Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the 'Little General in Pearls,' leaves lasting legacy
By ANDREA CWIEKA
Capital News Service|
Jul 27, 2016 | 4:37 PM
Known as a "little general in pearls," a legendary Maryland lawmaker and just plain "Barb," the longest-serving female senator is going out with a bang.
Known as a "little general in pearls," a legendary Maryland lawmaker and just plain "Barb," the country's longest-serving female senator, Barbara Mikulski, is attending her last Democratic National Convention as a public official — and she's going out with a bang.
The small-statured politician formally nominated her friend and former Senate colleague Hillary Clinton for president on the Wells Fargo Center convention stage Tuesday, along with U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
"It's not about a 'boo,' it's about a 'boo-hoo' if Donald Trump wins," the 80-year-old Mikulski told a roomful of Maryland delegates at their breakfast Tuesday. "Republicans know how to investigate and instigate, but they sure don't know how to legislate!"
The Baltimore born-and-raised senator, known for her fiery temper, is also scheduled to speak Thursday in support of Clinton as part of a program featuring Democratic women senators.
"She was an early supporter of Clinton years ago," said fellow Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, who has worked with Mikulski for years. "Barbara knows that she played a role in (Clinton's success)."
Mikulski supported Clinton in her 2008 bid, serving as the chair of her campaign, and played a central role in 2012's party convention, speaking in support of President Barack Obama.
"I can't imagine it being anything other than a huge validation of Senator Mikulski's career if Hillary Clinton is the next president of the United States, which I hope and expect her to be," said Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot in a phone interview.
For Maryland Democratic delegate and state senator Susan Lee of Montgomery County, Mikulski has built a foundation for all female politicians, both in Maryland and nationally. The senator even endorsed Lee in her campaign for the Maryland House of Delegates.
"She's always been there for me," said Lee, adding that Mikulski endorsed her in 2002, which helped her success. "She supported me for my first primary in the House of Delegates. She always keeps her word, and she's always there for help."
Lee, former executive director of the National Democratic Council of Asian and Pacific Americans, said that Mikulski "did all that she could to help" the organization and "understood" the challenges facing immigrants due to her personal history as the daughter of Polish immigrants.
"She was our ally and friend and we never forgot that," Lee said. "She led the way for many of us who didn't have a voice before."
According to Lee and other Maryland politicians, Mikulski has always supported women "who had earned respect" and had a "strong track record" running for office, but did not just support them for being women.
"She's played a major role in the convention," Lee said. "We have a woman running for president, and she is going to win. I'm glad to be alive to see that."
Referred to as the "dean of women" in the Senate, Mikulski has been known to host regular dinners and workshops for female senators in both parties.
Her support for Clinton, then, only made sense. Mikulski dubbed her a "fellow trailblazer" in her 2007 endorsement speech.
Supporting women outside of politics has been a focus for Mikulski as well - she has been at the forefront of fighting for women's issues like healthcare and equal pay, along with creating legislation to help families and the elderly.
Early on in her career, she fought against the dress code for women in the Senate, which originally limited women to dresses and skirts.
She wrote the Spousal Anti-Impoverishment Act to help those burdened by nursing home costs, she worked on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for equal pay for women, and amended Obamacare to include mammograms and cervical cancer screenings for women.
"I have been an elected official for 30 years. Senator Mikulski has been in office longer than that," Franchot said. "She's very effective, and way out of my league - she's an iconic national figure."
Mikulski also built a Baltimore legacy before claiming her Senate seat.
She grew up in the Highlandtown neighborhood, obtained a bachelor's degree in sociology from Mount Saint Agnes College (now part of Loyola University) and a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland.
As a community activist, she was credited with helping to save East Baltimore from being torn apart by highway construction.
Years later, in November, Obama awarded her the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as he recalled that early battle in Baltimore.
"Back in 1966, plans were laid to lay a highway through some of Baltimore's most diverse neighborhoods," the president told a White House audience. "The new road seemed like a go. It was about to happen. That is, until it ran into a young social worker, and let's just say, you don't want to be on the wrong side of Barbara Mikulski."
She won a Baltimore City Council seat in 1971 and served in that post for five years.
She successfully ran in 1976 for the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served for 10 years before winning a Senate seat in 1986.
During her extensive federal government career, she was not only known for her short stature and sassy nature but for also serving on prestigious committees, working her way up to become the first woman to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee in 2012. After the Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014, she became vice chairwoman of the panel.
"The baton is being passed," Franchot said. "I'm sure there will be several victory laps taken by her in Philly, which is entirely appropriate because she's been such a spectacular success in politics."
With this year being her last term in the Senate, and this week in Philadelphia, her last convention as an elected official, many Marylanders agreed that they will miss Mikulski.
For Cardin, the convention is sure to be an "emotional" and "exciting" one.
Mikulski admitted to the Maryland delegates that she would need them to cheer her on during her Clinton nomination speech, adding that she might get a little "choked up."
"I'm ready to turn a new page because of who is coming after me — Cory (Booker of New Jersey), Elizabeth (Warren of Massachusetts), Chris (Van Hollen of Maryland) — what a new wonderful crowd," the senator said to a room loud with whoops and applause. "You can't hold on because you don't want to hold anybody back."
Van Hollen, who represents the 8th District in the House of Representatives, is favored in his race against Republican Kathy Szeliga to replace Mikulski in the Senate after she finishes out her final term.
"My granddaughter, who is 8 weeks old — I'm delighted she's going to get to be an infant during the administration of the first woman president of the United States. To me, that's an inspirational message," Franchot said.