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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)

C. Fraser Smith: Mikulski always stood tall

Women, she said, “look at the macro issues — and the macaroni issues.”

One of her latest campaigns, she said, would be “high tech and high touch.” She was agile – old school and new.

Looking for ways to cut hospital costs, she made Washington officials see the value of a Maryland idea – and then rewarded her state with millions of dollars a year. She called that money “a good guy bonus.” We could understand that: improving health care and making it pay.

She made quotes into an art form. But making reporters happy was the least of it.

She re-invented the language of public service and of politics. She got things done and made us part of the narrative.

She became a presence. a reassuring one. If governing and politics seemed dreary, even hopeless there was always Barb.

Always until last week.

Announcing her retirement at the end of her current term in 2016, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski will leave with her historic stature in place. She has done the legacy thing right. She gave at the office: a lifetime of punishing hours, impossible struggles against that other kind of power and the new ideas before the l-word was uttered.

She was, once again, like us.

In real life you don’t get some special, end-of-career, legacy-making interlude. You have a legacy or you don’t. No do-overs or extra innings.

Looking back to before she started in politics, you could imagine some sort of epiphany. Looking across the political horizon this 4-foot-11-inch leader out of Highlandtown hears the mostly men she had to deal with and says to herself. “

“I can do this. I can do it better. No one can talk to voters the way I can. I can be a social worker with power.”

She knew the people of the city neighborhoods. She could say: “I’m Barb and I can help.” No one scoffed.

It started with the campaign to stop a road that would have, she thought, decimated Baltimore neighborhoods, changed the look and character of the city. She and her neighborhood allies prevailed.

She ran for city council in 1971 – the same year William Donald Schaefer was first elected.

He wanted the road. He thought he could beat her – and told her he would. Nothing personal. He failed. The road ended as an embarrassing hulk of cement joined to nothing but air. She was as committed to serving people as he was. They became a team for Baltimore and Maryland.

The language, the well-nurtured roots and the great energy made her, over the years, a folk icon.

“She won an impossible fight,” says Baltimore Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg. She turned back the bulldozers. She got the credit, but she made people feel they were part of the win.

She served at a different time, Rosenberg observes – for good and for ill. Drive and personality and wit were part of the chemistry – as much as money in the beginning.

“It’s much tougher to do that in the Congress today because of fundraising obligations,” he says.

Fundraising fatigue has been cited as a reason for her decision to retire. Surely there were a few reasons. But begging for money – while insisting that democracy is not for sale – was getting harder.

Though she was as close to unbeatable as we have in politics anywhere, she would have had to do the unseemly begging.

She remains the most popular politician in Maryland. It’s been that way for a decade or more, right there in the polling done by candidates since the 1980s.

There are reasons.

Says her friend and colleague Del. Maggie McIntosh: “She has never let us down. She really is on our side.”

She made the U.S. Senate safe and accommodating for women – just by being there at first and then by campaigning to elect more and more female colleagues. She was one of only two women there at the start in 1987. She has about 20 colleagues now. She was a revolutionary. Who else has made such profound change in our government and in the lives of our daughters?

And now she hopes to put a finishing touch on that legacy: helping to elect one of her former colleagues, Hillary Rodham Clinton, President of the United States.

She may of course hang up the iconic step stool — the one that showed used show us how tall she really was.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news editor for WYPR. HIs column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org