Everybody in Maryland knows Barbara Mikulski, Baltimore's warrior for the working class. Her rise from Highlandtown social worker and community activist to political glass ceiling buster as a five-term U.S. senator (setting the record as longest-serving woman in the Senate as well as the first woman to be elected to both the House and Senate) is widely recognized. But how many know how a big a heart lies within that 4-foot, 11-inch brassy dynamo who turns 81 in July?
When Sen. Ben Cardin was first elected to Congress, he was able to take its measure. Mr. Cardin, a devout Jew, had long made it a practice of leaving his Friday nights open to attend Shabbat dinner with his family. When he was elected to fill Ms. Mikulski's House seat in 1986 after she successfully ran to succeed Charles "Mac" Mathias in the U.S. Senate, "Senator Barb" took the freshman congressman aside and offered to help when Maryland delegation events stood in the way on Fridays.
"She said, 'Look, if there's ever a time when there is pressure for you to be here on Friday nights, I'll let the group know I can't be there either and that'll take the heat off you,'" recalls Senator Cardin. "People don't always realize what a caring person she can be. You see the scrappy fighter, but you don't realize the warmth."
Whatever the Mikulski secret, toughness or warmth, it has served her well with voters. Throughout her political career, the daughter of Polish-American grocers has been a popular figure, and not just in Baltimore or among liberal Democrats. The 912,899 votes she garnered on her last Election Day in 2010 (when she soundly defeated her Republican opponent, Eric Wargotz) was the best of anyone running for statewide office against an opponent. But that was par for the course. In the 2004 race, she thrashed Republican nominee E.J. Pipkin by winning 19 of the state's 24 subdivisions, including two, Kent and Caroline counties, of the four that Mr. Pipkin represented in the state Senate at the time.
Today, such cross-party appeal seems unimaginable, but Senator Mikulski has cultivated it since she was a member of the Baltimore City Council in the early 1970s after rising to prominence fighting against a planned waterfront highway through Fells Point and Canton. She quickly learned that politics could be a rough and tumble game, not to mention an old boy's network. She found success by not just being tough or wisecracking (both of which she is; her diminutive stature often the target of her jests) but by building alliances and delivering on her promises.
"Barb may be the longest-serving woman in Congress, and that's interesting but it isn't really the point," says House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Baltimore native who has known Ms. Mikulski since they worked together on Jerry Brown's presidential campaign in 1976. "It isn't the length of her stay but the quality of her leadership that stands out. She knew how to work the inside."
Indeed, bringing home the bacon was a Mikulski specialty. Few, if any, federal agencies working within Maryland — from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to the National Institutes of Health and the Goddard Space Flight Center — aren't indebted to the senator for supporting their missions and, as a top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee in the House and Senate, making sure they were funded. And she was just as careful to make certain that average Marylanders got a fair shake from the federal government, too — her constituent services were so effective that maintaining that standard became an issue in the Democratic primary race to fill her seat last year.
But seeing Senator Barb as some parochial politician would be to severely underestimate her influence. She's also been a leading voice for women's issues, for equal pay and reproductive choice, and for health care. The Affordable Care Act includes a number of provisions that Ms. Mikulski personally shepherded into the bill such as making sure mammogram cancer screenings were covered. And, of course, she's also demonstrated that women can lead by blazing the trail for future generations. She was not only the longest-serving woman in the Senate, she was the longest-serving member of Congress from Maryland, period. Not bad for an Institute of Notre Dame graduate (Class of '54) who just wanted to keep a highway from destroying a neighborhood.
Born: July 20, 1936, Baltimore
Education: Institute of Notre Dame, Baltimore; B.A. Mount Saint Agnes College, 1958; M.S.W., University of Maryland School of Social Work, 1965
Career: Social worker, Associated Catholic Charities and Baltimore Department of Social Services; member, Baltimore City Council, 1971-1976; United States representative, 1977-1987; United States senator, 1987-2017; professor of public policy and adviser to the president, Johns Hopkins University, 2017-present
Civic involvement: Member, National Organization for Women and National Women's Political Caucus; Delegate to the Democratic National Convention, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016; co-chairwoman, Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential campaign
Family: Two sisters, Fran Liszewski and Chris Fajkowski