Barbara Mikulski's surprise announcement that she does not intend to seek a sixth term in the U.S. Senate is going to take time for her constituents to process. That Maryland's favorite daughter, its self-effacing and outspoken champion of the underdog, will not be on the ballot in 2016 (or be its leading vote-getter, as is her customary position) still seems hard to believe.
Hasn't the 78-year-old former social worker and City Council member always been fighting for her city, casting a political shadow far beyond what might be expected of her 4-foot 11-inch frame? For someone who first drew national attention for her pugnacious personality — whether fighting a highway through Fells Point or standing up against sexism or demanding more blue-color jobs — she is much loved and revered in this state, even by those who may not necessarily embrace her progressive politics.
Perhaps that's because the first thing that becomes obvious to anyone who meets Senator Mikulski is that she is the real deal, not some cardboard cutout pasted together by party apparatchiks, marketing professionals and focus groups. From her Baltimore accent to her Polish-American roots and her quick-witted comebacks, she is nothing if not thoroughly authentic. She can be candid and she can be tough, but she is also engaging and entertaining.
Her politics are as without pretense as she is. She makes no bones about her working-class Democratic ideals, her unwavering belief in the power of government to improve lives, her steadfast support for entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. And few in the Maryland congressional delegation have been more singled-minded or motivated in their desire to support federal spending in the Free State, from military bases to research institutions.
She broke barriers at every level of her professional life, none more important than in the U.S. Senate where she was the first Democratic woman elected in her own right and the longest serving woman in the history of Congress. There was no glass ceiling capable of holding back Ms. Mikulski, not for long anyway. And when her Republican opponents went after her, whether it was Linda Chavez, her 1986 rival who labeled the unmarried Mikulski a "San Francisco-style" liberal, or any of the other forgettable foes in those subsequent races, it had zero impact on her popularity.
Perhaps a Barbara Mikulski could not happen today. Maybe she's too "old school" to be replicated, not sufficiently telegenic or too fond of traditional federal spending and pork barrel politics. Certainly, there are not many like her in the contemporary mix. But that was just as true when she bested Gov. Harry Hughes and Rep. Michael Barnes in the 1986 Democratic primary to fill the seat of outgoing Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr.
But it's also not difficult to draw a line from Ms. Mikulski to the women of the Democratic Party today including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill or to elected leaders who started their careers as community organizers in distressed urban centers looking out for a working class minority. (See "Obama, Barack H.") Would Hillary Clinton's presumed presidential run seem as inevitable if not for Senator Mikulski's decades in Washington? Would there be 20 women (14 Democrats and six Republicans) serving in the U.S. Senate?
The Sun has endorsed Ms. Mikulski on numerous occasions and always enthusiastically. Four years ago, we suggested "nobody is more feisty, more willing to take on big business, big government or anyone else when it's time to look out for her constituents." Six years earlier, we wrote that she could still "bark like a vicious terrier … but she's our terrier." Somehow, her combative rhetorical style always seems to end up defining her.
How perfect then that in explaining her decision to retire rather than run for another term in 2016, Senator Mikulski told those gathered for her Fells Point news conference that being freed for a re-election battle would not quiet her for the next two years: "Do I spend my time raising money or raising hell to meet your day-to-day needs?" Naturally, "raising hell" won her over, as it usually does. And that is exactly why voters in this state will miss her. They never had any doubt whose side she was on: theirs.