before the project was halted.

The road riled the ethnic working-class communities along Baltimore's port and turned Mikulski, a Catholic-schooled social worker, into a civic activist.

She climbed atop a table in Helen's Saloon one night in 1969 and snapped that the British lost their battle to take over Baltimore's harbor in 1814 - and so would the urban transportation planners hell-bent on paving over the waterfront.

Wisecracks, a bulldog's tenacity and a comforting populist persona have helped make Mikulski a household name during a decade's public service in the House and 18 years in the Senate.

But a poll this month by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies shows her approval rating slipping, down six points since June to 59 percent, her lowest showing in an election run-up.

Fifty-eight percent of likely voters surveyed said they would vote for her on Election Day, while 34 percent said they would vote for her opponent, first-term Republican state Sen. E.J. Pipkin. Meanwhile, though 51 percent of Maryland Republicans disapprove of Mikulski's performance in Congress, one-third said they approve of her record - a disparity that highlights a dilemma the state GOP has faced when trying to unseat her over the past two decades.

Her campaign has taken in $5.6 million to date, more than twice what her challenger has raised, with $2.46 million cash in hand as of this week.

Most of the contributions come from individuals. Pipkin has poured more than $1 million of his own money into an effort to convince voters Mikulski is out of touch.

"What we have is a personality senator who shakes her fist in front of television cameras like a fighter and then goes to Washington, D.C., and has a voting record that is very different," Pipkin said.

By Pipkin's count, out of thousands of votes cast in her decades on Capitol Hill, Mikulski has cast 354 for higher taxes. Bay grasses have diminished under her watch, as have crab and oyster yields. And, he says, she has voted against the F-18 fighter jet and B-2 bomber programs and pay raises for the military. A flurry of Pipkin television ads poses the question: "Who knew?"

Mikulski says isolated votes have been taken out of context. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, she records her accomplishments in money doled out and bills pushed to passage, rather than by the votes she has cast.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.