Barbara Mikulski, the congressional champion of Baltimore's blue-collar grit, boarded the Amtrak for New York yesterday laden with scraps of historical baggage, the gifts of a neighborhood that expects her to make her own history at the Democratic National Convention this week.
From the Ikaros restaurant in Highlandtown, Mikulski carried Greek pastries -- symbols of the neighborhood -- that she had promised to deliver to the press and politicians that besiege her. And as the train clattered toward New York, Mikulski spent her time studying the 1960 nominating speeches for John F. Kennedy, meant to inspire her for the moment Wednesday night when she will clamber into a prime-time national spotlight to nominate Edward Kennedy, and maybe transform her own career.
Whether or not Kennedy is still in the presidential race by the time she speaks, Mikulski will stand in the place where dozens of other local politicians have launched national careers, including, she knows, Ronald Reagan, who spoke for Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Until now, she has been an outspoken congresswoman from East Baltimore, well-known in the national party but viewed in some quarters as no more than another of that ethnic district's colorful -- but relatively impotent -- personalities. Wednesday, she thinks, may change all that.
"My hope is to be seen as a politician squarely planted in my community," she said, "but also someone who is taken seriously on a national platform. I don't want to be someone who tells jokes and is taken to have nerve in lieu of substance."
And so, when she was not studying speeches yesterday morning, Mikulski was worrying over the matter of the hydraulic lift, and the glasses.
"You see, I usually follow men on platforms who are at least a foot and a half taller than I am," said Mikulski, who stands 4-foot-11. "And there's supposed to be this hydraulic lift that takes me up above that high podium. I have this terrible feeling that I'm going to get before that huge oaken podium, and push the button, and nothing's going to happen . . .
"I brought an extra pair of glasses," Mikulski added. "I have this fear that I'm going to get all dressed to go before the convention -- and then bend down and step on my glasses. And it will be a little hard to give an elegant speech while I'm holding that paper four inches from my eyes . . ."
Improbable as these disasters are, Mikulski will doubtless spend the week telling everyone she sees about them, in the blunt, rowdy manner that has always distinguished her political style -- and that apparently enchanted Kennedy.
Mikulski delivered her first introduction for Kennedy a year ago at a fund-raiser for the Equal Rights Amendment. After recounting all the similarities between herself and Kennedy -- an ethnic background, close families -- Mikulski noted: "Our fathers were both entrepreneurs. My father owned a small grocery store, your father owned Boston."
"There was a deadly silence for a moment after that," remembers Ann Lewis, Mikulski's top aide. "No one had said anything like that to Kennedy before.But I guess he liked it."
Since then, Mikulski has traveled across the country to campaign for Kennedy, and devoted three solid weeks to heading his Maryland primary campaign even as she was running for re-election herself.
"A friendship developed between Barbara and Kennedy during the campaign," said Lewis. "He kept saying he liked her introductions, and there was all that time they spent talking between stops. But we didn't expect this. When (Kennedy) called Wednesday, she thought at first he must be offering her the seconding speech -- not the main one."
Both Lewis and Mikulski recognize that Kennedy's choice may have been based as much on Mikulski's identity -- an ethnic woman -- as her speaking talent. But as a leader of women's causes in the Democratic Party who has played a large role in bringing more women to national conventions. Mikulski welcomes the symbolism.
"I see this [speech] and this convention as an enormous advance for women in the party," says Mikulski. "I hope my selection says something about Kennedy -- he certainly didn't pick an establishment person, or a big contributor, or someone from a big state that could be swung."
I hope that my speech will make other women out there -- whether they are community organizers like I was or in the state of Washington under volcanic ash -- think about coming into politics."
In the end, of course, there is Baltimore, and the neighborhood. "If I bring recognition to myself, I'll bring recognition to my community, to Baltimore," Mikulski said. "I feel very emotional about the pride this brings to the people in my neighborhood."