In some editions yesterday, the introduction to the profiles of Barbara Mikulski and Michael Barnes implied that they were the only two Democrats pursuing the Maryland Senate nomination. Harry Hughes, who is also seeking the Senate seat, was the subject of a profile here when he was running for reelection as governor.
"The day I moved out of my house my mother was very upset," Barbara Mikulski says. "In my neighborhood the only reason a woman moved out of her house at any age was she was entering the convent, getting married, or she had died prematurely." She laughs: nowadays almost no one, not even in her native Polish neighborhood of Highlandtown (holl'nt'n) thinks it odd for a single woman in her 20s, studying for a masters in social work, to live on her own. "But I think I'm a contemporary version of what women in my family and neighborhood have always been. Women have always worked. And there was also in every family the one who didn't marry, a person in the family who had a career. In my aunt's generation she would have been a secretary for the telephone company. Ethnic women are very entrepreneurial." She goes on, "Well, instead of having my own little store, I have my own little congressional seat." Tradition and feminism, roots and new ways -- for Mikulski, have always gone, together.
Certainly no one doubts where her roots are. Her father's father, over from Poland, worked in a licorice factory; his wife sold cakes and pies at the side of her house, then in a bakery; their son, Willy Mikulski, worked in a grocery and married the owner's daughter Chris in 1935. Then in the depression they started their own grocery store in one of Baltimore's rowhouse neighborhoods.
The Mikulskis started their business with a loan from one of Baltimore's ethnic savings and loans, open only on Monday nights, where the neighbors brought in their savings books and put in a nickel or dime for each of the kids. Collateral? "They knew your family, knew you." Her father in turn would keep a copybook, and people would settle up at the end of the week -- or much later, if Bethlehem Steel was on strike.
Mikulski's father was determined to get education for his girls, and when Barbara offered to forgo college after the store burned down, her parents insisted she go. The oldest of three, she went to Sacred Heart Elementary, a high school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame and Mount St. Agnes College. They were women's schools, where she found "an atmosphere where women were encouraged to excel, academically and athletically," and "the pursuit of individual excellence in a framework of values bigger than yourself." She excelled in debate and drama, but she had always been a natural organizer, and she found "the very strict discipline" of high school confining. She was a bit of a rebel, reading theology so she could ask "stump questions" of the sister; and then "Sister would say, 'Where did you get that?' and I'd tell her, and she'd say, 'You should read the other three that go with it.'"
She switched from premed to social work, worked for Associated Catholic Charities and the Department of Social Services. Working on child abuse and neglect cases was "a searing experience for a young person: you have to make judgments about the safety of children staying in those homes." She was burned out "by all the systems I kept running into." She was inspired by John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII, two Catholic heroes. Soon she was marching in civil rights demonstrations and getting involved in community organizing. After the 1968 riots she went, literally, home, leading a protest against an expressway planned to run through the ethnic neighborhoods east of downtown Baltimore.
That took her into politics. She ran for city council in 1971 and against two feuding political organizations she came down the middle and won. As one of the few politicians with genuine ethnic roots and sympathy with the anti-war and feminist forces in the Democratic Party, she got national attention as well, and was appointed to head the Democrats' rules commission after the 1972 election. Both locally and nationally, she was successful -- eventually. Mayor Donald Schaefer told her he admired her stand against the expressway, "but I can't let you win; when this is over, come and see me." She lost 16-3, and eventually she, the mayor, and council president Wally Orlinsky got the highway built south of the Harbor -- otherwise, she notes, "the Inner Harbor would be a cloverleaf, Federal Hill would be leveled," and Fells Point, where she lives now, would never have been revived. As for the national Democrats, her rules nominated their only winning ticket in 20 years.
"I didn't know I'd like politics, but I liked these guys" -- the Baltimore councilmen she'd go down alleys with, seeing whether the building inspectors had been there. She got a strong 43 percent against Mac Mathias in 1974, was reelected to the council in 1975, and won her House seat when Paul Sarbanes ran for the Senate in 1976. It has been quite a distance for someone who could not have imagined that a daughter of Highlandtown, an alumna of Catholic women's schools, a social worker and community organizer could end up the front-runner in a race for the United States Senate.