Mikulski breaks the glass ceiling


An article in Sunday's Sun on Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski should have stated that Jimmy's restaurant is in Fells Point. A photo caption accompanying the article should have stated that Ms. Mikulski was introducing President Clinton last year at a forum on Summer of Service, a pilot project for the Clinton administration's initiative on voluntary national service for young people.

The Sun regrets the errors.

WASHINGTON -- You can almost see the 4-foot-11-inch politician rise in stature as she excuses herself from a Senate committee meeting, saying that, regrettably, she must leave because she has an appointment at the White House.

You can almost hear her piling up political chits as she discusses a piece of the Clinton health care plan with a group of union leaders, saying, "Mrs. Clinton has really pressed me on this."

With Democrats in high places and her hand on federal purse strings, Barbara A. Mikulski sits at the apex of what she calls "a unique convergence" of political stars.

It is a convergence that has propelled her, in the second year of her second term as a senator, from her role as scrappy, abrasive East Baltimore firecracker to that of bona fide Washington player. And it has moved her onto a grander, more visible and nationally oriented stage where she has a piece of everything from health care reform to space exploration.

"You name it and I'm in it," says the 57-year-old senator.

Coming on the heels of a year in which five other women followed her into the nation's most exclusive men's club, Ms. Mikulski's ascendancy is seen by many as the next chapter for women in politics. Having proven that a woman can get elected to the Senate, the junior senator from Maryland is now proving that she can amass real power.

But as she wields a mightier hand as dean of the Democratic women, as a member of the Democratic leadership, and as one of the 13 so-called cardinals -- the members of the Appropriations Committee who slice up the federal pie -- there's an ever-increasing gap between the gritty Baltimore street pol who comes home to her old neighborhood every night and the Washington insider and power broker who is watching bowl games on New Year's Day with the president and several hundred of his heavy-thinker friends.

"She wants to take a giant leap -- and I think she's taking it," says state Del. Maggie McIntosh, her former campaign manager.

It is a delicate dance that she does now, rising in senatorial stature while holding onto the true blue-collar Bawlamer style -- including the foghorn voice that smashes vowels like a crab mallet -- that has been her calling card.

"I know she's been thinking about it," says Ann Lewis, a prominent national Democrat who is part of a "strategy group" of high-powered women who advise the senator regularly. "She's thinking, 'How do you move forward in national leadership and still represent your state? How do you balance that?' "

Ms. Mikulski doesn't acknowledge any conflict, insisting that her rise in the Senate is only putting a strain on her time, not changing her agenda.

"I didn't get here by trying to assemble a glittering resume or getting my ticket punched," she says in an interview.

"I have always focused on people's day-to-day needs, what we can do to enhance that, and yet simultaneously look at the long-range needs that would affect them. So I regard every moment as my moment."

After 10 unremarkable years in the House, where her abrasiveness didn't play well among colleagues, she has surprised many by her effectiveness and rapid rise in the Senate.

Elected in 1986 as the first Democratic woman to win a Senate seat in her own right, Ms. Mikulski set out to play the game just as the boys did.

"She made sure that those men who were up there on Mount Rushmore -- [Robert C.] Byrd, [Majority Leader George J.] Mitchell -- knew she was in their corner," says Melissa Line, a Goucher College political scientist who studies women in Congress.

She toned down the brusqueness -- trading in the "Schwarzkopf with earrings" bit for a more decorous, conciliatory air -- and aggressively pursued a seat on the coveted Appropriations Committee.

She particularly cultivated West Virginia's quirky Senator Byrd, then majority leader and the committee's ranking Democrat, who says he admired the freshman's "spunk" and made her something of a protege. Like the city mouse and her country cousin, these two Senate eccentrics, who rose from humble beginnings to national prominence, make for one of the oddest pairs on Capitol Hill.

"She came to me, and I worked hard to get her on there," says Mr. Byrd, now the committee chairman.

After only two years on the panel, and the retirement of several lawmakers, Ms. Mikulski catapulted to the chairmanship of the subcommittee that controls funds for veterans, housing and urban programs and 25 federal agencies.

After defense, the subcommittee's $80 billion purse contains the biggest bundle of dollars for lawmakers to divide.

As one of the cardinals, she is generally given high marks from lobbyists, who say she works hard and does her homework. She particularly won praise for helping to save the nearly $30 billion space station -- "the darling of my life," she told a group of scientists recently -- from the knife of cost-conscious lawmakers last year.

Initially, she was so greedy in getting funds for Maryland projects -- such as $54.3 million for the Christopher Columbus center on marine sciences in Baltimore's Inner Harbor -- that she earned a reputation as a "porker," one of Capitol Hill's prime special-interest spenders.

Last year, however, in a move some Hill observers took as a sign of political maturing, this veteran purveyor of pork decided, along with her House counterpart, Ohio Rep. Louis Stokes, to eliminate all such site-specific projects from the VA-HUD spending bill.

Balancing acts

Ms. Mikulski still stops for coffee and a paper at Jimmy's in Highlandtown, where she once took Mrs. Clinton. She still lives ,, nearby in a classic brick Fells Point rowhouse, not far from the Polish-American neighborhood where she grew up.

But her rise in stature has taken her away from Jimmy's Formica tables to such rarefied superpower playgrounds as the Clinton clique's Renaissance weekend at Hilton Head, S.C., and the exclusive, traditionally all-male Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, where she was recently the guest of Raymond Smith, the Bell Atlantic CEO

Ms. Mikulski knows that part of the secret of her success -- part of the reason 71 percent of Maryland voters re-elected her in 1992 -- is her unpretentious lifestyle, her unpolished demeanor and her connection to working-class America.

Her political strategy has always been to reinforce that populist maverick image.

It's hard to imagine her lower-octane counterpart, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, holding the equivalent of a "Bowling with Barb" fund-raiser or razzle-dazzling his way all over the state as she does.

But as she inches closer to the Washington establishment, she's trying to hold onto that winning style while, at the same time, imbuing it with some cerebral, perhaps more statesmanlike, depth.

"The thing I'm struck by with her public persona is that it's really shallow," says Ms. Lewis. "It's a positive one, but it's really shallow. What's missing is someone who thinks a lot, reads a lot, listens a lot."

For her part, Ms. Mikulski is playing up the pursuits that occupy much of her time these days but are seldom associated with her: her interest in such trendy concepts as the "politics of meaning," a reshaping of liberalism around community responsibility that Mrs. Clinton has espoused, and her focus on science and technology as a key to new jobs.

"I don't know if people always think of me as having these entrepreneurial attitudes," she says. "That's why I'm looking at, not only where are the jobs of today, but the jobs of the future."

Balancing local and national responsibilities is also proving more of a challenge these days. As her mail has increased from 600 to 2,000 letters a week in the last year, she has been accepting more invitations for national events and speeches.

"Before, we were completely focused on Maryland," says a staff member.

And while the senator used to spend Fridays in Maryland, she now spends them on Capitol Hill, and uses parts of her weekend to be, as she says, "out and about" in the state. "I wish I was as thin as I am stretched," she says with her trademark self-deprecating wit.

The chief subject of one recent meeting of her strategy group -- a sort of kitchen cabinet that meets in Ms. Mikulski's office about once a month -- was choosing priorities in light of the increasing demands and, says Ms. Lewis, making sure "Maryland doesn't get left out."

Brain trusts

As the senator has started playing in higher-stakes games, she's been relying more heavily on her strategy group, her all-female brain trust, for everything from mapping out long-range political plans to screening new members of her staff.

Her high-powered advisers include such like-minded and well-connected Democratic women as Carol Tucker Foreman, a former Clinton transition official and the sister of Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, and Wendy Sherman, a former Mikulski aide who is the Clinton administration's chief State Department lobbyist.

Ms. Mikulski also relies on a group of Baltimore men -- including lawyer Richard Berndt, Abell Foundation chief Bob Embry and former Schaefer campaign manager Jim Smith -- who have advised her since her days on the Baltimore City Council in the early 1970s.

Both groups afford her a continuity severely lacking with her staff. Although there is high turnover in many Senate offices, Ms. Mikulski is known as a particularly brittle, bullying boss who goes through staff members like copier paper.

It is a trait that runs completely counter to her role as the warm-hearted former social worker always looking out for the disadvantaged, and her image as a good-natured, wisecracking politician.

"She's a very angry person," says a former aide. "People are very ambivalent about her. There is great admiration, but there are negative feelings, too."

For instance, the senator became enraged, another former member of her staff recalled, when aides couldn't get right her request for Quibell bottled water and ice cubes at committee hearings.

"No matter who did it, or what we did, it was always wrong," said the former aide. "There were either too many ice cubes, or not enough ice cubes, or the ice cubes were melted. She said, 'I want you to meet about this and get this straight.' "

Ms. Mikulski says such arrangements are dictated by physicians because of health problems and makes no apology for her personality, admitting that it is "hard to take" by some people.

"This is not the Montessori day camp," she declares. "This is the United States Senate with someone who's broken the glass ceiling, who has a strong commitment to an agenda and pursues it, and pursues it aggressively.

MA "And I don't just preside over things. I make things happen."

Dean of the women

Ms. Mikulski's Christmas gift to the women in her strategy group was an autographed photo of herself and the four Democratic women who followed her into the Senate last year.

In moving from "one of the boys" to "dean of the women," Ms. Mikulski acquired an additional -- and highly visible -- layer of clout and influence. Clearly, it is a role she relishes.

"For the Democratic women, Barbara has taken on the role of coach," says Washington Sen. Patty Murray.

Her most notable success as a coach -- in fact, the first flexing of collective muscle by the Senate's Democratic women -- was last summer's vote to overturn a 10-year ban on abortion coverage for federal workers.

With Ms. Mikulski orchestrating the effort, the women won by 3 votes, prevailing through a savvy parliamentary maneuver that she had picked up from Senator Byrd. "They talked about how to handle it," says a Byrd aide. "She took his advice to come at it from a less emotional perspective."

Although Ms. Mikulski has long been a champion of women's health issues, some believe her impact on "women's issues" goes beyond legislative victories. Her new position as one of the Senate's big guns is breaking down institutional barriers much as her election did eight years ago.

"For the last 20 years, we've watched women battle obstacles to get in," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman in Politics at Rutgers University. "We've seen very few rise to leadership positions within the institution. Barbara Mikulski is someone whose image, record and tenure suggest influence and power."

But even as she sheds some of her old-time, big-spending liberal stripes and builds seniority and power, it's not clear how much higher she can climb.

She could move up within the Senate leadership from her year-old position as assistant Democratic floor leader. But with so many ahead of her in seniority, her chances of chairing the

influential Appropriations Committee are slim.

Governor Mikulski?

While those close to her say she was crushed when presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale selected another female House member, Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate in 1984, she now dismisses any talk of aspiring to a national ticket.

And, in November, she seemed to affirm her commitment to staying in the Senate and building her power base there.

Several of Maryland's political power brokers, including Mr. Berndt and H&S; bakery owner John Paterakis, paid a visit to Ms. Mikulski and told her she should run for governor, that she would be unbeatable.

In fact, in a recent statewide Mason-Dixon poll, she is viewed as a more effective politician than Mr. Clinton, Mr. Sarbanes and Gov. William Donald Schaefer in every part of Maryland.

After consulting with her advisers, she agreed that she could win, but wasn't sure the Governor's Mansion was where she belonged. She concluded, she says, that "it was in the Senate, because of the significant institutional posts that I have," that she could be most effective.

Indeed, no one is more keenly aware than the senator that she has finally reached a place where real power accompanies her position, where she is more in-the-loop and in demand than ever before.

After a recent meeting with health care executives in Baltimore, she reflected on the immense popularity that has finally come to a daughter of Highlandtown.

"Where were these guys when I needed a prom date?" she joked as the half-dozen men crowded around her for a photo.

Not in need of a powerful friend in the Senate, no doubt.

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