BALTIMORE – Barbara Mikulski began her political career in the pews and folding chairs of a Fells Point storefront mission surrounded by longshoremen, auto workers, carpenters and steel workers.
The community meeting place, tucked into Baltimore’s historic waterfront, and the neighbors assembled before her served as the first arena for Mikulski’s explosive speeches as she led the fight against a proposed 16-lane highway that would have plowed through Fells Point and the area where the Inner Harbor stands today.
Twenty-five years later, Sen. Barbara Mikulski – the self- described “blue-collar senator” – still meets with watermen, factory workers, senior citizens and local entrepreneurs. But these days, it’s with the clout of one of the most powerful women in Congress.
“She’s a role model to many young women who said that if Barbara Mikulski could become a U.S. senator, then you can do it without having been born rich or married to a former senator,” said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland’s lieutenant governor.
This month marks a quarter century of public service for Mikulski, a Polish-American social worker who entered public life when she defeated two all-male political machines to win a seat on the Baltimore City Council.
“I knocked on 15,000 doors and was mugged by 43 chihuahuas,” the 4-foot-11-inch senator said. “I had this vision that I was going to get 10,000 votes and lose 10,000 pounds.”
Although the cheese steak lunches with sides of fries defeated her diet, Mikulski’s two opponents could not penetrate the support she amassed through grass-roots politicking.
While she still courts her constituents back home, the junior senator from Maryland now travels the state and nation, entertaining crowds with her tart-tongued commentary on Washington politics.
One of only four women to hold office in both houses of Congress and the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right, Mikulski has earned recognition as a fighter for some often-overlooked members of society – women, the elderly and young people – and an ultra-liberal rating.
During a decade in the House and another in the Senate, she has drafted sexual harassment policies for federal workers, rallied behind legislation that provided funds to help put boys and girls on equal footing in the classroom, secured millions of dollars for breast and cervical cancer prevention and supported a program for students to trade community service for college tuition money through President Clinton’s Americorps program.
She fought a 10-year ban on taxpayer-financed abortions for federal workers; pressured the architect of the Capitol to improve job opportunities for minorities and women; called for public hearings on sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-0re.; and sponsored legislation that effectively prevented spouses from losing everything when their mates needed expensive nursing home care.
“While Marylanders are her constituents, women across the country have been her constituents as well,” said Melinda Towne, Maryland president of the National Organization for Women. “She has a really global perspective for the federal level.”
But some critics contend that the world in which Mikulski governs has the unmistakable tint of liberalism.
“Her agenda is so completely opposite of the Republican agenda – less government, downsizing, less taxes – that I certainly wouldn’t be able to give her a high rating on votes like that,” said Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party. “We see her as one of the traditional, staunch liberals in Congress that we would like to see replaced.”
The American Conservative Union listed Mikulski on its Political Dunces chart, indicating she voted against the conservative movement on 20 key issues during the 104th Congress. Among Mikulski’s votes the group opposed were those against term limits for members of Congress, welfare reform and a ban on late- term, “partial-birth” abortions.
But even those who oppose her leftward leanings acknowledge her success with constituent services.
“As a conservative Republican … I would be much happier politically for her to be more conservative,” said Allan Levey, an oral surgeon who ran candidates against Mikulski from 1979 to 1986 as chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. “But I respect Barbara Mikulski for her service to the state of Maryland.”
Levey was one of many – including former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Gov. Parris Glendening – who offered unsolicited stories about how the senator had personally helped them.
Several years ago, a bill that would have raised the salaries of Veterans Association physicians came up in the Senate. As chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on VA, HUD and independent agencies, Mikulski wielded considerable influence over the bill’s outcome.
“The bill neglected to mention the dentists,” Levey said. “I was told to call her up. She asked me how many dentists were in the VA. When I called back and told her, she said, `OK, that’s all I need,’ and she helped the dentists get a pay raise.
“That’s very significant,” he added. “It didn’t matter who I was. It only mattered that there were constituents in the state of Maryland who were being unfairly treated and she did something about it.”
Glendening, a Democrat, also praised his colleague’s efficiency. After the January blizzard dumped more than 20 inches of snow on the Maryland area, state officials had trouble securing federal aid to clear roads and repair damage, the governor said.
“Barbara came into my office during the snow, called the president right there from my office, and the next day we had federal aid,” Glendening said.
But Linda Chavez, an administrator in the Reagan White House and the GOP candidate Mikulski defeated in her 1986 run for the Senate, said the 60-year-old Democrat’s deficiencies transcend partisan politics.
“I don’t think she’s been a leader,” said Chavez, now president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit research group that specializes in areas of race, ethnicity and immigration. “There are a few areas where she takes leadership – such as Americorps.” But that program, Chavez said, “has been an unmitigated boondoggle and terrible waste of taxpayers’ dollars.”
Sen. Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., is among a long list of Democratic colleagues and friends who vouched for Mikulski’s leadership skills. She is the only woman of the elected Democratic leadership.
“We like to see Barbara on the Senate floor and at news conferences because of her ability to articulate,” Daschle said.
The glossy mahogany furniture, vaulted ceilings, ornate gold etchings and imported English tiles of the Capitol and its Democratic Leadership Suite are all a fairy tale-like leap from Fells Point and Highlandtown, where Mikulski and her two sisters worked at their parents’ grocery store, Willie’s Food Market.
Friends who knew her before her days in Congress say she has retained her down-to-earth, no-nonsense ability to relate to people. And, they add, it has been a key to her success. Nick Filipidis, a longtime friend of Mikulski and owner of Jimmy’s Restaurant in Fells Point, said, “She knows how to talk to people – from Einstein down to the local street people – and make them feel comfortable.” -30-