Barbara Mikulski: How a 4-foot-11 supernova changed the Senate

'Senator Barb' is retiring after 40 years of no-nonsense politicking. She leaves a piece of her legacy in every woman senator.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland chats onstage before a mayoral inauguration ceremony for Catherine Pugh inside the War Memorial Building in Baltimore on Dec. 6.

Not everyone can say they have a supernova named for them.

But then, there’s only one Barbara Mikulski – a firecracker of a senator and the longest serving woman in Congress, now retiring after 40 years on the Hill.

Senator Mikulski may be small of stature (4 feet, 11 inches), but the Democrat from Maryland leaves a towering legacy as “Dean of the Senate women.” 

In 1987, when she came to the Senate after 10 years in the House, there was only one other female senator, Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas. The Senate had no ladies restroom nearby, and women had to wear skirts or dresses if they wanted to appear in the chamber. Three decades later that’s all changed, and there are 20 female senators – soon to be 21.

Though Senator Mikulski was the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right (i.e., not occupying a seat previously held by her husband), she didn’t want to be the last. “I wanted to be the first of many. I wanted to help women get elected to the Senate,” she said in her Senate farewell speech Dec. 7. 

Mikulski has worked at that by making sure women of both parties are successful once they arrive in Washington – teaching them the ropes of senatorhood through her “power workshops” and building collegiality at her regular bipartisan women’s dinners.

“One of the great joys has been to work to help empower them so that they can be a powerhouse,” she said in one of her typical wordplay nuggets.

Powerhouse Mikulski

The senator herself is a powerhouse, muscling her way past disapproving party bosses to win her first elected position on the Baltimore City Council in 1971. She gained local fame through community organizing that blocked a 16-lane highway that would cut through Fells Point and other diverse, inner city, working class neighborhoods – including her own.

Jumping up on a table at a rally, she cried: “The British didn’t take Fells Point, the termites couldn’t take Fells Point,” and the roads commission won’t take it. Wild cheers erupted. It was her first hands-on lesson in coalition building, working with African American homeowners as well as stakeholders in her own neighborhood. Some of the areas she saved are now among the trendiest in the city.

In Washington, she has since been known to rally female senators before an important debate by gathering them in the chandeliered Senate president’s room – one of the most ornate rooms in the Capitol – standing on the couch, and instructing them to “gear up, square your shoulders, put your lipstick on, and get ready for the revolution.” 

Mikulski grew up in an East Baltimore row house, across the street from her parents’ grocery store. She says she learned service at an early age, using her little red wagon to deliver orange juice and other items from the store to house-bound seniors. Her father instructed her not to take a tip. Nuns at her Catholic schools further engrained the service charge. 

In her life as a senator, she has stayed close to her constituents, arriving unannounced at diners on “Mondays in Maryland” and holding roundtables to gather ideas from people. Senator Barb, as she often refers to herself, has kept her state front and center, helping to make the port of Baltimore more secure, clean the Chesapeake Bay, and save the Hubble Space Telescope (hence Supernova Mikulski, which was discovered by the telescope). 

She's also gone national, ensuring that women are not left out of medical research, that elderly couples don’t have to sell their homes to pay for their spouse’s medical bills, and that people don’t get timed out from taking legal action for equal pay. And she pushed AmeriCorps, to help young people pay down their student loans through teaching. 

“I am here to work on the macro issues and I am here to work on the macaroni and cheese issues,” she tells Marylanders, serving up another one of her verbal nuggets. 

The Senate women's dinners 

Around the Senate, she is also famous for her role in mentoring and supporting other women – particularly at her women’s dinners, where, according to Mikulski’s rules, what gets said at the dinner, stays at the dinner.

These bipartisan gatherings, hosted by a different senator each time, allow the women to talk over issues among themselves, to socialize, and build trust and friendship (the "best ship you could sail on in life," she quips). 

“It’s always helpful when the senators are able to get together in a social setting, to relax and kind of feel at ease and know you can have conversations that can be friendly, can be personal, and you’re with people who understand” the juggling act that is the life of a woman senator, says Sen. Deb Fischer (R) of Nebraska.

Though her sons are grown, Senator Fischer’s husband travels back and forth with her and shares her suitcase lifestyle that often keeps her too late to make dinner. It’s a “switch in the roles,” and she likes being able to visit with colleagues who can relate to that.

But these dinners are not only social. Sometimes they are incubators for bipartisan ideas. Indeed, that’s how they got started. In her farewell speech, Mikulski related their genesis to a call from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, who won a special election to the Senate in 1993.

“I got a call from Senator Hutchison one day, and my staff said: ‘Ew, she wants to work with you on something. Ew. Ew. She is a conservative from Texas and she wants to work with you on something.’

“I said: ‘How about if we listen? Could we start with listening?’ ”

The two senators met over dinner to discuss tax-deferred retirement savings for full-time homemakers so they could equal that of workers. Parity was a subject Mikulski could warm to. But they also had a great time talking about their lives, how they got started in politics, the obstacles they face. 

Thus, the dinners were born – not to form a women’s caucus, because views differ so widely, but to provide “a zone of civility,” as Mikulski puts it, and a place where debates are observed “with intellectual rigor.”

In an era when senators commute weekly to Washington and have little opportunity to get to know each other outside of committees or their party caucus, “these dinners have been really vital in connecting us,” says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine. 

“That matters at a time when the Senate is rife with hyperpartisanship,” she says, adding that the dinners “help to overcome the toxic atmosphere.” 

Power workshops for newbies

When Senator Collins was a brand new senator in 1997, one of the first people to call her was Mikulksi. The gentlewoman from Maryland invited the gentlewoman from Maine to her power workshop – a training session in her office that Mikulski instituted for all female newcomers. Collins was joined by the other newcomer, Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana.

The workshops were a byproduct of the “year of the woman,” when four Democratic women were elected to the Senate in 1992. Amazingly, no orientation to explain the nuts and bolts – and strategy – of becoming a successful senator existed, so Mikulski designed one, along with a thick guidebook about committee assignments and Senate procedures.

A senator’s power depends on getting on the right committees. Mikulski, for instance, became the first chairwoman of the most powerful committee of all, appropriations, which divvies up federal spending. Collins took it as the highest praise when Mikulski once told her the Mainer had "the soul of an appropriator.”

Power also depends on effective constituent services and well-run staff. And it emanates from a clear set of principles to keep senator and staff on target. Her’s fit on a 3-by-5 card, and were called BAM’S principles, after her initials. Indeed, her staff often just refers to her as BAM – a perfect onomatopoeic match for a tough-as-nails senator who does not suffer fools.

“Barbara Mikulski was a godsend. She brought all of us together and laid it all out. She explained ‘here’s how you can be successful.’ She explained everything – how to get an incorporation into a bill, what you had to do to steer yourself onto a good committee, how to set up a mailroom,” Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington recalls in the book, “Nine and Counting,” about the Senate women of 2001.

And Mikulski actively mentored women. In 1989, when then-Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, was considering a very long-shot bid for the Senate, she sought out her former House colleague from Maryland. 

Mikulski came right to the point. “How old are you, Babs?” she asked her California friend, who answered that she was almost 50.

“Go for it. It’s worth the fight you’ll have to wage to get here. And it will be a fight.” It was, but Boxer crossed the finish line with three other women in ’92. 

“And who was waiting for us with open arms?” recalled Senator Boxer in a tribute to Mikulski. “Senator Mikulski. And this is what she said: ‘Some women stare out the window waiting for Prince Charming. I stared out the window waiting for more women senators – and it is finally happening!’ ”

Paying it forward

With the dean now retiring, Collins says she and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, the two most senior women, plan to carry on with the dinners. They’ve already held a get-together for this year’s incoming women. There are four new women senators in all, three of whom are firsts.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (right) talks with (from left) Sens.-elect Kamala Harris of California, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 15.

Kamala Harris of California, who is replacing the retiring Boxer, is the first biracial woman in the Senate. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada is the first Latina in the chamber. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a former House member, is the first senator to be born in Thailand.

The Hubble telescope website says the home galaxy of Supernova Mikulski is undergoing “a burst of star formation.” 

If Senator Barb had her way, the number of stars in the constellation of women senators would be more plentiful than 21. But even this taskmaster has to be pleased with their luminosity and her trailblazing role. 

Quoting from the poet William Blake, she summed up her work like this:

Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

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