Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the longest serving woman in the history of Congress, announced her retirement. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)
Barbara A. Mikulski, a 4-foot-11 social worker from Highlandtown, helped stop a highway that threatened Southeast Baltimore. She broke into politics when women on Baltimore's City Council were still called girls — and rose to become a U.S. senator, a leader of the Appropriations Committee and the longest-serving woman in Congress.
At Jimmy's restaurant in Fells Point, near where she grew up, people know her simply as "Barb."
"Barbara, Barb — most people are on a first-name basis," says Jimmy Filipidis, 39, co-owner of the restaurant named for his grandfather. "She is Southeast Baltimore," he said. "She's Highlandtown. She's Canton. She's Fells Point, Little Italy, Greektown. That's her."
Mikulski, 78, announced Monday that she would not seek re-election. The five-term senator will be remembered by many as a feisty challenger of the status quo and a role model for younger women looking to enter politics. She spoke bluntly, with a Baltimore accent redolent of her blue-collar roots.
News of her planned retirement brought praise from the most powerful leaders in the country, including President Barack Obama, who called Mikulski an "inspiration to millions of women and girls across the globe."
Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, credited her with opening doors for women politicians from across the country.
"She's really quite an inspiration — she was for me," McIntosh said. "When you look at the Senate today, she has had a helping hand in every one of those women's races."
Born in 1936 to a Polish-American family who ran a grocery store, Mikulski attended Catholic schools and considered becoming a nun. She rose to local prominence by helping to organize the Southeast Community Organization to prevent a highway from carving a path through the area's neighborhoods.
In 1971, she won a seat on the City Council, where colleagues say she plopped a geranium in the brass spittoon that came with her desk — a symbol of her determination to make inroads in a male-dominated political world.
It wasn't long before she had won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and, in 1986, became one of the nation's first elected women senators.
"She knew how to 'speak Baltimore' on a national level and make people listen," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who served with Mikulski in the 1970s. "All of the United States knows how tough and strong we are because of her."
Mikulski, Clarke and Victorine Q. Adams were the only women on the 19-member City Council in those days.
"One of our colleagues used to refer to us as 'council girls,'" Clarke said. "That didn't last long."
As a rookie councilwoman, Mikulski said, she often was asked which prominent female politicians she would emulate. She responded, "I am Barbara Mikulski and I am a unique human being. I am going to be myself."
In the House, Mikulski developed a reputation as both funny and unrelenting, a force seemingly several sizes too big for her diminutive frame. When she joined the Senate, there wasn't even a bathroom for women, who were required to wear skirts or dresses on the chamber floor. She eventually led a "pantsuit rebellion" that forever changed the Senate's dress code for women.
"We forget that when she started out, it wasn't easy at all for a woman to get elected. There was all sorts of prejudice," said Larry Sabato, a national political analyst and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"The place was totally male-oriented," Sabato said. "She has been a part of giant cultural change that has made the sexes equal."
By 2012, Mikulski was the longest-serving woman in Congress.
Today, after 38 years on Capitol Hill, her legacy includes landmark legislation to help women challenge discrimination and receive better health care. She fought successfully, for instance, to get mammograms and other women's preventive care covered under the Affordable Care Act.
She's also known for regularly bringing together women lawmakers of both parties in a rare display of bipartisanship in Washington. On the Appropriations Committee, where she was the first woman to chair the panel, Mikulski brought home hundreds of millions of dollars for the port of Baltimore and Maryland's federal science institutions, for state military installations and and for road projects.
Considered among the most liberal members of the Senate, she pushed through the first bill signed by Obama: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the statute of limitations for women who experienced discrimination.
On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden credited Mikulski with helping him pass the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. One of her signature achievements came in 1989, when she pushed a bill to protect elderly couples from losing their savings and being forced into nursing homes.
Mikulski held dinners for female senators from both parties, and worked to help Democratic women across the country get elected to higher office. With two other female senators she wrote a book on the subject, "Nine and Counting," and often said, "I didn't just want to be a first. I wanted to be the first of many."
In 1992, she traveled the country in a small plane with then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards, dispensing advice to female candidates, said McIntosh, who at the time was Mikulski's political director. That year, dozens of women joined Congress, including five new senators.
"She's always known how to speak to people, to speak to them on her terms, and have them understand that her values were like theirs," McIntosh said.
She said Mikulski would tell other women candidates to do the same thing: "Tell about yourself in a way that you paint a picture that voters understand your values and what you stand for."
Mikulski was the first candidate endorsed by "Emily's List," a national political action committee dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights. The group's president, Stephanie Schriock, said Monday on Twitter that Mikulski's "legacy and the tremendous impact of her work will live on in the halls of Congress and across our country."
Keiffer Mitchell, a former Baltimore lawmaker, said he regularly saw Mikulski mingling with constituents at farmers' markets, street fairs and grocery stores. He once saw her use her shopping list to take down a complaint about a Social Security problem. She later took care of it, he said.
For all her public charm, Mikulski was also feisty. She was regularly listed near the top of Washington rankings of "meanest" senators.
But at Jimmy's, Filipidis saw a helpful public official in touch with the people she served.
"People felt comfortable calling her with their needs," Filipidis said. "She's been a pillar, a security blanket."
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.