In keeping with senatorial tradition, retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski gave a summary speech today about her tenure serving in Congress as she prepares to leave behind a 45-year career in public service.
Mikulski’s resume includes 30 years representing Maryland in the U.S. Senate, 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and five more here in the Baltimore City Council. Today, she summed up her experiences, speaking of her upbringing, her ability to connect with her constituents and being able to become a female leader in male-dominated political congregations.
She expressed gratitude toward her constituents and staff who have supported her, noting that the reward of serving has been not the power or comfort that comes with the office, but rather serving as a voice for electorate. “You know, when people vote for you, it’s not only that they’re sending you to Washington or sending you to City Hall. They’re giving you a vote of confidence that you will be their voice, that you will be their vote, that you will be at their side and on their side,” she said.
She described how Baltimoreans “gave me my first shot” in City Council. “When I beat the political bosses, when running for political office as a woman was considered a novelty, they said, ‘You don’t look the part.’ I said, ‘This is what the part looks like, and this is what the part is going to be like.’”
Mikulski, a native of the Highlandtown neighborhood, became a household name in Baltimore in the late 1960s as an activist leader who helped stop construction of a major interstate straight through the harbor neighborhoods. Using that momentum, she propelled herself to a City Council election win in 1971, and five years later was ability to secure a House of Representatives vacated by Sen. Paul Sarbanes. After being re-elected to that same House seat four more times, she joined Sarbanes in the Senate in 1986, and has since remained there for 30 years.
This past November, Maryland voters picked Chris Van Hollen, currently serving in the House, to replace Mikulski, a move that she endorsed and celebrated.
In her speech today, Mikulski thanked “the people” for helping her to govern successfully for a period equaling more than half of her life, and noted her community-based background as a jumping-off point. “I was raised to think about service…my mother and father ran a small neighborhood grocery store in one of Baltimore’s famous rowhouse neighborhoods. And everyday, they would get up and they open that grocery store and say to their customers, ‘Customers, good morning, can I help you?’”
Mikulski said those lessons and the ones from her Catholic schooling led her to make serving others a key focus of her career in politics.
In her speech, she also celebrated her opportunities to work across the aisle over the last several decades and to lead women in the Senate, even across party lines. Others stepped forward to salute Mikulski, whose last day in office is on Jan. 3, 2017. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called her “an inspiration” and said she was “a champion for the underdog.” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who has served with her on the House Appropriations Committee, said, “She’s prepared, she’s smart, she’s tough.” Her fellow Maryland senator, Ben Cardin, said she had made “enjoyment, productivity and life in the Senate…so much greater” by serving alongside him.
We still have a month left with Sen. Mikulski in office, but once she has retired, she will be missed by many. In the Senate, her legacy as a female leader carries on with a record 21 women stepping into seats in the upper house this January.