WASHINGTON — Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a 40-year veteran of Congress and a tough-as-nails advocate for Maryland, the poor and women’s rights, said farewell to the Senate on Wednesday, recalling her roots as a Baltimore community activist and her work for “for jobs and justice.”
Mikulski is the longest serving woman in the Senate. Over three decades in the chamber, she earned a reputation for determination and for forging odd-couple alliances with Republican men like Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and former Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., and racked up an impressive roster of accomplishments.
But she is perhaps most recognized inside the Senate for her role as a mentor and ally to the body’s growing ranks of women, offering counseling and hosting bipartisan private dinners of the chamber’s women. She was the first Democrat elected to the Senate on her own but many have followed her.
“I wanted to be the first of many. I wanted to help get women elected to the Senate,” Mikulski said. “One of the great joys has been to work to help empower them so that they could be a powerhouse … that struck fear into the heart of the guys.”
Mikulski also has a skill for deal-making honed by her service on the Appropriations Committee, where senators of all philosophies have long dropped ideology in their drive to enact annual spending bills.
“She’s prepared, she’s smart, she’s tough,” Shelby said, recalling a “hand in glove” working relationship on the powerful panel. “We go back to our House days,” he added; Mikulski served in the House for a decade.
Mikulski earned a reputation for having a fierce temper and for not suffering fools — once telling a reporter that she could be “volcanic” — but she seems to have mellowed in recent years. She often refers to herself as “Sen. Barb,” but her staff often simply refers to her as “BAM.”
“Her word is her bond, she’s a passionate advocate for the causes she supports, and good luck stopping her once she’s put her mind to something,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Also bidding farewell to the Senate was Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, who recalled a career devoted to liberal causes like women’s rights and the environment. She recalled fondly her friendship and working alliance with Republicans like Sen. Jim Inhofe, a crusty conservative from Oklahoma.
With allies like House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi watching, Boxer recalled accomplishments like after-school programs, setting aside California wilderness lands and last year’s highway bill.
Also saying goodbye was first-term Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., defeated for re-election last month. She spoke with pride of her work on defense issues and on a recent law to combat opioid addiction.