Barbara Ann Mikulski became the first Democratic woman elected to the United States Senate to hold a seat not previously held by her husband.
Barbara Ann Milulski is known as the feisty senator from Baltimore, she is also the first Democratic woman ever to have served in both Houses of Congress, and the first woman ever to win a statewide election in her home state of Maryland.
"We elected a Democratic woman named Barbara and somebody named Mikulski, and the Senate won't be the same from now on!" said Mikulski after capturing the seat left open by the retirement of Republican Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., in November of 1986. Described by Time magazine as "a four-foot-11-inch bundle of energy with a voice like a Baltimore harbor foghorn," Mikulski swept past her Republican opponent, Linda Chavez, with 61 percent of the vote. Then-president Ronald Reagan, who had campaigned in Maryland to defeat her, called Mikulski a "wily liberal," but, as Time reported, he was only half right. "Wily is about the last word Marylanders would apply to Mikulski. Blunt, outspoken and feisty would describe her better. She is a fierce debater, with a fondness for pointed quips." "I define public service as not only to be a help but to be an advocate….In the Senate, I plan to use the good mind, the good mouth, the good heart that God gave me," said Mikulski in Time.
The granddaughter of Polish immigrants, Mikulski can certainly be called liberal. The unabashed feminist backs a nuclear freeze and consistently votes for increased social spending. She is a staunch supporter of organized labor and supports protectionist legislation to save American jobs. While serving as a United States congresswoman, Mikulski was a harsh critic of the Reagan administration's defense and foreign policies, and voted to cancel the MX missile project and cut off aid to Nicaraguan contras. "I just don't take an issue because it's popular," Mikulski said in Business Week. "I'm a fighter." In an article in the Washington Post, Mikulski maintained she still has the soul of a street organizer. "Nobody would ever use the term mellow to describe me…. I'm not caffeine-free, that's for sure." Indeed, a Capitol Hill staff member told Business Week, "When she walks into a room, it's like a brawler came in."
Mikulski got her start in politics in 1968 with the organization of a coalition of black, Polish, Greek, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian Americans to block construction of a 16-lane highway that would have destroyed areas of East Baltimore, including parts of Fells Point that boasted the first black home ownership neighborhood in the city. Called SCAR (Southeast Council Against the Road), the neighborhood group fought against an entrenched Democratic political organization at City Hall that supported the highway project. Despite the strength of the opposition, SCAR, led by Mikulski, was successful in blocking the highway proposal.
That battle whetted Mikulski's appetite for getting involved on a more formal political basis. In 1971, she ran for a seat on the Baltimore City Council. Campaigning as an outsider taking on established political machines, she wore out five pairs of shoes and knocked on 15,000 doors to spread her message throughout the Highlandtown neighborhood she grew up in. Potential constituents were told that "by being part of a group whether it's a PTA, a neighborhood association, a coalition against toxic waste, working together can make a change," as Mikulski later recalled in Ms. magazine. "For a woman, with no previous political experience, to run out there was a tremendous accomplishment," observed Peter N. Marudas, a political advisor to Maryland Senator Paul S. Sarbanes, in the Washington Post.
Mikulski's penchant for community organizing came as no surprise to her parents. William and Christine Mikulski operated a grocery store, Willy's Market, across the street from their home. Barbara, the eldest of three daughters, attended Catholic grade school and high school. The Washington Post noted that even as a little girl, "Barbara showed a special talent. While other kids were more athletic and agile than the klutzy, chubby Barbara, she had an uncanny ability to control situations. Tired of skinning her knees trying to jump rope 'double dutch,' Barbara coaxed her little cousins and friends into taking part in plays and shows in her parents' garage, shows in which she served as playwright, producer and director."
Mikulski considered becoming a nun, but concluded that she was too rebellious to accept the discipline of a religious order. Instead, she trained as a social worker, earning her bachelor's degree at Mount St. Agnes College in Baltimore, then continuing her studies at the University of Maryland. She graduated in 1965 with a master's degree in social work.
Mikulski first worked for the Associated Catholic Charities and then the Baltimore Department of Social Services. By 1966, she was an assistant chief of community organizing for the city social services department, working on a plan to decentralize welfare programs. While serving these organizations, primarily in cases of child abuse and neglect, Mikulski developed the deep concern for the rights of children and families that she later took to Washington.
Mikulski expressed many of her concerns in an essay titled "Who Speaks for Ethnic America?" for the New York Times in September of 1970. Ethnic immigrants who came to the United States at the turn of the century, she wrote, "constructed the skyscrapers, operated the railroads, worked on the docks, factories, steel mills and in the mines. Though our labor was in demand, we were not accepted. Our names, language, food and cultural customers were the subject of ridicule. We were discriminated against by banks, institutions of higher learning and other organizations controlled by the Yankee Patricians. There were no protective mechanisms for safety, wages and tenure." Mikulski maintained that it was smarter for these groups to organize than to fight, "to form an alliance based on mutual issues, interdependence and respect."
During her five years on the Baltimore City Council, Mikulski became known as an effective, hands-on representative of the people. Her campaign literature said she "got things done," and she did—from potholes to public education, when Baltimoreans had problems or needed help, they knew they could depend on Mikulski.
In 1976, Congressman Paul S. Sarbanes, of Maryland's Third Congressional District (Baltimore), announced his candidacy for the United States Senate. Mikulski was one of six people to join the race to take his place in the United States House of Representatives. Using her vast network of community supporters and volunteers, Mikulski won the Democratic primary and went on to represent the third district in the United States House of Representatives.
When she arrived on Capitol Hill in January of 1977, Mikulski got an appointment to the Merchant Marine & Fisheries Committee, where she could work on legislation affecting the Port of Baltimore, one of the state's largest employers. She also became the first woman ever appointed to the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee, which gave her a platform to lobby on issues including railroads, telecommunications, and health care. She was a prime mover behind the 1984 Child Abuse Act and a major proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, and she helped establish the Congressional Women's Caucus. "She's been a real stalwart, a feisty spark plug on women's issues, especially fighting for insurance reform," said Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (a Democrat from Colorado), in Ms.
After five terms as congresswoman, in 1986 Mikulski set her sights on the United States Senate seat being vacated by retiring Senator Charles McC. Mathias, Jr. Her opponent was Linda Chavez, a former staff director of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, who was a well-spoken and well-connected Republican.
Chavez apparently thought the "frumpy, loud and sometimes rude" Mikulski would be a pushover, wrote People. However, Chavez made the "mistake of trying to smear Barbara's hometown image. She called Mikulski a 'San Francisco-style Democrat' who ought to 'come out of the closet,' and accused one of Mikulski's aides of promoting 'fascist feminism' and 'anti-male attitudes,"' wrote Ms. in 1987 when the magazine named Mikulski a "Woman of the Year."
To beat Chavez, Mikulski sought out her supporters from her days as an activist social worker, arranging meetings with business and civic leaders and longtime feminist allies. She also hired pollster Harrison Hickman, who had developed a method for analyzing "the woman factor," she told Ms. "We wanted to be sure that people's positive feelings toward me weren't just 'Gosh, isn't this fun? A woman Senator."'
To compete with Chavez's polished image, Mikulski hired Lillian Brown, a makeup advisor to presidential candidates, to show her how to use low-gloss makeup to make her appear more attractive on television. "Mikulski replaced her old, dark-framed glasses with a pair of rimless, glare-proof bifocals. She experimented with different color dresses and varying hemlines so she wouldn't look dumpy. And she learned how to sit properly and take advantage of camera angles to enhance her looks on television," the Washington Post reported. By the time Mikulski was sworn in as a United States senator, she had lost more than 40 pounds through vigorous dieting and exercise, and had toned down her East Baltimore street lingo. The Washington Post noted that she had "cooled her street-fighter style to make her way in the (Senate) club."
The Democratic party's congressional leadership showed her off by temporarily assigning Mikulski to Harry Truman's old seat on the Senate floor. According to the Washington Post, since her arrival her Senate colleagues "have watched closely—and they have been impressed. The former street organizer and 'Queen of the Ethnics' has become more than a mere member of the club. She is well on her way to becoming a major player."
Mikulski, with help from her colleague Senator Paul S. Sarbanes (Democrat-Maryland) and Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (Democrat-West Virginia), landed four of the best committee assignments of any freshman senator. The top prize was her appointment to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the political equivalent of hitting a home run the first time at bat, since all budget bills come before the committee. She also became a member of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which handles most major welfare reform legislation; the Environment and Public Works Committee, with jurisdiction over road and bridge construction; and the Small Business Committee. She also serves on numerous subcommittees, a full schedule that has forced her to carefully pick the issues she gets involved in.
In her first term as senator, Mikulski pushed through various initiatives on behalf of Maryland, including money for the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and Maryland's oyster beds, $24 million in urban mass transit funds for the state, and continued operation of a weather station on Maryland's eastern shore. Mikulski, who delivered a rousing speech early in the course of the Democratic National Convention in July of 1992, was reelected to another term that year and continued her high-profile involvement. Science magazine commented that Mikulski has "more influence over nonmilitary R&D [ research and development] than perhaps anybody else now on Capitol Hill."
Mikulski's influence affects budgets for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Space and Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others. In 1994, she was largely responsible for pushing through the largest congressional funding increase that the National Science Foundation had seen in 11 years. She was also aggressive in pushing for funding to modernize the offices of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), housed in her home state. In an interview in Science, Mikulski noted the importance of funding projects that are linked to practical issues, although the long-term benefits may not be apparent to some. When deciding between affordable housing for the elderly and a space station, for instance, many may not see why space exploration is necessary. "Those are the choices," Mikulski remarked, "and I think it's going to be very tough."
In addition to her political career, Maluski wrote a political mystery novel, Capitol Offense (published in 1996), with Marylouise Oates. While attending the Democratic Convention in Chicago, she and her co-author held a book signing to promote the new book.
Further Reading on Barbara Mikulski
Business Week, August 11, 1986.
Ms., January 1987; September 1988.
People, November 3, 1986.
Science, April 8, 1994, pp. 192-194; July 22, 1994, p. 469.
Time, November 17, 1986.
Washington Post, August 28, 1996.
Washington Post Magazine, June 14, 1987.