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  • In this Jan. 4, 2011, file photo, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, poses for a portrait at her office, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Rob Carr, File)

  • In this Jan. 9, 1997, file photo, women senators gesture during a meeting on Capitol Hill, where they discussed opportunities for bipartisan cooperation in the 105th Congress. From left are: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill.; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas; Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. (AP Photo/Joe Marquette, File)

  • In this Feb. 28, 1974, file photo, Democratic National Chairman Robert S. Strauss, right, chats with Baltimore Councilwoman Barbara Mikulski during an opening session of the Democratic Executive Committee in Washington. (AP Photo/ Charles Bennett, File )

  • In this Sept. 27, 2006, file photo, Ben Cardin, D-Md., left, Democratic candidate for the Senate, rallies with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., second from left, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., third from left, and his former primary campaign opponent Kweisi Mfume, at College Park, Md. (AP Photo/ Steve Ruark, File)

  • In this Jan. 29, 2009, file photo, President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Bill with Lilly Ledbetter, at center behind Obama, in the East Room at the White House in Washington. Standing at foreground left, is Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File)

  • In this Feb. 24, 2010, file photo, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, center, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., right, walk arm-in-arm on Capitol Hill in Washington, to a vote on the Senate Jobs Bill. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. is at left. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg, File)

  • In this April 2, 1984, file photo, Barbara Mikulski speaks at a pre-election day rally “Women for Mondale,” in Herald Square, New York City, with Bella Abzug in background at left. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)

  • In this June 29, 2011, file photo, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

  • In this April 7, 1995, file photo, Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, left, talks to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. during a breakfast with women members of the U.S. Senate, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File)

  • In this Sept. 5, 2012, file photo, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland is surrounded by the other Democratic women of the Senate as she addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

  • Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress, speaks during a news conference announcing her retirement after her current term, in the Fells Point section of Baltimore on Monday. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

  • Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress, speaks during a news conference announcing her retirement after her current term, in the Fells Point section of Baltimore on Monday. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

  • Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress, speaks during a news conference announcing her retirement after her current term, in the Fells Point section of Baltimore on Monday. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

  • In this photo from March of 2007, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, right, reacts as former President Bill Clinton speaks.

  • Senator Barbara Mikulski shaking hands with Michael E. Bennett- Mayor of the City of aberdeen at the BRAC conference in Turf Valley in January 2008.

  • Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland announces her 2004 re-election campaign Monday, Jan. 19, 2004 in Baltimore. The announcement was part of a five-stop statewide campaign tour that also included stops in Silver Spring, Bowie, Cambridge and Hagerstown, Md. (AP Photo/ Steve Ruark)

  • Sen. Barbara Mikulski, center, does excercises with participants in a cancer benefit race in October 2006 in Baltimore.

Mikulski’s unlikely road

From a scrappy community activist, she became the longest-serving woman senator

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.

In this April 2, 1984, file photo, Barbara Mikulski speaks at a pre-election day rally “Women for Mondale,” in Herald Square, New York City, with Bella Abzug in background at left.  (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)

In this April 2, 1984, file photo, Barbara Mikulski speaks at a pre-election day rally “Women for Mondale,” in Herald Square, New York City, with Bella Abzug in background at left. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)

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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.