A nostalgic Sen. Barbara Mikulski returns to Highlandtown for Election Day

Sen. Barbara Mikulski returns to a Highlandtown poll, this time not to vote for herself

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was wrapping up in Highlandtown on Tuesday, getting ready to move to her next destination, when a woman walking to the polls ambushed her from behind.

"I couldn't walk by without giving you a hug," said Sister Mary Ann Hartnett, wrapping her arms around the famously fierce and prickly history-making politician who won her first election in 1971 to the Baltimore City Council and will retire in January after 30 years in the Senate.

"We're going to miss you in that Senate, girl, I tell you," said Hartnett, 77, who grew up a few blocks from Mikulski and was a few years behind her in high school. "Thank you for all that you did for us."

The stop at the Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown was part of a nostalgia trip for Mikulski, a return to the district where she launched her career. During early voting, Mikulski cast her vote there for Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be a major party's nominee for president. Mikulski voted for the country's first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, in the same neighborhood in 1960.

For Mikulski, who boasts the longest career in Congress of any woman, the moment stood out as the first time in decades she wasn't voting for herself.

"That was really a feeling," she said. "I felt like I should have been holding a torch right then and there and handed it to somebody."

Mikulski's retirement comes amid a historic election year for women, though Maryland will send an all-male delegation to Congress for the first time since 1971.

Engineer Christina Mayo, 37, who was volunteering at the polls, said jokingly that she is "afraid" of a Washington delegation without Mikulski, who is known for her fights for women's health and pay and for her success steering money and other opportunities Maryland's way.

"I'm very curious what the new leadership is going to bring and are they going to add on or reduce her accomplishments," Mayo said.

Mikulski, for her part, said she's not worried her retirement will leave a gap.

"When we worked on issues of gender, it was always about an agenda," she said. "Men of quality support women as we seek equality, and I believe Chris Van Hollen will be in that mode," she said of the man she expects to be her successor. "I think it will be OK."

Born in 1936, Mikulski grew up in Highlandtown, attending Catholic schools and sometimes working at her family's grocery store. She considered going into a convent but became a social worker instead, rising to prominence in the battles against a highway planned to cut through historic neighborhoods.

Her 1971 win in the 1st City Council District broke the hold of the old Democratic machine, which she recalled Tuesday as "potbellied guys who smoked cigars." She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 and, 10 years later, became the first woman in U.S. history who did not follow a male relative into the U.S. Senate. She announced her retirement last year.

For her last election as a seated politician, Mikulski said she wanted to be in the place where she got her start. She planned to visit East Baltimore polling places, have lunch at Samos Restaurant in Greektown, make calls for the Clinton campaign and watch as the vote counts roll in.

But the 80-year-old, who said it was time for someone younger to lead, kept her concession to sentiment brief.

She's focused on the lame-duck session, where she will steward a final spending bill through Congress and wants to see a vote on President Barack Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court. She said she'll spend some time prepping whoever takes her seat — "not my seat, the Maryland seat," she corrected herself.

"I've turned the page before, and it turned out pretty good," she said, gesturing to one of her companions Tuesday, Perry Sfikas, a former aide who was elected to her onetime council seat and later served in the state Senate. "This is what we do. You have to have an orderly transition."

Wearing a bright red coat and big Hillary pin, Mikulski got in a final round of politicking, shaking hands at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street where nearly everyone seemed to have a Mikulski story.

Hartnett recalled the fighting spirit Mikulski brought to the debate team at the Institute of Notre Dame, saying such determination has been a constant in Mikulski's career.

"She never got puffed up and removed from herself," Hartnett said. "If Barb had been running again, she definitely would have gotten my vote."

Mikulski said she has no regrets about stepping down.

"It was my honor," she told Hartnett. "Thanks for electing me."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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