Barbara Mikulski deserves our thanks

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Senator Barbara Mikulski’s surprise retirement announcement last week has thrown Maryland politics into a state of flux as ambitious Democrats maneuver to replace her. And while a lot will be written about who stands to gain from the vacancy, I want to point out what Marylanders will be losing.

Barbara Mikulski isn’t a particularly famous senator. She probably isn’t among the top 20 best-known senators even among political junkies, despite her historic career. Ironically, her low national profile has had to do with how well she’s done her job in the Senate. She’s never been distracted by presidential ambitions, never stooped to partisan stunts in an effort to win free media coverage, and she didn’t engage in any of the partisan taunts that are becoming more and more frequent on the Senate floor.

Senator Mikulski promoting Alzheimer’s awareness at an event with GOP Senator Kit Bond (R-Misourri)
Senator Mikulski promoting Alzheimer’s awareness at an event with GOP Senator Kit Bond (R-Missouri)

Instead, Barbara Mikulski was a workhorse Senator, a very serious legislator who cultivated the relationships she needed to rack up accomplishments like passing and then re-authorizing child care and developmental block grants to America’s neediest families, and the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill meant to strengthen laws against pay discrimination.

Her best vote by far was win 2002, when she voted against the resolution supporting the use of force in Iraq. Only 22 U.S. Senators at the time showed that wisdom. Less than a third of them are left in the chamber today.

It’s not the sort of behavior that is rewarded with media attention in Washington these days. Even Barbara Mikulski’s most resounding breakthrough — her record-breaking tenure as the longest-serving female member of Congress in America’s history — was a one-day news story when in March 2012 she logged 12,585 hours of congressional service to to surpass the late Massachusetts congresswoman Edith Rogers’ record. In a town like D.C., where politicians play up every bit of inspiration their pasts might engender, Mikulski never seemed to feel the need to remind anyone what her story said about her, or convert her historic accomplishments to political chits. That’s extremely rare for a politician, and it speaks to a sort of humility and focus on the job that’s even rarer.

Maybe her successor will also be a progressive on a mission. But he or she will encounter a very different Washington than the one Mikulski arrived at in 1977, where bad behavior is rewarded and the most carefully-crafted bills meet the obligatory filibuster. Or maybe her successor will be a partisan superstar, who relishes a good political skirmish. Or it might be a Republican, though Harry Reid is moving to clear the Democratic primary field in order to ward off that possibility.

Whoever her replacement, Maryland has lost a champion. Maybe Democrats have learned from their 2014 loss of the governorship, and will rally around someone who’s exciting, electorally formidable, and even capable of continuing Senator Mikulski’s brand of modest but determined liberalism. We can hope.