Sen. Barbara Mikulski retiring: here's the fight that started her career

When Baltimore residents talk about Barbara Mikulski, who grew up and still lives in the city, the first thing they talk about is The Road – a proposed superhighway that ran into opposition from the future senator.

Steve Ruark/AP
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress, speaks during a news conference announcing her retirement after her current term, in the Fells Point section of Baltimore, Monday, March 2, 2015.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland announced Monday that she won’t seek another term. After 10 years in the House and 30 in the Senate, she’ll retire after the 2016 elections.

Senator Mikulski will surely be remembered as one of the most forceful national lawmakers of her era. She rose to the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, long one of the most sought-after posts in the chamber, before Democrats lost their majority in 2014.

Her gender-specific accomplishments are considerable. She’s the longest-serving woman in congressional history. She’s the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right, as opposed to succeeding a spouse. She’s the first woman to head the Appropriations panel. And so on.

“The modern history of Senate women really begins in the 1980s with Barbara Mikulski,” wrote Politico’s Liza Mundy earlier this year in a history of the chamber’s women members.

She is renowned for being tough, even prickly. She does not make lists of Capitol Hill’s most understanding employers. Her colleagues, on occasion, are visited with her displeasure.

Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada once told reporters a story that bears on this point. Back in 2005, Senator Reid had taken a vote that some other Democrats construed as antiabortion. They complained to him in no uncertain terms.

Mikulski told the complainers to leave Reid alone.

“Everybody walked away,” Reid said. “Because everybody’s afraid of her.”

But in Baltimore, where Mikulski grew up and where she still lives, not far from her childhood home, that’s not the first thing people talk about when they talk about Maryland’s senior senator.

They don’t start with her stature – 4 foot, 11 inches. They don’t mention right off that she’s got a great crab cake recipe she promotes, or that she once wrote a mystery novel about a Polish-American nurse, or that ex-Gov. Martin O’Malley’s mother is still her receptionist.

They talk about The Road.

In 1966, the Baltimore City Council proposed building an east-west superhighway through the heart of the city. It would connect I-95 on the east with I-83, the north-south road already driven like a railroad spike down the city center.

Construction looked likely. The city’s business elite favored the road as a means to whisk cars downtown from the fast-expanding suburbs.

The business elite hadn’t counted on Barbara Mikulski. She was then a social worker in Highlandtown, an ethnic enclave east of downtown. She knew that large numbers of Polish-Americans, African-Americans, and generally lower-income residents would be tossed out of their homes by the road. Many historic neighborhoods would be razed.

She formed a community group called Southeast Committee Against the Road and rallied the opposition. The citizen uprising blocked the road. Mikulski herself ended up on the city council.

Today, Baltimore’s most vibrant neighborhoods line its harbor to the north and east. They’re full of tech start-ups and Peruvian chicken restaurants and million-dollar condos. They’re a big reason Charm City is a destination for Millennials who want a fun urban experience at non-New York prices.

But that’s where the road was supposed to go. If the city council in 1966 had had its way, that part of the city today would be eight elevated lanes. Historic Fell's Point would be an on-ramp. Harbor East and its offices and shops would be tarmac.

“U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski will be remembered for a long list of accomplishments as she retires from the U.S. Senate, but her most enduring legacy in Baltimore will always be a scrapped highway plan,” writes Kevin Litten of the Baltimore Business Journal.

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