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Mikulski's political genius

Everyone is an important person to Barbara Mikulski, and therein lies the political genius that resulted in her being elected five times to the House of Representatives and then five times to what had been the ultimate boys club — the U.S. Senate. It is not a genius of calculation. It is a simple but miraculous ability to connect.

I was at an event featuring the women who had been recently elected to the United States Senate in 1992, bringing the number of female Senators to a grand total of seven. The group was standing on a stage posing for pictures when I heard a voice call out that could not be mistaken for anyone but Barbara Mikulski. "Come on up here Ray," she demanded with a beaming smile. After 20 years she still recognized an intern from her first years in the Baltimore City Council, and, as if I were some important political mover and shaker, she invited me on stage to pose for a photo with the women of the Senate.

But then everyone is an important person to Barbara, and therein lies the political genius that resulted in her being elected five times to the House of Representatives and then five times to what had been the ultimate boys club — the U.S. Senate. It is not a genius of calculation. It is a simple but miraculous ability to connect.

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I first experienced this while an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. During my junior year of 1972-73, I secured an internship in the Baltimore City Council through the university's political science department. In addition to spending afternoons at City Hall, the program's participants were required to author a paper concerning their experience. It was my good fortune to be assigned to the 1st Councilmanic District, which was then represented by Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, John A. Schaefer and the newly-elected Barbara Mikulski. There was also a first-term mayor in office named William Donald Schaefer. Baltimore's 1st District did not invent constituent politics, but it surely perfected the art of elected representatives attending closely to the daily needs of the district's inhabitants. And I had a front row seat for it all.

In those days, the three members of each council district shared a single office. There were no partitions or physical separations of any kind — just three desks occupying three corners of a room. There could hardly be any secrets, as most conversations and phone discussions were easily overheard. And, at regular intervals, a hurricane would enter the room; it was Barbara Mikulski, the former social worker fresh from her fight to stop to the insanity of tearing out the heart of Fells Point and Canton with the proposed route for the I-95 highway. When Barbara came into the office, the energy level palpably increased. Her determination and hard-working nature were constantly on display.

Having also come from a Catholic family that had originated in East Baltimore, I shared a comfortable association with Barbara's roots, and it was rewarding to be privy to the manner in which she cared for the needs of her constituents. Many were from families that had known mine for generations. It was politics at its most basic, and, in many ways, its most effective form. It certainly had a direct and immediate impact on the lives of real people.

The title of my required academic paper was a no-brainer — Bread and Butter: Constituent Politics In Baltimore's First District. That paper, and the experience in City Hall, started me on writing about issues affecting our community. And, during that same time, Barbara Mikulski learned how to be a public servant of the first order. In fact, she has dedicated her life to that endeavor. Her success owes much to her intelligence and insight. But what has separated her from the political crowd is an unwavering concern for the well-being of those who elected her.

And this is how I came to have a photo of myself with the women of the Senate, along with an appreciation for having seen politics and public service at its fundamental best.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is rdburke@ober.com.

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