For years, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has eaten at a restaurant called Samos in Baltimore's Greektown. Her order never varies, says chef and owner Nicholas Georgalas: a vegetable kebab with pilaf, a gyro cut in half, a diet cola.
The senator eats half the gyro and saves the rest for later.
If Mikulski (D) wins a fourth term in the Senate on Nov. 2, it will be with a message as unchanged as her lunch order.
A cross between a fireplug and a fireball, she is famously blunt and occasionally profane. Supporters say that after nearly three decades in Congress, Mikulski, 68, has not strayed far from her roots in the working-class rowhouses of East Baltimore, and that she still listens to people with the empathy of the social worker she once was. Year after year, she has funneled federal funding to Maryland.
GOP detractors, including her challenger, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, say she is a liberal dinosaur whose voting record on taxes and national security shows that she is out of touch with the real concerns of Marylanders in 2004.
But in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, Mikulski's combination of personal background and political ability has been close to fail-safe. Although Maryland elected its first Republican governor in a generation in 2002, and though Pipkin (Queen Anne's) is expected to draw more votes than her previous opponents, a poll this month showed Mikulski 24 points ahead.
"Maryland doesn't stretch her," said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist and Congress-watcher at Rutgers University. "It's not that challenging a state for a Democrat of her stripe to represent."
Mikulski is campaigning diligently, reminding voters of what needs to be done to widen access to health care, defend the middle class and turn back Republican dominance in national politics.
Her people skills seem as enduring as her tastes. "She knows everyone in here," Samos waitress Joyce Snyder said. "She knows when you were fat. She knows if you've lost weight."
No Staff, No Leaks
Barbara Mikulski's defining achievement might be her arrival in the Senate almost 18 years ago. "I am a groundbreaker," she said in a recent interview. "I was the first Democratic woman . . . elected in her own right." The qualification means she was not appointed to fill a vacancy and didn't take on the mantle of a departed husband or father.
Back in 1987, she and Kansas Republican Nancy Kassebaum were the Senate's two women. Now there are 14, and Mikulski is their dean.
In 1993, she began holding workshops for newly elected women to teach them some of the ways of the Senate. The women convene every few weeks or so for an informal bipartisan dinner with three rules: no staff, no memos, no leaks. Participants said the evenings are a "zone of civility."
Apart from this distinctive role, Mikulski is primarily a bring-the-bacon-home specialist, "a fighter for Maryland," as she is routinely introduced. She is not a philosopher-senator in the style of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), not a pillar of the institution as Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) might see himself, not an expert on matters of state in the way Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) stand out on foreign policy.
On this last point, Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, begs to differ. In the late 1980s, Mikulski led other women in Congress in demanding that the National Institutes of Health include women in medical protocols, the beginning of years of Senate advocacy on women's health issues. For Gandy, the efforts make Mikulski a national figure in an area of policy, albeit one that might not be valued as much as, say, foreign affairs.
"Women all over this country have Barbara Mikulski to thank for safer medicines," Gandy said.
But Gandy, too, circled back to Mikulski-as-trailblazer in characterizing her legacy thus far. "She's short. She's a little overweight. She's not TV-star gorgeous. She doesn't look the way so many people think women need to look to run for office," Gandy said. "That may give some really smart women who aren't gorgeous the confidence that they can run for office and win."
Mikulski's career in the Senate lacks a blockbuster piece of legislation, something on the order of what her Maryland colleague Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes has done for accounting or Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) with campaign finance.
She contends that she has a defining idea: "Looking at people's day-to-day needs and what it means in terms of national policy."
Mikulski also has been in the minority for all but 18 months of the past decade, which helps explain why some of her legislative victories are dated. One of her signature accomplishments, a provision that allowed people to qualify for Medicaid to care for an ill spouse without having to impoverish themselves first, took place in 1988.
She is a victim of her times, said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, pastor of Baltimore's Koinonia Baptist Church, who has known Mikulski for decades.
"Democratic senators -- the progressive ones -- have struggled to keep the party from drifting too far to the right," he said. "She has fallen victim to the malaise that has hit the entire Democratic Party in its inability to focus its message."
The critique from opponents is harsher. Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane called her a "ghost senator" who has raised taxes, alienated businesses and failed to support such GOP education initiatives as vouchers and charter schools. "She's an embarrassment to the state of Maryland every time she gets up on a stage," he said.
In a series of television ads, Pipkin has criticized Mikulski's record on spending, the environment and national security.
"I'm responding to the situations where the incumbent has stood in front of a camera shaking her fist and saying she's fighting for Maryland," Pipkin said at a debate Monday. "Yet she has a voting record that shows she's out of touch with Marylanders."
In Your Face
Since 1994, Mikulski has been secretary of the Democratic Conference, making her the Senate's third-ranking Democrat. But she insisted that she remains an organizer at heart.
At the close of one legislative session in the late 1990s, Mikulski and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) got in the face of the Senate leadership by having senators sign a petition saying they would oppose adjournment unless the leaders agreed to restore some Medicare funding. Mikulski and Collins got the funding back. Sometimes, Mikulski downshifts from in-your-face to face-to-face.
"She personally will come to me on an issue," Collins said. "Many other senators will have their staff come to my staff. It's her personal advocacy that sets her apart, to some extent."
"I always look at the world that way," Mikulski said of her organizing efforts. "What is it that we want to do? Who's got the power? What is the basis of alliance? . . . That's the overall method."
Another part of the Mikulski method is to send postcards home, in the form of federally funded projects. "She's good at being an urban ward politician," said University of Maryland political scientist Matthew Crenson. "Making sure we get our cut of the goods."
According to Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group that tracks "pork barrel" spending, Mikulski is "bad, but not among the top 10," President Thomas A. Schatz said.
During the past seven years, Maryland averaged a ranking of 30 among the 50 states in the value per capita of its pork barrel projects, according to the nonprofit group's research. As a member of the Appropriations Committee -- unlike her colleague Sarbanes -- Mikulski gets most of the credit for directing this spending homeward.
One of the Gang
Mikulski was born in Baltimore to Polish American parents. Her father ran a grocery store across the street from their six-room brick rowhouse. She was impressed by the nuns at her Catholic school but became a social worker and community organizer instead.
Mikulski led a grass-roots campaign to stop a highway from obliterating some East Baltimore neighborhoods, a victory that led to five years on the Baltimore City Council during the early 1970s. From 1976 to 1986, she served in the House of Representatives. Then she won the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Charles McC. Mathias (R).
She knew she never would be one of the boys in the Senate, as she has said many times, but felt she could be one of the gang. For Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), that moment came in 1991 when she used her position as chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee to get a federal agency to do something Bond wanted done. "When it comes to helping a senator with an authentic need," Mikulski said, "I don't play politics. I solve problems."
Now Bond chairs the subcommittee, which oversees the Veterans Administration and several other agencies, and Mikulski is the ranking Democrat. The two are frequent across-the-aisle allies; they are working together on a bill to increase research funds to combat Alzheimer's disease and to create a tax credit to support those caring for an Alzheimer's patient.
Mikulski made her name by saying no, and she is still at it. This year, she derailed a plan by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to junk the Hubble space telescope.
The Senate's leading shepherd of the space program, Mikulski cajoled O'Keefe to reconsider by extolling Hubble's value as the "most successful NASA program since Apollo." The agency is exploring ways to keep the telescope functioning.
Maryland is home to the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Goddard Space Flight Center, both of which would have lost jobs if the Hubble had been "de-orbited," in NASA's jargon, according to O'Keefe's timetable.
Hit It Again
Mikulski went to Baltimore's Baptist Memorial Church last Sunday afternoon to make good on a promise: $600,000 in federal money to help renew the boarded-up, drug-besieged Oliver neighborhood.
Two years ago, a drug dealer firebombed a building in Oliver to retaliate against Angela Dawson, a resident who had repeatedly called police about the dealers on her block. The blaze killed her, her five children and her husband.
The violence galvanized Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development a church-based community organizing movement, to begin an effort to revamp Oliver. It is raising funds to tear down abandoned buildings and create homes in their stead.
At Sunday's meeting, churches, public officials and private foundations pledged or contributed several million dollars to support the effort, and members of the Baltimore group voted to begin the demolition.
Pastors and community leaders filed out of Memorial Baptist and stood in the weed-filled lot behind the church, gathering around a dilapidated building and an idling bulldozer. They held hands and sang a hymn.
The senator was given the honor of providing the countdown so the destruction could begin. Like any community organizer on the barricades of change, she used a bullhorn.
As the bulldozer driver started to tear down the building, she offered some encouragement from the sidelines. "Hit it again," she yelled. "One more time."
Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: a profile of Mikulski's opponent, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin.