In four months, the U.S. Senate will see the departure of its longest-serving woman, and those who have worked with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D.-Md.) over the last 30 years say that not only did the social worker-turned-politician help forge a path for women in politics, she did it with fierce determination and tremendous compassion.
As a new year begins — the first in 30 without Mikulski in the Senate, as she exits partway through it — area Jews are considering her legacy.
“I tell people I went to ‘Mikulski University,’” said Julia Frifield, a former chief of staff who worked in Mikulski’s office from 1995 until 2013. “She has a series of values and principles and mission statements that completely resonates with me. She is just so deeply connected to the people she represents.”
Mikulski, 80, was raised a Roman Catholic by Polish immigrants in the Baltimore neighborhood of Highlandtown in the 1930s and ‘40s. Her modest upbringing fueled a passion for helping the disadvantaged and propelled her toward a career in public service, Frifield said.
Frifield said when she first met Mikulski during a job interview, the senator immediately began speaking about Jewish community issues in a personal way.
“She knew more about Hadassah than I did, which I thought was somewhat unusual for a Polish Catholic,” said Frifield, now assistant secretary for legislative affairs in the State Department. “She talks about tzedakah all the time. This is a principal word that people in her office use all the time because it’s [about] service and working for others.”
Frifield said Mikulski traveled to Israel about 40 years ago with United Jewish Appeal. It was early in her political career, and Mikulski wanted to connect with Jewish leaders and become educated about “every issue under the sun” facing the Jewish state, Frifield said.
Mikulski demonstrated steadfast support for Israel in 2014 when, as chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, she helped secure more than $200 million in emergency funding for the country’s Iron Dome defense system.
She took on the role of mentor for women who followed her into the Senate, where she built a reputation as a fierce advocate for women and children.
She impressed upon new women senators the need to be well-versed in both issues and the political process. She even held classes on how to write earmarks, before earmarks were banned in 2011.
“They called her the dean of Senate women, Frifield said. “She was one of the founders of the women getting together every month for dinner and working on nonpartisan issues that were important to them.”
She took on role of women’s leader in 1992, when four Democratic women were elected to the Senate: Patty Murray of Washington state, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California.
Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal, who served on Mikulski’s staff from 1990 to 1995, watched her advise the newly elected contingent.
Leventhal said Mikulski’s legacy will be that she helped to level the playing field for women in politics.
But she is also known for her no-nonsense approach to politics and has never been one to shy away from speaking her conscience, which Frifield said can be misinterpreted.
“She’s not mean. She’s tough and feisty, but she is one of the most supportive people I’ve ever known,” she said.
Her outspoken streak was on display in 2002, Frifield said, when Mikulski was one of only 23 senators to oppose the Iraq War, while several of her Democratic colleagues voted in favor of it, including then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
“She spent so much time reading about it, studying it and reading it through,” Frifield said. “She said, ‘We don’t know if we’re going to be met by landmines or flowers.’ Those are the fundamental votes where you elect people to do with the right thing, and she did that.”
It was during Mikulski’s first successful Senate campaign, in 1986, that organization EMILY’s list, which seeks to elect pro-choice Democratic women, was founded. At the time Cheryl Kagan was working for Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), who was opposing Mikulski during that year’s Democratic primary.
Kagan, now a Democratic Maryland state senator representing District 17, said that although her boss lost, Mikulski’s victory was the public’s gain.
“People thought it was high time to have a woman independently elected to the U.S. Senate,” said Kagan, “As the first woman elected to the U.S. senate in her own right, Sen. Mikulski was an important role model for all women in politics.”
Mikulski was at her best when fighting for her constituents, say many who have known her the longest.
Lainy LeBow-Sachs, immediate past president of the Baltimore Jewish Council and an aide to former Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) when he was mayor of Baltimore, recalled a time before the senator’s political career when she led the movement against a proposed highway project that would have disrupted several Baltimore neighborhoods. The highway was not built.
“She’s a fighter. There’s no reckoning with her,” said LeBow-Sachs, who lives in the same apartment building as Mikulski. “She’s just a dedicated, tough. incredible woman. She’s short and little, but she’s big and strong. She’s done remarkable work, starting in the city.”
She has been tireless advocate for constituents and compassionate with her staff, said Jennifer Luray, Mikulski’s chief of staff from 1999 to 2004 and now the director of public policy and government relations at the medical technology company BD.
During her five years with Mikulski, Luray got married and gave birth to her daughter, Mia. She returned from maternity leave three weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and during the anthrax letter scare that followed. Poisoned letters were sent to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy and to members of the media. Government employees were spooked.
“At the time we were shut out of our office and basically lived like gypsies for several months, and she showed so much strength and caring for me as a new mom and for her staff,” Luray said. Mikulski never failed to inquire into the well-being of staffers during those stressful days.
Luray said Mikulski’s reputation will be as a trailblazer for women in politics. She is pleased that Mia, now a teenager, has grown up in a world where women take an increasingly prominent role — one she has been able to see firsthand.
“I think Mia’s first word was ‘Mikulski,’ Luray said. “She took my Blackberry and said, ‘Hello Mikulski.’”
Baltimore Jewish Times Managing Editor Marc Shapiro contributed to this story.
1936 Sen. Barbara Mikulski born in Highlandtown, a neighborhood in East Baltimore that consisted mainly of European immigrants like her Polish parents.
1969 Mikulski organizes a movement against what was then a proposed 16-lane highway that would have cut through Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood.
1976 Mikulski elected to the House of Representatives after serving on the Baltimore City Council.
1986 Mikulski becomes Maryland’s first woman elected to the Senate and is one of two women to hold a seat.
1991 Mikulski votes against the resolution authorizing the use of force during the Persian Gulf War.
2002 Mikulski votes against the Iraq War resolution, joining 22 of her Senate colleagues.
2012 Mikulski becomes the longest-serving woman in Congress.
2015 Mikulski becomes the 34th supporter of the Iran nuclear deal, giving the Senate the votes needed for its passage.
2017 Mikulski will retire from the Senate after 30 years, part of a half-century spent in public service. She is one of 20 women in the Senate by the end of her career.