Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) on Capitol Hill. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland stands barely as tall as the podium, but in becoming the nation’s longest-serving woman in Congress, she is a towering political figure.
One after another Wednesday, senators paid tribute to the Democrat who, after 35 years in office, is seen as a trailblazer, a mentor, a crusty wit and the dean of women in the Senate.
Known simply as Sen. Barb, the name she uses as both her Twitter handle and in conservation, the 75-year-old Mikulski has fostered a generation of women lawmakers, who now number not quite 100 in both houses of Congress – but far more than when she was the only female in the Senate after being elected in 1986.
“The Senate used to be a very lonely place for women,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), “but Sen. Mikulski changed that.”
Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine called the milestone “a watershed moment in the life of American politics.”
With a scissor-sharp comebacks and no patience for fools, Mikulski has rough edges, despite her hospitality as host to regular dinner parties for female senators. The recipe for her famous crab cakes is posted on her website.
Her quips can be as amusing as unapologetic, as when the number of women in the Senate tripled from two to six after the 1992 election’s "Year of the Women."
“Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus,” she said, according to the Senate’s website. “We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) offered this Mikulski-ism: Female senators understand the issues, “not just at the macro level, but at the macaroni and cheese level.”
Mikulski became the longest-serving female senator in 2011, when she surpassed Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who was in office from 1949 to 1973.
On Saturday, she passed Edith Nourse Rogers’ record as longest-serving female member of Congress.
The milestone comes as women’s issues have reemerged in the political conversation in a way that has not been seen in recent debates.
Democrats portray Republicans as attacking women’s access to contraceptive care under President Obama’s directives for the nation’s new healthcare law. Republicans argue it is a fight over religious rights. This fall, Democrats are fielding a record 11 female candidates for the Senate.
Mikulski grew up in East Baltimore, attending the same Catholic girls high school as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House minority leader.
The senator says she learned the importance of community service from the grocery store her parents ran.
As a young social worker in Baltimore, she organized opposition to a new freeway in historic Fells Point and the Inner Harbor, before winning a seat on the City Council and running for Congress.
She has fought for women’s issues in healthcare and other areas. In 2009, she led passage of legislation that guaranteed women equal pay.
Though she never married, she briefly considered becoming a nun, but said Wednesday, “That vow of obedience kind of slowed me down a little bit.”
After trying to allocate speaking slots for the long list of tributes that stretched into the evening, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid eventually gave up and told senators they’d have to jump ball to figure out the order.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader, called Mikulski “both tough and resilient.”
After more than 12,892 days on the job, Mikulski, who travels home to Baltimore each evening, was unassuming.
“I didn’t start out wanting to be a historic figure,” she said, explaining she drew on lessons from her Catholic education that led her to “light one little candle” rather than “curse the darkness.”
“Every morning, I’m saying in my heart, good morning, can I help you?”