After 30 years in the Senate and a half-century of public service to Maryland and the nation, Barbara Mikulski will retire from elected politics next year. She will leave a legacy as one of the state's most admired politicians and among the most influential women ever to serve in Congress.
A social worker, she ran for and won a seat on the Baltimore City Council in 1971, crafting a reputation as a pugnacious but popular leader. After a failed first attempt to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Charles Mathias in 1974, she was elected to House two years later and then won Mr. Mathias' Senate seat upon his retirement in 1986.
Known as the dean of the Senate's women's caucus, she is the first female Democratic senator elected "in her own right" — that is, a woman who didn't first enter the Senate in her husband's footsteps. With five terms in each chamber, Senator Mikulski has already served longer than any woman in the Senate or the Congress overall.
It seems almost inconceivable today, when Democrats account for nearly four of every five women in Congress, that when Ms. Mikulski was first elected to the Senate the only two female senators at the time, Florida's Paula Hawkins and Kansas' Nancy Landon Kassebaum, were Republicans. In 1986 then-Rep. Mikulski beat Republican Linda Chavez, making Maryland's the first Senate general election in American history with two major-party female nominees.
In the ensuing three decades, the ranks of women in Congress have grown considerably. The current, 114th Congress has a record 20 senators, same as the previous Congress, including same-state female Senate pairs in California, New Hampshire and Washington.
If that's good news, the bad news is that the current 20 female senators account for nearly half the 44 women ever to serve in the chamber. As of January 2015, America ranks 73rd globally in the share of women in the national legislature; Bangladesh, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan and Saudi Arabia are among the nations that rank higher.
On her office wall, Ms. Mikulski features a series of pictures tracking the growing class of female Senators during her career. "Coach Barb," as her colleagues call her, hosts regular bipartisan dinners to try to forge consensus among the female senators.
Senator Mikulski will retire next year with another unofficial title: Maryland's most popular statewide official.
In 2004, she carried all but five of Maryland's 24 political jurisdictions in winning her fourth term; even in a strong 2010 Republican midterm cycle, she managed to capture a dozen counties in winning a fifth term. No Maryland Democrat since William Donald Schaefer can boast of such a broadly popular support. (Ironically, the persistent knock against her on Capitol Hill is that she's an unpopular boss who is tough on her staff.)
Senator Mikulski is the first and, to date, only woman to chair the Senate's powerful Appropriations Committee. She used that perch to defend federal spending on Maryland's and America's neediest citizens, especially children. She has also funneled considerable federal funds into Maryland through targeted defense and security appropriations.
In a Senate full of people who are wealthy upon departure if they weren't upon arrival, Senator Mikulski is a working-class politician who never forgot her roots. She will leave the Senate, not herself, richer for the experience.
"Barbara's service to the people of Maryland spans decades, but her legacy will span generations," President Barack Obama said in an issued statement. "Thanks to her leadership, more women excel in their careers, more children have access to quality education, more families have health insurance and more people are treated fairly under the law."
Of course, talk of Senator Mikulski's potential successor — and the epic primary fight next year to gain the Democratic nomination and, with it, the presumed inside track to win her seat — has already begun in earnest. But there will be plenty of time to discuss what to expect from a post-Mikulski Maryland and Congress.
For now, might we grant her this week all to herself? After a lifetime spent deploying her wit and her will in service to others, surely Barbara Mikulski deserves that much.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC; his most recent book is "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House." His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @schaller67.