April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

The third in PEOPLE’S series on the 13 women of the U.S. Senate profiles the most senior member, Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski. Long a champion of the working man, this granddaughter of Polish immigrants has pressed for changes in issues ranging from women’s rights to high-tech arsenals, but still feels most at home in the gritty ethnic neighborhood where she once worked behind the counter of her parents’ grocery store.

Bursting through the swinging doors of South Baltimore’s Cross Street Market, Barbara Mikulski, all 4’11” of her, is a woman on a mission. Barreling past mounds of raw shellfish, racks of gooey pastries and buckets of fresh-cut flowers, she finally spies what she’s after. “Whatcha got here?” she booms at the proprietor of a produce stall, who promptly displays a perfect head of broccoli and one prime cabbage. “That I can eat,” says Mikulski. “Beta carotene, here I come!”

At 64, she is the dean of female senators, a ranking member of the powerful Appropriations Committee and a savvy 25-year veteran of the Washington scene whose onetime protégée Hillary Clinton called her “the godmother of women in politics.” But it is in Baltimore’s blue-collar neighborhoods, where she grew up in a Polish Catholic family, that she is most at ease.

“This is my instant focus group, my home here in the neighborhood with my friends,” says the three-term senator, settling onto a lunch-counter stool, where, surrounded by hometown fans of Super Bowl champs the Ravens, she leads a rousing chorus of their fight song, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” And her constituents return the sentiment. “Barbara is the people,” says Stacey Paletar, a husky female Sheetrock installer. “She hears us, understand?”

Mikulski’s politics of the common man arose naturally from her own life experience. It was the death of her beloved father, Willie, from Alzheimer’s in 1988 (“I watched him die one brain cell at a time”) that led to her instrumental role in the passage of a law allowing the elderly to qualify for nursing home Medicaid without sacrificing nearly all of their assets. In 1996, it was the death of her mother, Christine (a longtime volunteer in her office who answered the phone with “Hi, I’m Barb’s mother. What can I do to help you?”), that further spurred her efforts to increase funding for government-research projects focused on women’s health care.

And it was her stint as a Baltimore welfare worker in the late 1960s (“I was in charge of making sure children weren’t killed”) that heightened her concern for the poor. In sum, “Barbara is very hard to put on a bumper sticker or 3-by-5 card,” says Toni Keane, a friend for 40 years who ran Mikulski’s first city council campaign. “Part of her is the Polish Catholic girl from East Baltimore, and part of her is a visionary.”

Mikulski’s salt-of-the-earth worldview was shaped in the two-story redbrick row house on South Eaton Street across from where her parents’ store, Willie’s Market, then stood. As a girl, her loves were books and the local movie house, where one film in particular made an impression. “The Life of Madame Curie, with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon,” she recalls. “That was what I wanted to do: win two Nobel Prizes, marry a Frenchman and find a cure for cancer in 60 minutes.”

In 1954, during her senior year of high school at the Institute of Notre Dame, tragedy struck in the form of an electrical fire in the middle of the night. “Somebody was banging on the door yelling, ‘Willie, you’ve got a fire,’ ” recalls Mikulski, still tearful at the memory. She and her two sisters Fran, now 59, and Chris, 55, stood in the street as the store, her parents’ lifework, went up in flames. “All we could do was watch,” she says. “We couldn’t believe it was happening.”

Yet her parents insisted that rather than help them rebuild, Mikulski follow through on her plans to attend Baltimore’s Mount St. Agnes College, where she majored in sociology. She first entered the political fray as a young social worker when she successfully blocked construction of a 16-lane highway that would have run through Fells Point, a neighborhood near her own. Friends still chuckle at the memory of Mikulski leaping on a table at a local rally to shout, “The British couldn’t take Fells Point. The termites couldn’t take Fells Point. And, goddamn, the State Roads Commission can’t take Fells Point!”

In 1971, when she announced her intention to run for city council, there were plenty of doubters. “They said no woman could win, no one who wasn’t backed by a political machine,” she recalls. But Mikulski went door-to-door for three months, every day but Sundays, when “I stood outside my grandmother’s bakery and gave out literature after mass. My father had his grocery store circulars that said, ‘Don’t forget to vote for our daughter.’ ”

In 1976 she began a decade in the U.S. House, followed by a successful run for the Senate. There, at a time when no women’s bathrooms were within hiking distance of the Senate floor, she earned a reputation as a hard-driving iconoclast whose pet causes included not only social issues but high-tech weaponry and the NASA space program. Yet her brashness, say colleagues, has always been tempered with a self-deprecating wit. In 1992, when friends threw a ’60s theme party for Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 60th-birthday party, the decidedly unsvelte Mikulski showed up as Jackie Kennedy. It was also at that party that she and former L.A. Times reporter Marylouise Oates hatched a plan that led to their coauthorship of two Washington murder mysteries, Capitol Offense and Capitol Venture, whose heroine is Sen. Norie Gorzack. “We talked about it for months,” says Oates. “Then we got the idea for a woman senator. I said, ‘I think she should be short.’ Barbara said, ‘She’s tall or the deal’s off.’ ”

When not working 12-hour days, Mikulski, who is single and lives in an elegant two-bedroom condo in downtown Baltimore, dotes on her five nieces and nephews, as well as on Kim De Filippo. As part of a congressional delegation to Cambodian refugee camps in 1978, Mikulski was approached by Kim Phon, then a sad-eyed 10-year-old, who “put her arms in mine and said, ‘Take me with you.’ ” After a futile two-year search for the girl’s parents, who may have been executed, Mikulski had just made the decision to adopt her when a Cambodian couple living in Maryland volunteered their home. Today, the now-married Kim De Filippo, 32, is still “the love of my life,” says Mikulski, who called the little girl every day for six years “so she knew she was connected to me.”

The story, say friends, is typical of a woman whose career has been based on her concern for others. And though she plans to serve at least one more term, that priority will no doubt continue long past retirement. “I won’t be running Mama Mikulski’s bakery shop online,” she promises. “But I’ll always be thinking about how I can make the lives of other people better.”

Susan Schindehette

Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.

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