Mikulski's milestone: the Senate's longest-serving woman

Maryland Democrat will set record Wednesday when sworn in for a fifth term

  • Sen. Barbara Mikulski in her district office in Baltimore's Fells Point.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski in her district office in Baltimore's… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
January 05, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Every other month, one of the most exclusive clubs in Washington gathers for dinner. Even at a time of increasing partisanship, the group includes both Democrats and Republicans. And in an era of ever-diminishing secrecy, there is a virtual cone of public silence over what transpires at the table.

"There are three rules," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, one of the organizers of the dinners. "No staff, no memos, no leaks."

She could have added: No Y- chromosomes, either.

That there can even be a decent-size dinner party made up of just the female members of the Senate is testament to how much has changed since Mikulski joined in 1987, when a table for two would have sufficed.

Now there are 17. And on Wednesday, when Mikulski is sworn in for her fifth term, the Maryland Democrat becomes the longest-serving woman in Senate history.

Through the years Mikulski — the first female Democrat to be elected to the Senate in her own right — has styled herself "the dean of the Senate women." It's an unofficial title, but one that has shaped her role in the Capitol and provided her with a network beyond her own party.

"She's a great mentor to all of us," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican. "She's a powerhouse. She knows how to get things done."

Snowe said she goes "way back" with Mikulski, to the 1970s when both served in the House of Representatives, and she will be among those speaking on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday when a resolution honoring the Maryland senator is to be introduced.

Snowe likens her friend to the "legend" from her own state, Margaret Chase Smith — whose 24 years in the Senate Mikulski will surpass calling both women hard workers devoted to their constituents back home.

Despite her decades of working in Washington, the 74-year-old Mikulski hasn't moved there, preferring to remain in her hometown and commute. Her office in Baltimore is in Fells Point, not far from where she grew up a grocer's daughter in Highlandtown. "Now it's called Brewer's Hill," she said, wryly.

"She's very much a part of Baltimore," said former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a close friend. "People identify with her, I think. They see her as a fighter. They appreciate that.

"She reacts very strongly to unfairness and inequity," Sarbanes said, citing in particular Mikulski's work in increasing access to Medicaid. "She gets hold of something and just stays with it in a very persistent and dedicated way."

In a city of long memories, she probably will always be linked to the cause that first brought local fame to the feisty social worker and eventually led to a political career: opposition to a proposed 16-lane highway that would have cut through East Baltimore.

"Nowadays, when you go east across Baltimore, from Harbor East to Fells Point to Canton, and you see all that development and all the residential communities — that would have been a highway going across there," Sarbanes said.

After helping to block the highway, Mikulski won a seat on the Baltimore City Council in 1971, and after losing a race for Senate in 1974 was elected two years later to the House.

She has since become part of a political lineage that has proved remarkably stable over the years. Her House seat was held previously by Sarbanes, and when she joined him in the Senate, she was succeeded by Benjamin L. Cardin. When Sarbanes retired, Cardin won his Senate seat. (And Sarbanes' son, John, won the congressional seat that his father, Mikulski and Cardin had each held.)

She served on the City Council when William Donald Schaefer was mayor, and counts among her former campaign and office staffers Martin O'Malley, now governor, who issued a statement this week congratulating her on the Senate milestone and lauding "her advocacy and steadfast commitment to Maryland's families."

But that kind of clubbiness has also drawn detractors. Even as Mikulski remains one of the state's most popular politicians, winning each of her Senate re-election races with at least 60 percent of the vote, her last opponent says she epitomizes business as usual in Washington.

"I don't think [Marylanders] have been well served by her," said Eric Wargotz, the former president of the Queen Anne's County Commission, who lost to Mikulski in November. During the campaign, he portrayed her as an entrenched Democrat too willing to increase taxes and government spending — an argument that failed in his race, even as it proved successful elsewhere in the country.

"People are accustomed to her being there. They're comfortable with her name identification — her name identification is 100 percent, or 95 percent," Wargotz said with a laugh. "And it's hard for folks to pull the other lever."

Even as she prepares for her fifth term in the Senate, Mikulski remembers what it was like being new — and being one of just two women there at the time, with Republican Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas.

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