Senator Barbara Mikulski talks about her decision not to run for a sixth term and items on her agenda for the next two years.
WASHINGTON — Like most everyone else in Maryland, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was all but certain that she would run for another term.
At the end of last year, after helping settle a battle in Congress over funding the government, the popular Democrat began to think about hiring a campaign manager. In January, she joined President Barack Obama at a cafe in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore for a photo op. It was a signal, some believed, that she was preparing to run.
But then Mikulski, 78, began to think about life beyond 2016.
"I thought, 'Well, what happens if I do win?' And that was a different kind of question," she said. "Continuing to do it for eight years, at this pace and at this stage, I thought, 'You better think about this, Barb.'"
Maryland's senior senator — the longest-serving member of Congress in state history and the longest-serving woman in congressional history — spoke during a wide-ranging interview Wednesday in her office at the U.S. Capitol. She sat at the dining room table from her girlhood home in Highlandtown, in a chair from Baltimore's famed Hutzler's department store.
Mikulski said she decided about 10 days ago to retire, and then "lived with it" for a while to make sure it was the right call.
Turns out, it was.
The unexpected decision, which Mikulski announced in Fells Point on Monday, has set off a frenzy among the state's politicians, with more than a dozen current and former elected officials considering a campaign for the rare open Senate seat — and others talking about seeking the offices of those who decide to run.
On Wednesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat and a member of the House leadership team, became the first to announce a run.
Mikulski declined to say much about the developing race to succeed her. When asked if she thought a woman should take the seat — given her deep history of promoting women in the Senate — she smiled.
"I think it's important for Maryland to make a choice that they are crazy about," she said.
Several women, including Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, are considering a campaign in the April 5, 2016, Democratic primary. Former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and former state lawmaker Heather R. Mizeur indicated Wednesday they are also interested.
Several Republicans, including Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, are weighing their options.
Mikulski did not blame her decision on bitter partisan fights in an increasingly polarized Washington, nor on the money that candidates must constantly raise to discourage or fend off challengers — complaints common among others who have retired from the Senate in recent years. She suggested instead that she simply wanted to leave the job she has held for 28 years on a high note.
"I'm not grouchy with the Senate," she said. "I've lived through being in the minority before. I've lived through toxic politics."
The former Baltimore social worker rose to prominence in the 1960s by fighting a highway that threatened to slice her beloved Southeast Baltimore in two.
"There are others who want to make out that there were the good old days," she said. "No. The good old days had their issues as well."
In fact, Mikulski — often a prickly character — does not appear to be grouchy at all. Laughing repeatedly, speaking candidly about herself in a rare public display of introspection, she said she was at ease with her decision, though she acknowledged the profound impact it may have on the state's political landscape.
The dean of Maryland's congressional delegation, Mikulski has pushed for change on many fronts, but she said she didn't mind that many people will remember her first for her efforts to focus the attention of the mostly male Senate on the concerns of women.
Early in her tenure, she successfully pressed the National Institutes of Health to include women in clinical trials. She has long argued for equal pay for women, and added language to the Affordable Care Act that requires insurance carriers to cover preventive care for women free of charge.
"The old boys never saw her coming," former Secretary of State and presumed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said Tuesday at an event in Washington. "Barbara's victory in 1986 was a turning point."
Still, Mikulski is eager to note other, gender-neutral efforts that are sometimes overlooked, or that have slipped from headlines. Her Spousal Anti-Impoverishment Act ensured that seniors wouldn't go bankrupt paying for a spouse's nursing home care. She has been a relentless supporter of the NIH, the port of Baltimore and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
Her power to champion those causes grew in late 2012 when she became chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Money flowed for Chesapeake Bay dredging. Flooding victims on the Eastern Shore were compensated. The state's roughly 300,000-strong federal workforce saw smaller cuts than it might have otherwise.
"Quite frankly, I think I've worked the Appropriations Committee pretty good for Maryland," she said.
Observers often note Mikulski's tenacious demeanor, sometimes pairing it against her 4-foot-11 stature — a line sheappears to take in stride. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, once told reporters about a time when he was taking criticism for an anti-abortion rights vote. Mikulski, a vocal advocate of abortion rights, stepped in to tell her fellow Democrats to back off.
"Everybody walked away," Reid said. "Because everybody's afraid of her."
But typecasting Mikulski as a pit bull, as some in Washington do, ignores the partof her personality that for years has made her the most popular politician in Maryland: her ability to connect with people.
She proposed the anti-poverty bill after hearing families in senior centers talk about how they were losing their homes. She made NIH funding a focus of her tenure after watching her father struggle with Alzheimer's disease in one of those senior homes.
"One of my biggest frustrations is that I haven't been able to do more to crack the code of this devastating disease," Mikulski said.
"It would have been a tribute to my father."
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Mikulski still has two years in Washington. And while she lost the appropriations gavel when Republicans took control of the chamber this year, she remains the top-ranking Democrat on the committee. This year, there is bipartisan talk of making changes at NIH.
Mikulski said she hopes to use the remainder of her term to focus on expanding the state's biotechnology and cybersecurity presence, which have flourished in recent years. Part of that effort will include trying to bring the new FBI headquarters to Prince George's County, she said.
"The other part of my agenda will be to do no harm — no givebacks, pushbacks, shovebacks," Mikulski said in the kind of flourish she often employs on the Senate floor.
"The progress that we've been making, we want to continue to forge ahead."