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Women Who Made a Difference: Senator Barbara Mikulski

Mar 01, 2012 12:11PM ● By Anonymous

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The Democratic Senator Mikulski is the fourteenth most senior of our one hundred U.S. Senators of both genders. First elected to public office as a Baltimore City Councilwoman in 1971, Mikulski went on to serve in Congress as the representative from Maryland’s Third Congressional District from 1976 to 1986. She became the first female to hold a Maryland statewide office upon her 1986 election to the U.S. Senate by a wide majority after her predecessor’s retirement.


Known as “Senator Barb” among her colleagues, she was born and raised in East Baltimore’s Highlandtown. The community’s modest row houses are so characteristic of Baltimore's traditional working class neighborhoods that Highlandtown is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 


The great-granddaughter of Polish immigrants recalls, “We lived in a typical townhouse in Highlandtown across the street from my parents’ grocery store on Eaton Street. That old house is only a few miles from my office in Fells Point, so I often find myself driving past it.” 


Senator Mikulski remembers her father’s compassion for the needy, saying, “My father ran a little grocery store called Willy’s Market. He kept it open six days a week and started each day at 5:30 a.m. so the workers at Bethlehem Steel and American Can could buy rolls and lunch meat on their way to work. I remember that if times were hard—if there was a strike at the steel mill and people had no money—he always extended credit. He’d tell me, ‘Barb, go bring these groceries over to Miss Sophie’s house. She’s sick and she can’t pay. And you can’t take a tip; you’re a grocer’s daughter.’” 


These experiences sparked Mikulski’s passion for service and led to an undergraduate degree from Baltimore’s Mount Saint Agnes College and a Masters degree in Social Work from the University of Maryland. But social work was not her first calling. The senator remembers, “When I was eight, I saw a movie about Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and I was inspired. I begged my parents to buy me a chemistry set. I wanted to be a scientist and win a Nobel Prize.” While she is not a scientist, the senator now chairs the Senate Subcommittee that funds scientific research at NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Mikulski’s political career launched in 1965, when transit plans proposed to link the 

I-83 and I-95 expressways near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The young Mikulski quickly became a prominent civic activist, leading the community effort to save Fell’s Point, Canton, and the Inner Harbor. Construction of the multi-lane throughway and its large-scale interchanges would have surely destroyed the picturesque waterfront character of these quaint downtown areas. The revolt’s success is the reason for today’s at-grade terminus of the Jones Falls Expressway in downtown Baltimore. This neighborhood victory became the springboard for Mikulski’s public service career. 


At nearly 76 years young, today Mikulski certainly does not shy away from long hours or fiery debates. The hard-charging senator is a member of three very important Senate Committees, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. She is also the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Children and Families, the  chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, and a member of five other subcommittees of the Appropriations Committee.


A typical day for the trailblazing senator might include debating a bill on the Senate floor, attending committee meetings, and working with senators and staff to resolve legislative issues. The senator hosts meetings with constituents and Maryland officials to keep in touch with their views and often speaks at events and on radio and television. Whenever possible, the senator travels around Maryland to meet and greet the folks who have soundly elected her to five consecutive six-year terms in the Senate. 


Amazingly, at the end of each exhausting day, she returns home to Baltimore. As she tells it, “I don’t ever want to forget where I come from. I like being Barbara Mikulski, the daughter of a grocer, the granddaughter of a baker. I like being the Barbara Mikulski who is a familiar face at the grocery store.”


As the Senate’s Dean of Women, Senator Barb mentors the junior female senators and works to build coalitions among women on the Senate floor. In 2011, this orator and consensus builder was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. 


Senator Mikulski is proud of her legislative accomplishments over the years. “My Spousal Anti-Impoverishment Act protects the assets of seniors who have spouses in nursing homes … I fought hard to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to guarantee women equal pay for equal work… I worked to end gender discrimination in health insurance… I pushed to establish AmeriCorps, which to this day embodies the spirit of volunteerism and service to our country.” 


The senator also fights for federal investment in Maryland's transportation systems and homeland security. She works to promote Maryland’s global competitiveness and employment opportunities, while advocating for veterans, students, emergency first responders, the Chesapeake Bay, space exploration, and scientific research. 


In the rare moment’s respite, the energetic senator has some favorite ways to relax. “I love to read. I often read 100 pages a night. At times, I like to go to the theater, the symphony, or a movie. I also enjoy going out with friends in Fells Point or Little Italy.” In her spare time, Senator Mikulski, with a co-author, somehow managed to pen and publish a pair of murder mysteries set on Capitol Hill. Not exactly best sellers, the two novels are nonetheless fun reads, woven with political intrigue.

Constituents seeing the senator in action cannot help being impressed by her formidable oratory and imposing eloquence. She has remarkable presence for a woman standing four feet eleven inches in height. Mikulski says, “People say I’m feisty. Really, I’m a fighter, looking out for the day-to-day needs of Marylanders and the long range needs of the nation.”


The future for Barbara Mikulski includes five more years in the Senate, and her plans beyond that are the subject of plenty of speculation. Whoever the next senator from Maryland might be, one thing is certain—our next senator will have one tough act to follow.