Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski bristled at the pop quiz a pastor sprang on her at his Baltimore church on a recent Saturday, a visit that was part of an informal farewell tour after 40 scene-stealing years on Maryland’s political stage.
Do you remember my father? the reverend asked. And if so, who was he?
Mikulski let the pastor know she did not appreciate being put on the spot. But she aced the test anyway: His father was among the first union leaders to endorse her Senate campaign 30 years earlier.
Triumphant, the senator smiled and headed for lunch.
Mikulski, who retires in January, has cultivated deep ties to generations of constituents. Many know her as “Senator Barb,” the irrepressible, wisecracking everywoman who began her political career fighting a highway that threatened to pulverize Baltimore’s working-class neighborhoods.
That the senator is only 4 feet 11 inches tall — a veritable shrub in a forest of soaring redwoods — seems only to have guaranteed her more attention.
Yet beyond Maryland, Mikulski is known for her gender-bending milestones, a list that includes longest-serving woman in congressional history; first Democratic woman to win a Senate seat without inheriting it from a dead spouse; first woman to chair the Senate’s powerful Appropriations Committee.
As her staff packs up her trove of grip-and-grin photos and stacks of awards, the 80-year-old senator has basked in a flurry of curtain calls, including a farewell speech on the Senate floor last week in which she repeated her favorite sayings (“The best ship is friendship”) and recounted her improbable rise (“I beat the political bosses”).
“They said, ‘You don’t look the part,’ ” Mikulski recalled. “I said: ‘This is what the part looks like. And this is what the part is going to be like.’ ”
Always a ceiling buster, Mikulski relished the prospect of leaving office just as another pantsuit pioneer moved into the White House. After stunning the political establishment with her retirement announcement in March 2015, the senator threw herself into helping elect the first female president.
But Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, a result that Mikulski — like many women who have heralded the former secretary of state — characterized as her “biggest” disappointment in politics.
“On a scale of zero to 10,” Mikulski said, “this is a 52.”
The morning after the election, Mikulski struggled to remain upbeat while acknowledging her anguish. “This has been a very emotional 48 hours for me,” Mikulski said at a Baltimore news conference before congratulating her successor, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), who stood alongside.
Mikulski pronounced herself prepared to pass the proverbial torch, handing Van Hollen a plastic lightsaber from “Star Wars,” a movie she loves to quote. Van Hollen, who towers over the senator, grinned as he inadvertently held the toy in front of Mikulski’s face, blocking the TV cameras’ view of her.
The senator raised her hand to nudge the lightsaber a bit to the right so she could be seen.
As she contemplated a campaign for the Senate in 1986, Mikulski summoned political consultant Robert Shrum. Mikulski understood that she was not exactly senatorial in her appearance. How would Shrum present her to voters accustomed to choosing graying men in dark suits?
“My answer was that you’re short, loud, heavyset and ethnic — and the way you should be is short, loud, heavyset and ethnic,” Shrum recalled. “She was authentically authentic. Nobody dreamed her up.”
For all her flamboyance, Mikulski learned over time to abide by Washington’s more genteel traditions, refusing to be lampooned as a replica of Bella Abzug, the New York congresswoman known for wide-brimmed hats and feminist bombast.
If she never authored landmark legislation, Mikulski was a stubborn negotiator, securing highway funding, boosting security at the Port of Baltimore and advocating for environmental safeguards for the Chesapeake Bay.
She promoted a litany of Maryland-based agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and NASA. Her prized causes included the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.
“She was and is blunt and plain-spoken,” said Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “But her interest was not to become a fringe player upsetting the apple cart for its own sake. It was to get things done.”
Mikulski’s panache was well known before she first ran for office in Baltimore, where she grew up the daughter of a Polish American grocer. She attended Catholic schools and considered becoming a nun before beginning a career as a social worker.
Her political baptism occurred in the late 1960s, when federal officials planned to rip up a string of neighborhoods to make way for a 16-lane highway. “The British couldn’t take Fells Point, the termites couldn’t take Fells Point, and the state roads commission can’t take Fells Point,” Mikulski declared in one speech.
Planners redesigned the highway to spare the neighborhoods.
At the same time, Mikulski was attracting national attention as an advocate for “the ethnic American,” whom she described in a 1970 New York Times op-ed as “forgotten and forlorn” and “infuriated at being used and abused.”
The following year, she ran for Baltimore’s City Council, a political realm dominated by cigar-smoking men who relegated women to cooking for their fundraisers. But voters knew Mikulski’s name because of her family’s grocery and bakery.
“Oh Mikulski, if you’re half as good as your uncle’s doughnuts you’ll be great!” a woman shouted as the candidate handed out campaign signs one afternoon.
The woman asked Mikulski why the political establishment hadn’t endorsed her, said Al Figinski, the senator’s cousin. When Mikulski explained that the bosses had rejected her, Figinski recalled, the voter shouted: “Them bastards! Give me that sign!”
Mikulski launched another improbable campaign three years later, this time against U.S. Sen. Charles Mathias, a Republican. She lost, despite her eye-catching slogan: “Not Afraid of the Big Boys.”
But she captured the House seat vacated by Paul Sarbanes when he moved to the Senate in 1976, mixing her populist pitch with self-deprecating anecdotes about dieting. “MIKULSKI SHEDS ROLY-POLY IMAGE” was a Washington Post headline that year, above a story describing her as a “butterball.”
On the Hill, she fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and helped start the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.
Mikulski retains a network of loyal current and former advisers. But she also is known as an exacting, mercurial boss who can be quick-tempered with her staff, notoriety that persisted with occasional Washingtonian magazine surveys rating her the Capitol’s “meanest” member.
“I told every new employee that it would get tough at times,” said Mike Morrill, a former adviser. “If you couldn’t give all you had at every moment and stretch, that wasn’t the office for you.”
Mikulski won her Senate seat in 1986 after trouncing Republican Linda Chavez, who derided her as a “San Francisco-style Democrat” and “anti-male feminist.”
Voters had their own view, as Shrum discovered when he filmed a Mikulski commercial at Baltimore’s Lexington Market.
“Everyone stopped her. Everyone was calling her by her first name,” he recalled. “Someone said to her, ‘Dear, you’re losing weight,’ and she said, ‘I’m counting my blessings, I’m counting my votes, and I’m counting my calories.’ ”
He threw out his prepared script.
“Politicians strive for a way to relate to people, and she never had to,” Shrum said. “She was an expression of Maryland, what it was and what it stood for.”
On a Wednesday in October, Mikulski traveled to the Secret Service’s Beltsville training center, where the head of homeland security honored her service. Standing atop the six-inch footstool her aides tote to her appearances, Mikulski told the audience that she agreed to attend the ceremony only because it wasn’t in Washington “in a room with a lot of rococo.”
“I just ain’t dainty,” she said. “If you want dainty, go to ballet school.”
Still, Mikulski has proved she can play the Washington game, cultivating relationships with the likes of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia to secure a seat on his Appropriations Committee. Her allies included Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, to whose semiannual costume party she once went dressed as Jacqueline Kennedy, complete with black wig and pillbox hat.
Mikulski also built a bipartisan network of female lawmakers, organizing dinners and hosting workshops to teach newcomers the mechanics of Senate life.
“She was the first to call and offer to help me,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who signed up for the Mikulski tutorial after winning her seat in 1996.
When she joined the Senate, Mikulski was one of two women in the body. There was no women’s restroom adjoining the Senate chamber. Skirts were expected.
Now there are 20 female senators and a ladies lounge, and pantsuits are de rigueur.
Despite her advocacy for women, Mikulski did not endorse Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a candidate for Mikulski’s Senate seat who lost to Van Hollen in a bitter Democratic primary. Her decision to remain “studiously neutral” in the race, and avoid an internal party rift, baffled supporters such as Gloria Steinem and Emily’s List, the women’s advocacy group.
When Congress reconvenes on Jan. 3, Maryland’s delegation will include no women. Mikulski is unbothered.
“We’ve always had great men,” she told a reporter recently, referring to her Maryland colleagues. Then she offered one of her maxims. “Men of quality always support women as we seek equality.”
Last week, Mikulski was in her office at the Capitol, surrounded by photos of herself with political and Hollywood luminaries, including Barbra Streisand (“For Senator Barb, with love from the other Barbra”).
The senator declined to analyze Clinton’s defeat, but the result still gnawed at her. “Hillary was neither rejected nor repudiated,” she said. “Hillary won the popular vote. So we can’t say Hillary lost.”
Reflecting on her own tenure, Mikulski said she would miss “the purpose” of Senate life but not the divisive partisanship. She volunteered no regrets for deciding long ago to adhere to an unvarnished style she described as “insistent, persistent.”
“People saw me as a fighter,” Mikulski said. “They weren’t looking for glamour. They weren’t looking for hairdos. Whatever I’m going to do, I thought: ‘I’m going to be me. And I’m either going to make it or I’m not.’ ”
On Wednesday, she walked slowly with an aide down the long, majestic hallway from her office to the Senate chamber to deliver her farewell remarks.
Along the way, she passed grand busts and gilded paintings of former vice presidents and senators, all but one of them men.
“Here we go,” the senator said as she reached the chamber, looking very much the part as she embraced a last moment on Washington’s premier stage.