Barbara Mikulski

Baltimore Magazine, January 2023 by Rep John Sarbanes

LONGEST-SERVING WOMAN in the history of Congress. First Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right. First woman to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Second woman ever to serve in both chambers of Congress. Sen. Barbara Mikulski has made history at every turn. Her achievements have improved the quality of life for millions and earned her many titles. But her most cherished title is the one she’s had since birth: Baltimorean.

“When she was serving in Congress. . .I marveled at her ability to connect with people of all walks of life.”

My father, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, was honored and grateful to be Sen. Mikulski’s Maryland teammate in Congress for three decades. They knew each other long before that, however. They met as young reformers in Baltimore, “looking out for the little guy,” as my father used to say. They were cut from the same political cloth and fiercely proud of their ethnic heritage, humble roots, and shared stake in the American dream. My father was the son of a Greek restaurant owner and she is the daughter of Polish corner-store grocers. They’d joke, ribbing Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Ted Kennedy, that they were “Diner Democrats” not “Dynasty Democrats.” Both were raised to help the people around them and to make their community a better place.

When Sen. Mikulski was first elected, she was often asked how it felt to be the only Democratic woman in the Senate. She’d famously respond, “Though I was the first, I don’t want to be the only,” and spent her career fighting for women and inspiring them to serve. With Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, she launched bipartisan dinners for female senators which continue to this day. Her legislative accomplishments speak for themselves: She helped to establish the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the NIH, passed the Spousal Anti-Impoverishment Act that protected millions of women from going into bankruptcy when their husbands needed long-term nursing care, and championed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helped ensure women get equal pay for equal work.

I was also privileged to serve with Sen. Mikulski, and she remains a friend and mentor. When she was serving in Congress, we always had a good time at political events where I marveled at her ability to connect with people of all walks of life. She has the magic touch, which includes a certain genius for coming up with a turn of phrase that captures the moment. After experiencing these golden nuggets whenever we were together, I took to recording them as “Mikulskiisms”—things like: “I don’t finger point, I pinpoint.” “Focus on macro issues and macaroni and cheese issues.” Channeling her power as a Senate appropriator, “Where there’s a will, there’s a wallet!”

There are literally hundreds of these insights on life and politics, and usually Sen. Mikulski arrived at them on the spot. But some she repeated because they had special meaning. Whenever she was with a group of volunteers, she showed her deep appreciation for their contributions by acknowledging, “All you do on your own dime and your own time.” And my favorite, her words of wisdom on how to navigate the rough seas of the human condition: “The best, most important ship in life is friendship.”

A scrappy and determined fighter for the people, Barbara Mikulski broke barriers to become a United States senator. But, perhaps more importantly, she always found a way to break through the red tape to help those who had been forgotten and overlooked. She started her career in Baltimore as a social worker and, in her description, she ended her career as a “social worker with power.”