Marylander of the Year: Barbara Mikulski

Barbara Mikulski is The Sun's 2015 Marylander of the Year.

Barbara Mikulski probably should have been named Marylander of the Year back in the late 1960s when she was a social worker and community activist who helped lead the hugely improbable fight against a plan to pave over much of Baltimore with a giant interstate highway. But The Sun didn’t come up with the idea for the award for another 20 or so years, and anyway it is only in retrospect that we can fully appreciate how insane the idea of plowing Canton, Fells Point and the Inner Harbor would have been.

She could easily have deserved such recognition in 1971 when she broke into what was then the male-dominated world of the Baltimore City Council — and proved she was tougher than any of the old boys in that club. She definitely could have gotten the honor in 1986, when she beat out a sitting governor and fellow member of the House of Representatives on her way to becoming the first Democratic woman elected in her own right to the U.S. Senate.

Maybe we messed up by failing to name her Marylander of the Year in 1989 — we were actually handing out the award by then — when she pushed through legislation to prevent one member of a married couple from being bankrupted when his or her (and usually her) spouse landed in a nursing home. Maybe 1992 should have been the year, when she traveled the country helping other female candidates in what became known as the Year of the Woman. (Her efforts helped expand the ranks of women in the U.S. Senate from two to six.) Another good choice might have been 1994, when she was instrumental in helping then-Sen. Joe Biden enact the Violence Against Women Act.

Certainly, 2002 would have been a good choice — the year she voted against authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Or 2009, when she got the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act onto President Barack Obama’s desk. That legislation to help women contest discriminatory pay was the first bill he signed into law. She would have been a good pick in 2010 when she became the longest-serving female senator, or perhaps 2012 when she became the longest-serving woman in Congress and the first chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Senator Mikulski probably could have been the Marylander of the Year any one of the last 40 years, and so it is with great pride that we award her the distinction in this year, the one in which she announced that she would leave public office when her term ends. We have never conceived this honor as a lifetime achievement award, nor have we typically given it to politicians (Gov. Larry Hogan’s win last year notwithstanding). But Senator Mikulski is worth breaking the mold for. After all, she has been breaking the mold for her entire career.

The daughter of a Highlandtown grocer, she has always had an uncommonly good ear for what the common man and woman thinks and an incomparably loud voice for repeating it to the powers-that-be. She came up in the blue-collar, retail politicking world of Southeast Baltimore, and she didn’t change at all when she reached the blue-blood world of the Senate.

It is perhaps cliche to refer to Senator Mikulski as a fighter, but it is indisputably true, whether the issue is equal pay for equal work, access to health care, or a constituent’s picayune dispute with some federal agency. When he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year — the nation’s highest civilian honor — President Obama quipped, “Let’s just say you don’t want to get on the wrong side of Barbara Mikulski.” (We would dearly love to know just how he came by that particular piece of wisdom.) She is legendarily demanding of her staff because she insists that they be as dedicated to their jobs as she is to her constituents. That’s a high standard, indeed, and the ranks of ex-Mikulski staffers around Maryland are vast.

But Senator Mikulski comes from a different era, a time when elected officials were actually expected to accomplish things on behalf of their constituents rather than merely to score a quick soundbite on CNN or Twitter — though her wit certainly makes her good at that, too. Year after year, she has brought home the bacon for the state’s military bases, research institutions, roads and the Port of Baltimore. If Maryland gets the new FBI headquarters — and the thousands of jobs that come with it — she’ll deserve the credit.

Her constituent service operation is legendary, and she is unfailingly prepared in every setting. Listening to some of those who are seeking to replace her try to answer questions about parts of the state they have never represented has only served to underscore just how strong Senator Mikulski’s grasp is of the issues that animate communities from the mountains to the ocean. She’s just as dedicated to the workers in crab picking houses on the Eastern Shore as she is to those at the Port of Baltimore.

The result is that she has been almost without exception Maryland’s most popular politician for decades and the biggest draw on the ballot. She lost one election in her career — in 1974 when she tried to jump from the City Council to the U.S. Senate in a race she lost to Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias — but has otherwise universally trounced whoever dared run against her. People know authenticity when they see it, and there’s nothing fake about Barbara Mikulski, most especially her love of her job.

Indeed, the assumption in Maryland political circles was that there was no way Senator Mikulski would be defeated and no way she would ever retire. Her announcement this spring that she would not seek a sixth term caught most observers completely by surprise. But, she said at the time, she asked herself the question: “Do I spend my time raising money or raising hell to meet your day-to-day needs?” It’s not surprising which one she picked.

In the months since, she’s proven that if you thought Barbara Mikulski would fade quietly away, you didn’t know Barbara Mikulski. This is, after all, a woman with a supernova named for her.

When the Department of Housing and Urban Development tried to change the rules that made it possible for those receiving Section 8 vouchers to afford apartments in Columbia, she teamed up with Howard County Executive Allan Kilttleman (a Republican) to change them back.

When the Department of Homeland Security said its guest worker program had hit its limit on visas before the crab season started, Senator Mikulski persuaded the department to perform an audit, resulting in as many as 6,000 more slots for people to staff the Eastern Shore’s crab houses and similar businesses nationwide.

When Congress was considering a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act that would have shortchanged Maryland $40 million in Title I funds, she executed some fancy maneuvering to make sure the provision won’t kick in for the foreseeable future.

When the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that Baltimore’s office, which The Sun exposed in 2013 as one of the slowest and most error-prone in the nation, had cut its backlog of claims by 60 percent, she insisted that still wasn’t good enough.

In short, she has done precisely what she has done every year since she took up the cause against that highway nearly 50 years ago, and that is to fight tirelessly for the interests of her community. For her unmatched dedication, she is most deserving of the title of The Sun’s 2015 Marylander of the Year.

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