Barbara Mikulski got started in public life in the late 1960s trying to stop a proposed highway on Baltimore’s East Side. She won.
Decades later, as she doggedly carved out a career as the longest-serving woman in in the U.S. Senate, Mikulski found herself the go-to politician in Maryland for obtaining federal support for ports and research labs.
And for the Baltimore light-rail project, known as the Red Line, which would connect the city’s eastern neighborhoods with Baltimore County.
To say that Mikulski, who announced Monday she would not seek a sixth term, had come full circle would miss the larger point. In her iconoclastic, no-holds barred style, the daughter of a Highlandtown grocer became a player on the national stage, one whose fealty to such progressive causes as women’s rights was leavened with her determination to take care of home-state constituencies.
Businesses and governments found Mikulski a key ally as she used her perch as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to push for federal dollars for the state.
She garnered a reputation as legislator who believed that technology and innovation were becoming the backbone of Maryland’s economy. That faith in technology has been rewarded as cybersecurity firms have flourished in Baltimore and in western Anne Arundel County near Fort Meade, home of the U.S. Army Cyber Command.
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“I think what a lot of people don’t give her a lot of credit for is the interest that she has taken in some of the emerging fields like bioscience and cybersecurity and the important role they play in the state of Maryland, and she has certainly been someone who has kept up on those sorts of developing industries,” said Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee.
She also fought to bring back as many federal dollars as she for the state’s universities to improve technology education. Late last month she announced that Bowie State would be receiving a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to support cyber security educational opportunities at the university.
“Sen. Mikulski’s unyielding commitment to the people of Maryland is legendary. She has worked tirelessly and never changed her view that all politics is local, and that her job is to serve the people in their day-to-day needs to as well as to prepare the country for the future,” said Maryland Chamber of Commerce CEO Brien Poffenberger, who also served on Mikulski’s staff.
The senator has been one of the staunchest defenders of funding NASA, and in particular the Godard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, as well as projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
The combative Mikulski, who stands less than five feet tall, has for years been a force to be reckoned with on Capitol Hill, barreling through the halls while gruffly ordering people aside en route to committee hearings and news conferences. She’s known for being a tough taskmaster on her staff.
She is not one for social niceties and her prickly personality does not always endear, yet she won the devotion of Maryland voters as she advocated forcefully for her constituents, from Chesapeake Bay watermen to NASA scientists. She has won re-election easily in the past and was expected to do so again if she sought another term next year.
A strong liberal voice for women, seniors, and the environment, Mikulski became the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress in 2012. She was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 and has served in the Senate since 1987.
When Mikulski was first elected there was only one other woman in the Senate; now there are 20. For years she has been a mentor and role model to other female senators, Republican and Democrat, and is even credited with getting rid of the chamber’s requirement that women wear skirts on the Senate floor.
“When Sen. Mikulski decided that she was going to wear pants while casting her votes, it was the rule that had to change, not her,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a protege. “She fought for us before we even got here, walked into rooms women had not been welcome in before, and made sure to keep her foot stuck in the door.”
In the 99th session of Congress, elected in 1984, Mikulski was part of a strong trio of women who represented Maryland in the U.S. House at the same time.
Marjorie S. Holt was the veteran, representing the 4th Congressional District in the days before Anne Arundel County was carved up by redistricting. Mikulski joined Holt at the 1976 elections from the 3rd District, in Baltimore City, and Helen Delich Bentley overcame two losses to Rep. Clarence Long to represent the 2nd District.
One beneficiary: the Port of Baltimore. Mikulski served on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and she looked out for the largest employer of some of her constituents.
She also earned admiration from a president.
In “The Clinton Tapes –Wrestling History with the President,” historian Taylor Branch said former President Bill Clinton offered a surprise choice for a dark-horse vice presidential pick for 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore, someone whose feisty nature and pugnacious style would appear to voters the often-stiff Gore could not reach.
His choice? Barbara Mikulski.
Daily Record staff writers Adam Bednar and Peter Meredith contributed to this story.