It's early morning at Jimmy's restaurant, a cacophony of clinking plates and shouts for coffee. The talk turns to the nation's capital, and Calvert Lamke's mood turns sour.
"There's got to be some changes in Washington," grumbles the 69-year-old Foster Avenue resident, perched on a counter stool waiting for his ham and eggs. "What we got in there ain't so good."
Congress is out of touch. The economy's in a shambles. Average voters are forgotten, says Mr. Lamke and other diners, mostly working-class people angry and bewildered by America's decline.
The door swings open. In strolls a member of Congress, right here in Fells Point.
Mr. Lamke swivels around. "Hi, Barb," he says cheerily to the junior senator from Maryland, as Barbara A. Mikulski greets him and winds her way through the room, with an outstretched hand and a ready name. "Oh, Barb, she's a friend of mine," he confides, turning back.
And you'll vote for her? "Oh yeah," Mr. Lamke says without hesitation, a response echoed by others in this anti-incumbent crowd. "She does a lot of fighting for the elderly people, fighting for the veterans. I've known her since she was a kid. She's got a good reputation."
In this turbulent political year, replete with record-breaking congressional departures and a voter mood bordering on torch-bearing insurrection, Ms. Mikulski's re-election effort appears to be as calm as the misty harbor waters off Thames Street.
A Mason-Dixon poll of 815 registered voters taken in early June found that 61 percent would back her re-election, up from 53 percent in February.
Her GOP opponent, Alan L. Keyes, was the choice of 28 percent of those polled in June, down from 36 percent in February.
Del Ali, Mason Dixon's vice president, expects Ms. Mikulski to win easily in November, calling it "the safest Senate seat in the country."
Yet, behind her support is a glaring irony: While voters clamor for spending cuts, Ms. Mikulski is an old-fashioned, big spending liberal. She flatly says that the federal budget has been trimmed enough.
The senator is aided by the voters' own ambivalence toward the federal budget.
They decry federal spending -- but not the millions spent for their favored programs and projects.
"It's infrastructure improvement if it affects me," explained one Capitol Hill aide. "It's pork barrel if it affects you."
Ms. Mikulski's success in keeping federal money flowing to Maryland, her dogged constituent work and her liberal views are recipe for success, allowing her to carry the urban ethnics, blacks and the suburbanites who dwell around the state's two vastly different population centers: Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.
Meanwhile, her votes against Supreme Court Justices David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas and her pro-abortion rights stand plays well in such tony areas as Montgomery County.
"Barbara knows the formula [for victory]," says a longtime state political analyst.
As long as Ms. Mikulski carries the Baltimore-Washington corridor, it matters little in a statewide election that her politics are largely rejected by the more conservative -- and sparsely populated -- areas of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
A savvy campaigner, this bread-and-butter Democrat is something of a chameleon on plaid, adjusting to the political hue of the moment. When she announced for re-election last fall, she highlighted a middle-class tax break for "my favorite endangered species."
More recently, amid calls for change from the electorate, the middle-class tax cut has faded into the background and she touts herself as a "pro-change incumbent" -- even though she has become one of the inside players on Capitol Hill.
During the Democratic National Convention in New York, she was given two prime-time televised chances to trumpet the change theme, introducing a string of female Senate candidates and then nominating Senate colleague Al Gore for vice president.
Six years ago, observers and critics doubted that this brash, pushy five-term Baltimore congresswoman with the 4-foot-11-inch swagger and the booming voice was "senatorial" enough.
But she swamped two high-powered Democrats, Gov. Harry Hughes and Rep. Michael D. Barnes of Montgomery County, to win the primary. Then she went on to easily dispatch the conservative GOP nominee, Linda Chavez, a Reagan administration official with few ties to Maryland.
Arriving in the Senate as the first Democratic woman elected in her own right, she won a spot on the powerful Appropriations Committee, rising to head its subcommittee that oversees spending for federal housing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Through her subcommittee chairmanship she has kept Maryland awash in federal money.
Last year, when President Bush announced sewer grants for a number of cities, including Boston and Los Angeles, Baltimore was not on the list -- until Ms. Mikulski made sure that $40 million was added to upgrade the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant that serves Baltimore and the county.
Tacked onto the NASA spending bill last year was $20 million for the Christopher Columbus center for marine sciences, slated for the Inner Harbor. "NASA's building fish tanks," sniffs a committee staffer. "Mikulski wanted it. Mikulski put it in."
"She's a key reason why our delegation is one of the most powerful it's been in decades," said a former Maryland congressional aide.
But critics say the senator is out of sync with the more frugal times and oblivious to the wishes of voters who are clamoring for a balanced budget.
"She's certainly not someone who's sought to lower . . . government spending," says David Keating, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, which listed Ms. Mikulski in its "big spender" category during three of the past five years.
During the recent debate on the balanced-budget amendment, Ms. Mikulski backed a rejected Democratic amendment that fTC would have required the president to submit a balanced budget to the Congress. She opposed cutting off debate on a Republican measure calling for a constitutional amendment to put the budget in balance.
"I believe we should exercise those disciplines now and not wait for a constitutional amendment," the senator said in an interview, before launching into a trickle-down method to end the deficit.
She favors shifting money from the Defense Department to civilian technology, a move that would create jobs, she says, and reduce unemployment payments.
Reforming out-of-control spending for Medicare and Medicaid could save billions more.
But no budget cuts?
"We've had severe spending cuts," she said. "We've already had severe spending cuts."
Her chairmanship also allows her to put her stamp on national policy.
She has drastically scaled back Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp's plan to sell off public housing to tenants, favoring instead a Democratic initiative to build more low-income units.
The House wanted $500 million for housing. Ms. Mikulski proposed $2 billion. Congress settled on $1.5 billion.
At the same time, she has emerged as a champion of the space program, particularly the $30 billion space station strongly backed by the Bush administration.
A science-fiction fan, Ms. Mikulski sees space exploration as key to the future -- and also a source of high-tech jobs.
The 55-year-old lawmaker still resides near the East Baltimore neighborhood where she was raised and where her family ran a grocery store. She trudged these blocks of rowhouses as a social worker and later as a member of the Baltimore City Council.
Unsuccessful politicians "get away from their base," said an aide to a Maryland Democratic lawmaker. "Barbara never got away from her base."
The senator's strong community ties allow her to find solutions to real problems, said Wendy R. Sherman, a former Mikulski aide and now a political consultant to the senator's campaign.
When the senator's father was ill with Alzheimer's disease, she learned from families in the nursing home about the economic hardships facing spouses. Many were forced into poverty before Medicaid -- the government medical program for the poor -- would pay the bills.
The senator helped write changes into the Medicaid law in 1988, so-called "spend down" provisions that would allow spouses of nursing home patients to keep a greater portion of their assets while the government pays the bills.
"She can relate to issues people can understand," said a staffer on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, where Ms. Mikulski has become a key player on issues ranging from women's health to national service.
"I would say she's a very forceful advocate for her point of view," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a conservative Republican from Utah who has often joined forces with the Maryland senator on the committee. "I like her. We're buddies."
Following reports of deaths due to misread lab tests, Ms. Mikulski was the driving force behind a 1988 law requiring quality-control standards for hundreds of thousands of medical laboratories. And she kept continued pressure on the Department of Health and Human Services to move faster in writing the new standards. The first round of regulations go into effect in September.
Such pressure is not uncommon for Ms. Mikulski, whose impatient and brusque manner with staff and officials earned her the title -- along with Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens -- of "Hottest Temper" in the Senate, according to a Washingtonian magazine poll of congressional aides.
"She lets you know what she thinks," said one Hill staff member. "You don't get to be a United States senator by being a shrinking violet."