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Interview with Sen. Barbara Mikulski

Interview with Sen. Barbara Mikulski


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Colleen Shogan: Today,
we’re pleased to speak with Senator Barbara Mikulski of
Maryland, the longest-serving woman in congressional history. When Senator Mikulski
retires in January of 2017, he will have served 40 years
in the United States Congress. Senator Mikulski, on behalf
of the Library of Congress, we are privileged to
speak with you today about your distinguished career.>>Senator Barbara Mikulski:
Well, I’m excited about being here and sharing some views and insights
about what it’s like to serve. For me, it was 10 years in the
House, 30 years in the Senate, but it’s not how long you
serve, it’s how well you serve. You know, for every one of
those elections, Maryland, or the third congressional
district, gave me their vote and gave me a vote of confidence. So it’s about working here, being
here, with no issue to small to take up, and no guy or
organization too big to take on.>>Colleen Shogan: That’s perfect! So we’ll start in the beginning. Talk to us a little bit about
your neighborhood growing up in East Baltimore, what was
that like and what did you learn about public service
from growing up there?>>Senator Barbara Mikulski:
Well, I grew up in Baltimore. And during those days, it
was a blue collar town. Would have been part of what Roosevelt would have
called the arsenal of democracy. In and around our community
was a steel mill. We built ships. In fact, even during World War II,
we built the famous Liberty ships that sailed the North Atlantic,
taking cargo to our boys fighting with the greatest – the
greatest generation. But it was a community that was
really like an urban village. Different ethnic groups lived in
different communities, Little Italy, Polish Hill, and people lived,
worked, and worshipped there. Strong sense of community,
a lot of social capital, neighbor helping neighbor. My father had a small
neighborhood grocery store. He and my mother worked in it, and
every morning, my father would get up very early and go over, we lived
across the street from the store, open up the doors of his store and
say, good morning, can I help you? Now, I was raised with
that ethnic, that it was, good morning, can I help you? To not only do business,
but do business in a way that helped the community
and served the community. I also had the opportunity to go
to Catholic schools, and there, the great nuns that taught
me, not only the three R’s, but they taught me a fourth R
called, respect for your neighbor, help your neighbor, and, in my
faith, it was the be attitudes. Heal — do what you could to
heal the sick, help the poor, feed the hungry, and so I
grew up with this whole ethic, that we are our brother and
sister’s keeper, whether — whatever you do in the neighborhood,
whatever you do in business.>>Colleen Shogan: You went
on to earn an undergraduate and graduate degree, and then
go on to work as a social worker for Catholic charities, and
also for the City of Baltimore. So, tell us about how you
got involved in politics.>>Senator Barbara Mikulski: Well,
I’ve always wanted to help people. Again, I was in that environment,
and has this great opportunity to really be able to put
that value into action. At Catholic charities, I
was a foster care worker, and at the Department
of Social Services, I was a child neglect worker. In other words, protecting
children from child abuse. I learned a lot, because I
grew up in a wonderful home and a wonderful neighborhood. And what I wanted to do was be able
to help people, not only one-by-one, but to be able to help communities. I felt that the road to politics
would be social work with power. I didn’t think I would
go into politics. When I was growing up, politics was
political machine, pot-bellied guys, smoke-filled rooms, they were
named Tom, Dick, and Harry, they weren’t named, you know, Barb,
Olympia [laughter], you know, Sue. So – but the powers that
be downtown were going to be a put a 16-lane highway through the older European
ethnic neighborhoods, and also through the first black
homeownership neighborhood. Well, I went into — I got into
a fight to save the neighborhood, to save homes, people were
being pushed around as well as their home being bulldozed. They weren’t getting
replacement value for their home, they weren’t getting
relocation benefits, so I was part of a hell no,
we don’t have to go committee. And organizing that effort, I
knocked on the doors of City Hall and was rebuffed, and I
decided that, what the heck, I would run for Baltimore
City Council, and open doors so that the people could
get in, that if I got in, I wanted to bring the
people with me. Well, that’s how I got into it. It was a long time ago, almost
40 years ago, over 40 years ago, and it has been so wonderful to be
able to have the opportunity to, every day, think about how
you can help your community, and how you can help your country. What greater job than that?>>Colleen Shogan: Right. In 1974, you ran a really tough
campaign for Senate, and you lost, and it was the only
race that you ever lost. Can you tell us about
that experience and what did you learn from it?>>Senator Barbara Mikulski:
Well, in 1974, the — there was a hotly-contested
republican race. Senator Mathias was the incumbent,
a wonderful man, and he was known for his staunch defense of
America’s standing in the world, he was a strong civil
rights advocate, and we thought his
own party was going to run somebody pretty
ugly and nasty against him. And there would be no
democrat standing in. And because he was so
beloved, nobody got into it. I tried to recruit people, then –
then ended up getting in it myself. I knew it was not [inaudible] fight,
but people called it an edifying and inspirational campaign, the
way Senator Mathias and I talked about the issues, and in our heart
of heart, we so liked each other, politics was so different then. It wasn’t adversarial, it wasn’t
pugilistic, these were people who were debating ideas and
where we could come together, like on arms control,
protecting the Chesapeake Bay, standing up for civil rights,
we did, and where we disagree, which was often more on the
economics of our country, we did it with civility, and we
did it with a lot of content. Sounds different in
today, doesn’t it?>>Colleen Shogan: And you
won your House race in 1976, and you won a Senate race in 1986, and you came to the
United States Senate. When you came to the Senate and
sworn in, 1987, you were only one of two women, along with
Republican Nancy Kassebaum, to serve in the Senate. What was that like
coming into an institution with just one other
woman serving in it? And how did you approach
that situation?>>Senator Barbara
Mikulski: Well, it was tough. I was the first democratic
woman elected in her own right. Other democratic women had served, but they had succeeded
their husband, like [inaudible] Humphrey
was an example of that. But I said, though I was all
by myself, I was never alone. I had wonderful men
that championed me. One of which was my own senior
Senator then, Paul Sarbanes, who helped me get on the right
committees, who also showed me, not only the formal channels of
power, but the informal channels within the United States Senate, and
when I think of Senator Sarbanes, I always think of the saying,
we, in the women’s movement, say that men of quality always
support women who seek equality. And he helped me get started,
and I learned a lot from many of the men here that helped. But it was a different time. It was before the digital
age, so before computers. My constituent mail came from
snail mail, we had rotary phones, etc. I had to break the ice, and
the way I did it, which is the way so many other women did, I worked
twice as hard, I put in twice as much effort on the
committee assignments, I did every committee
assignment, whether it was a chore, whether it was a presiding late
night over the Senate, I did it. So, I earned respect, and
I became one of the gang, but I never tried to
be one of the boys.>>Colleen Shogan: Now there’s
20 women in the Senate, and, as the dean of women in the Senate, you welcomed newly-elected female
senators, what do you say to them, and what type of helpful
advice do you give them as they enter the United
States Senate?>>Senator Barbara Mikulski: Well, I think about how helpful
Senator Sarbanes and Senator Nancy Kassebaum
was to me. So I kept some notes and
kind of, you don’t want to — when you become a senator, you
don’t get an operation manual, your people always say, I’ll
help you in any way I can! But they offer – offer
nothing practical. So I put together some materials on how do you get started
in the Senate? What should be your state office? What should be in the Senate? How do you get on the
right committee? What are the staff that you need? How do you establish a
reputation for yourself? And how do you keep your
campaign promises and serve – serve in a capacity where
we come to represent states? Remember, for the women,
yes, we stand up for gender, like our Women’s Health
Initiative, but at the same time, we know it’s not only about
gender, it’s about agenda and we’re elected for the state. So, I speak and organize at every
first few days of the new term, a woman’s power workshop. The first time I did it, the
press said, are you having a tea? And I said, no, but I’m going
to make sure the women are never in hot water, and we’re going to
know how to boil some things up. So that became the power workshops
and I did it for both sides of the aisle, not only
democratic women.>>Colleen Shogan: You’ve seen
the Senate over the past 30 years, how has the institution changed? And how have relationships
changed between senators?>>Senator Barbara
Mikulski: Well, first of all, the world of technology
has changed the Senate. But number one, we’re on TV. My predecessor, Senator
Mathias, cautioned about that so many years ago, would we become
essentially a showbiz senate or a real-biz senate? But I believe in everything
being televised. Whether it’s the Senate proceedings
or whether it’s the committee, so people say that
our democracy is open. That’s a good thing. The second thing is that we have
moved more to a digital world. That means it enables my
constituents to see me or talk with me, like just look at what
we can do through, you know, appearing on TV, and where we
can speak to each other even on teleconference calls, like
in remote areas of the state. So technology has facilitated
communication with constituents. What has changed, though,
is that I feel that partisanship has become
more hyper and more prickly. I don’t think that’s a good thing. You know, we’re here
to represent states. We’re not here to represent
political parties. We declare our party, because
each party has a platform, and a philosophy, but at the end of
the day, people want us to be able to come together for the common
good and the good of the country. We’ve tried to do that
among the women. You know, early on, when more
women came in the senate, 1992, after the Anita Hill debacle, when we got our so-called
year of the woman. I didn’t go for that. It sounded like, oh,
we get one year. You know, like the year of the
caribou, the year of the mushroom, it’ll be the year of the
woman, so, but more women came on both sides of the aisle. One of whom was Senator
Kay Bailey Hutchison. She has an idea on helping the
economic empowerment of women, where women could contribute
more to the IRA’s if they were working
at home, or homemakers. Her staff discouraged her from
working with me, oh, a liberal, a democrat, my staff wasn’t too
excited about it, oh, you know, a conservative republican from
Texas, but, you know what, we did want to help
women save for old age! And we got together and had dinner to discuss possibilities
and strategy. We had such a good time. We developed a strategy,
we had some laughs, we got to know each other
better, and we said, we’re having such a good
time, should we invite – why don’t we invite the other women? Which we did, and that became that famous having dinner once a
month among the women of the Senate, and there we had a rule of
no staff, no [inaudible]. But also that we would work
to be a zone of civility. That whatever was going on,
that we would try to do it with civility among ourselves, that our debates would
have intellectual rigor, they would not be dangerous
or hyper-rhetorical. And when the day was over,
the day would be over. And I think that has worked, and I think it has certainly
helped move the Senate forward. When women had became
committee chairman, I don’t know if you noticed,
but we actually passed bills.>>Colleen Shogan: Well, you have a
reputation as a senator for wanting to get things done in that way. You also have a reputation
for adhering to certain values or principles throughout
your career. So how did you balance
that as a senator, being both principled
and also pragmatic?>>Senator Barbara Mikulski: Well,
I believe that you can – number one, when you work on an
issue, the question is, how do you get things done,
and what are the must things that you must have, etc? And I believe, though, that
along the way, just in life, you have to also compromise. But you can compromise on
an item, you don’t have to compromise your principles. An example, when I was
working on legislation, I wanted to have a tax deduction for
people who were full-time caregivers in their home, to be able
to help those families out. When I went to a republican, a
republican male, he said, Senator, that’s a great idea,
but I can’t sponsor it. It’d cost too much money. Would you, modestly,
shrink, you know, reduce it? Well, I said, not to the point
where it would be ridiculous, but I would be willing
to compromise. That – that moved along. The other was I was working on other
legislation, related to legislation to help children who have
Down syndrome and other – other intellectual handicaps. This came from a family
with a daughter with Down syndrome,
her name was Rosa. And I said I would change the law as
long as we don’t alter the benefits. But I teamed up with a republican,
Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, we looked at the bill, and we wanted
to know, how could it be achievable, how could it be affordable, and
make sure we didn’t hurt benefits? Senator Enzi is a
professionally-trained accountant. I’m a professionally-trained
social worker. We put our heads together,
we have passed Rosa’s Law, the languages now refer to these
children as intellectually disabled, it was signed at the
White House, and by us, being best at what we needed
each other for, his keen eye, to make sure there was no –
no possibilities it would use, that we would not negatively
impact benefits. I looked at the achievability, and then we brought republicans
and democrats together. Isn’t that the way
it’s supposed to work? The best idea came from the people,
we made sure it was a good idea, and it did no harm, and then
we didn’t want to do any harm to the children, and we didn’t
do any harm to our budget. We did it.>>Colleen Shogan: A
lot of this [inaudible], you’ve been a consistent fighter
for older Americans, for children, for women, for veterans,
what are some of the accomplishments
throughout your career that you’d like to highlight in that
regard, and what work still needs to be done amongst
those populations?>>Senator Barbara Mikulski:
Well, when I came to the Senate, I wanted to also concentrate
on women’s health agenda. I was very concerned, because I had
learned about it also in the health, that women were being systematically
excluded from the protocols at NIH. They said our childbearing life
cycles would tilt the research. Well, what was that? [Laughing] Was that sound science? Was it modern science? Or old-fashioned stereotypes? And I teamed up, again, bipartisan,
republican, Senator Olympia Snowe, republican Connie [inaudible],
a sister democrat, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder,
and you know what? We went to NIH, we pushed for
reform, women are now included in the protocols, we worked within
the first woman head of NIH, we were able to get the first — money for the first
longitudinal study on hormone replacement therapy, it changed medical
practice and, guess what? It has lowered breast cancer rates
in our country by 15 percent. You know, when you work
together and you pound the table, you then get some results.>>Colleen Shogan: Things done. You’ve certainly seen tremendous
transformation, both concerning, you know, gender equity and other
treatments throughout your career. Arguably, we may see the
biggest change, in November, if Hillary Clinton is elected
President of the United States. Why do you think it’s
important for a woman to be elected to the presidency?>>Senator Barbara Mikulski:
Well, I don’t think it’s – it’s not only a woman, it’s
– it’s not just any woman, I happen to think that Secretary
Clinton is exceptionally qualified. She has served the nation for
more than 40 years of her life. But, for us, it is both
about gender and breaking that biggest glass
ceiling in America, but it’s also about an agenda. And I know that Hillary will
work on the big macro issues of national security, economic
growth, create more opportunity for many people, but she’ll
also work on the macaroni and cheese issues, where
she’s going to look at, how does this affect families? This is why she’s been a
champion of paycheck equity. Women getting equal
pay for equal work. She championed it in the Senate
when she became Secretary of State. I picked that fight up. It’s an issue of not only
economic justice, fairness, equal pay for equal work, but
it’s also an economic stimulus. You pay women what you pay the
guys, and enforce the law that’s on the books and make
up not reasons, you’re going to put more
money in the family pocketbook and it’ll go more into the economy. So those are the kinds of issues,
I know we’re also talking about how to make college more affordable,
higher education more in the reach, we need to be able to grow the
middle class, and you grow it by the way you advocate
for education.>>Colleen Shogan: You’ve also
been an accomplished writer in your career, and upon your
retirement, I would like to know, are you going to continue writing, and what are your plans
post-Congress?>>Senator Barbara Mikulski: Well,
first of all, service is in my DNA. The way we began this interview,
you know, I’ve come to Capitol Hill for 40 years, and when I ride
down – and I’ll get choked up as the time is drawing near
when I’ll no longer have the job, but I’ll have the values
that brought me to the job. I go up to the Capitol,
and everyday I see that and think what my father say,
good morning, can I help you? And that’s what I want, I want
to contineu to be of service, I would like to be in
whatever world of teaching or non-profit world to do that. So, I’ll be thinking and looking at
how I can continue to be – to serve, for as long as God gives me
the wits to be able to do that. What I’d also like to be able
to do is encourage young people to either run for political
office, or to be civically engaged. We need a society where more and
more people need to be engaged, and when I am out on college
campuses or talking to young people, they have so much energy. They have ideas and
they have idealism. We’ve got to put that
to work for the country, for whatever cause they
believe in, and in that way, I think we keep democracy alive, and we also enhance our
standing in the world.>>Colleen Shogan: Senator Mikulski, thank you so much for
your time today. On behalf of the Library of
Congress, we congratulate you, and we look forward to many
more years of working with you! Thank you!>>Senator Barbara
Mikulski: Well, thank you! You know, I believe in
this, each and every one of us can make a difference, but when we work together,
we can make change.>>Colleen Shogan: Thank you!>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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