Although she just made history by becoming the longest-serving woman in Congress, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski first achieved prominence for something entirely unrelated to her gender.
In 1970, Mikulski (D), then a young community organizer from a Polish American neighborhood in Baltimore, drew national attention for a speech at a conference at Catholic University. She urged more respect for ethnic Americans, meaning working-class whites like her, with roots in central and southern Europe.
The ethnic American, Mikulski said, was overtaxed, underserved by government and “sick of being stereotyped as a racist and dullard.” At a time when racial animosity was splitting the traditional Democratic coalition, she urged an alliance of whites and blacks against “those who have power.”
Today, Mikulski said in an interview, that species of ethnic American has mostly been assimilated. First- and second-generation Americans are more likely to come from El Salvador and Nigeria rather than Poland and Italy.
But Mikulski has lasted so long — 10 years in the House followed by 25 in the Senate — by sticking to the vision she outlined in that address. She just adapted it to changing demographics. She’s still focused on defending working people, especially in economic terms, and wants to build coalitions across racial lines.
“I don’t think the issue is so much ethnic anymore. I think it’s social class. It’s the blue-collar voter,” the grocer’s daughter said Thursday in her Senate office.
Even Mikulski’s well-publicized advocacy for women’s rights springs largely from her concern about economic fairness.
“Women continue to face challenges around equal pay for equal or comparable work. There is still discrimination,” she said.
Mikulski, 75, is justly celebrated today for setting the record for a woman in Congress. She’s been an important mentor and example for younger women politicians.
But the fact is that she’s better understood overall as an energetic champion of the laboring classes, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity.
She got excited talking about how manufacturing had a future in the Baltimore area, even if the number of jobs has shrunk from the glory days when thousands were employed by Bethlehem Steel and General Motors. She predicted expansions at a GM plant that makes transmissions for hybrid and electric sport-utility vehicles and trucks.
Mikulski’s approach has served her well. She is consistently ranked as Maryland’s most popular politician.
Nevertheless, there are at least two persistent raps on her. One is that she burns out her staff and regularly loses her temper with them. She rebuffed the charge in the interview, noting that her chief of staff has been with her for 17 years. But she also conceded, “I don’t run a spa here.”
The more substantive criticism is that Mikulski hasn’t risen very high in the Senate, considering she’s been there so long. She is the longest-serving senator who has never chaired a standing, full committee.
That record sticks out in part because others in the Maryland congressional delegation have achieved such prominence. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) is a former majority leader, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
The complaint is narrow-minded. Running a committee isn’t the only way to have impact. Mikulski has made her mark in other ways.
For example, she is known for providing especially good, grass-roots constituent service. When Marylanders need help with Social Security or veterans benefits, Mikulski’s office is there.
“She is very disciplined, responsive, relentless in her follow-up,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who worked as a Mikulski staffer in the 1980s.
Despite lacking a full chairmanship, Mikulski still wields clout. She is a high-ranking member of two of the Senate’s most influential committees: Appropriations and Health. The Appropriations slot, in particular, enables her to protect programs that employ Maryland constituents at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
Finally, Mikulski deserves credit for being genuine, a trait in short supply in American politics. Conservatives can criticize her on ideological grounds for being reflexively liberal. But she is so consistent and plain-spoken that nobody can doubt where she stands.
Vice President Biden, honoring Mikulski at a congressional reception Wednesday, contrasted her favorably with some of her colleagues: “You never say anything you don’t mean.”
Hard work. Authenticity. Sympathy for the little guy or gal. All working-class traits, and marks of distinction for Mikulski even before her latest achievement.