Mikulski hits the trail for women

Maryland's senior senator will travel the country to help women up for re-election in 2012

  • Senator Barbara Mikulski in her district office in Baltimore's Fells Point. She is the longest serving female Senator.
Senator Barbara Mikulski in her district office in Baltimore's… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
May 21, 2011|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — Like other Democrats in Congress, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is battling Republican budget cuts and working to bring home federal money for her state. But as the 2012 election nears, Maryland's senior senator is also playing a role in national politics: helping to elect more women to Congress.

As the longest-serving woman in the chamber's history, the self-styled Dean of the Senate Women is poised to become a powerful messenger and fundraiser for female Democratic senators running for re-election across the country next year. Eighteen months before voters head to the polls, Mikulski is already in high demand.

Her efforts come at a challenging time for the Democratic Party, which will be forced to defend twice as many Senate seats as the GOP next year, just two years after losing control of the House of Representatives.

The number of women in Congress, meanwhile, fell this year for the first time in more than three decades — leaving advocates for women in politics anxious to recapture lost ground.

Mikulski's reaction: No problem.

"I'm going to organize the women into a SWAT team," said Mikulski, who won her own re-election last year to a fifth term representing Maryland in the Senate with 62 percent of the vote. "We're going to be like NATO: An attack on one will be an attack on all."

Mikulski traveled to Seattle in February to speak at a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for Sen. Maria Cantwell, a two-term Democrat from Washington who is up for re-election next year. In June, she will head to Michigan for Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Earlier this month she was the keynote speaker at an event organized by EMILY's List, a liberal Washington-based group that raises money for female candidates.

Because she has positioned herself as a leader on women's issues in Congress — and because she will not be on the ballot in Maryland again until 2016 —analysts say Mikulski could play a significant role in several states, including Missouri, Michigan and Washington, as candidates look to court women voters.

"She confers some degree of credibility to these candidates, but she can also tell a very real story," said Jennifer Lawless, who heads the Women and Politics Institute at American University. "Barbara Mikulski is in a position to help out this election because she doesn't have to worry about her own race."

Seventeen women, 12 Democrats and five Republicans, serve in the Senate. Seven of them, six Democrats and one Republican, are up for election next year. The incumbents include Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, among the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who was appointed and won a special election to serve out the last three years of Hillary Clinton's Senate term after Clinton became secretary of state in 2009.

"She always has a role," said Stabenow, who could be in for a fight herself this year if Republicans find a high-profile challenger. She said Mikulski, who grew up in East Baltimore and worked in her parents' grocery story as a high school student, connects with voters in Michigan.

"In Michigan, Senator Mikulski is viewed as a real champion of the American automobile industry and manufacturing," Stabenow said.

Decades of growth in the number of women in Congress came to a halt after last year's election. In the Senate, the number of women remained constant at 17. But in the House of Representatives, the number of female lawmakers fell by two to 88, or about 20 percent of the chamber.

The number of Republican women in the House increased by eight to 29, while the number of Democrats dropped by 10 to 59.

Because Democratic women in Congress still outnumber their Republican counterparts by more than 2 to 1, part of the decrease is simply a byproduct of the historic gains the GOP made in the 2010 election. Riding a wave of anger over the economy and Democratic policies, the GOP picked up 63 new seats in the House to recapture the majority.

Of 13 new senators elected last year only one, Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, is a woman.

Mikulski, 74, has gained national prominence by focusing on women's issues. The former social worker left her mark on the Democratic health care overhaul, adding language to require insurance companies to offer mammograms and other health services to women for free. She also championed legislation that makes it easier for women to sue employers for equal pay, which became the first act of Congress signed by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2009.

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