Longtime Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) surprised even her closest supporters when she announced that she will not seek a sixth term in the Senate.
After she spoke March 2 from the Inn at Henderson’s Wharf – a neighborhood near where she grew up and which played a role in launching her political career – Jewish political organizations praised Mikulski’s championing of Jewish causes, both foreign and domestic, with Maryland-based supporters fretting about the time it will take for Maryland’s next senator to establish seniority and become as effective as Mikulski.
Leading the powerful Appropriations Committee, Mikulski directed meetings with force and authority – expertly cross-examining high-level officials who testified in orderr to justify the funding their agencies were requesting. Here, Mikulski’s work was most crucial to the Jewish and pro-Israel community.
“During her many years in Congress, Sen. Mikulski has been a stalwart supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Marshall Wittmann, spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “particularly in her leadership role on the Appropriations Committee in ensuring vital security assistance for our democratic ally.”
As chairwoman, prior to becoming the ranking member early this year when Republicans gained control of the Senate, Mikulski was the lead voice when her committee drew up its annual federal budget. She was a principal player in defense funding, which included significant military aid to Israel; funding for military-to-military cooperation between the U.S. military and the Israeli Defense Forces; and research and acquisition funding for joint projects such as the Iron Dome missile defense system. This included last year’s unanimous passage of $225 million in emergency funding to supply Israel with additional Iron Dome munitions that were depleted in last summer’s war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Domestically, Mikulski was receptive to various Jewish organizations ranging from the Jewish Federations of North America to the Orthodox Union.
According to Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at OU, Mikulski was one of the early backers of the Non-profit Security Grant program, which provides federal grants to nonprofit
organizations such as synagogues and Jewish community centers to bolster building security.
“She was a real champion for [the program] from its inception and helped us ensure that funds were appropriated for it each year, including this year, which was a very difficult year,” he said, adding that despite the congressional fight over funding the Department of Homeland Security – which disburses the grants – $13 million went into funding the grant for fiscal year 2015, in large part because of Mikulski.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, shared a similar opinion of Mikulski’s importance to the Jewish community, including the community’s political comity with the Senator’s progressive record.
“Jewish Democrats couldn’t design a better elected official. They are thrilled with her,” said Halber. “[She] not only stood up for the most progressive values in the Jewish community but she was also a consummate professional and always willing to go across the aisle to work with Republicans to pass legislation.”
Halber said that while Mikulski is a model liberal, she is also a pragmatist, especially when it came to the Jewish community’s concern on Israel issues.
“In an era when we’re beginning to see some seepage among some of those on the left in support of Israel, I think her strength stood out and was a galvanizing force,” said Halber.
Mikulski is a Catholic whose grandparents came from Poland before the Holocaust. Mikulski said that she felt a connection to Jews and Holocaust survivors in the United States because many originally were from Poland.
To mark the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp by Allied Forces during World War II, Mikulski spoke on the floor of the Senate on Jan. 27. She introduced a resolution to commemorate the event which was co-sponsored by two other senators, Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
“As someone who is very proud of her Polish-American heritage, I visited Auschwitz. I wanted to see it when I had the chance to learn more about my own heritage. I wanted to see what happened there so that I would remember,” said Mikulski in her remarks. “And I rise today so that the world remembers what happened there, and the heroic effort of the Allied Forces who joined together to save Europe and save Western civilization. Touring the concentration camp was an experience for me that was searing. Even today I carry it not only in my mind’s eye, but I carry it in my heart. You know I’m a fairly strong, resilient person. I think we’ve even shared stories that I was a child abuse social worker. I have seen tough things, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw that day.
“I knew when I left Auschwitz, I knew and I understood why, first of all, we should never have genocide in the world again,” Mikulski continued. “The second thing, and also so crucial to my views, is that there always needs to be a homeland for the Jewish people. It’s the reason we always need an Israel — why it has to be there, survivable for the ages and for all who seek a home there and refuge there.”
Mikulski’s resignation came somewhat of a surprise to most of her supporters, as in recent weeks she was feverishly stumping throughout Maryland in a way most sitting senators only do when campaigning for re-election.
Halber, whose position at JCRC for many years has given him a front-row view of Maryland politics, was surprised by Mikulski’s announcement, saying that some individuals he knew had already started fundraising for Mikulski’s 2016 re-election bid.
Yet, most felt that age must have been a consideration in Mikulski’s decision, as the 78-year-old senator would have been 85 at the end of another term in office.
As soon as Mikulski announced her retirement, Maryland politicians began to line up campaigns and ready themselves to vie for the position.
While many thought that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley – who some also see as a possible candidate for a 2016 presidential race – would seek the open seat, O’Malley held off.
So far among Democrats, Rep. Chris Van Hollen appears to lead the pack as Mikulski’s most likely successor, followed by Rep. Donna Edwards and former Maryland state delegate and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur.
There has been less action on the GOP side, where there have been no candidacy announcements.
But having just won the gubernatorial election, Republicans know that victory in a statewide election is possible, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans among Maryland’s registered voters by a 2-1 margin, according to the Washington Post.
So far, attention is focused on Maryland’s only GOP congressman, Andy Harris, who has mildly expressed interest. Perennial candidate Dan Bongino and former Republican National Committee chairman and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele have also been mentioned as possible
No matter who takes Mikulski’s seat in January 2017, Marylanders will have to wait a long time before their new junior senator would gain enough seniority to wield the power that Mikulski has.
“That is a lot of ground to make up no matter who succeeds her,” Diament said. “So there’s definitely a loss in her impending retirement, but we’re hopeful that we would be able to work with her successor and serve the communities of Maryland and