clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Longest serving female senator retires, saying she wants to raise hell rather than money

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)
Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

  1. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced Monday that she would retire in 2016.
  2. Mikulski has spent five terms in the Senate, which makes her the longest-serving female senator in history. She’s also the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
  3. Democrats are heavily favored to hold onto Mikulski’s seat, since the election to fill it will take place in a very blue state with presidential-year turnout.

A different era

Mikulski worked in Baltimore city politics in the 1970s, and then served 10 years in the House of Representatives. But when she joined the Senate in 1987, she entered a very exclusive club.

That year, a mere two senators were women: Mikulski and Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas. Mikulski has spoken about how many of her 98 male colleagues formed connections in the Senate gym. "They just couldn’t accommodate me and I’m not much of a jock anyway, but that’s where they networked and that’s where they bonded," Mikulski told CNN in 2010.

Mikulski and Kennedy

Mikulski and Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1987, her first year in the Senate. (Renato Rotolo / AFP / Getty)

Amazingly enough, when Mikulski wanted to wear slacks on the Senate floor, she says that the Senate parliamentarian had to check the rules to make sure it was acceptable. "I walk on that day and you would have thought I was walking on the moon. It caused a big stir," she said to CNN.

Twenty-eight years later, there are now 20 women in the Senate — still a long way from parity, but tied for the most ever in the chamber’s history.

An open seat in 2016

This year, though, Mikulski, now 78, decided not to go for a sixth term. And at a news conference Monday, she shed light on her thought process, saying that she asked herself, "Do I spend my time raising money, or do I spend my time raising hell?" She added, "I don't want to spend my time campaigning for me. I want to campaign for the people."

Democrats are expected to have little trouble holding onto Mikulski’s seat. The party did lose control of the Maryland governor’s mansion last year, but presidential-year turnout should make the Senate seat safe for them this time around.

Potential Democratic candidates for Mikulski’s seat include former Gov. Martin O’Malley, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, and Rep. Donna Edwards. On the Republican side, some conservatives are floating Dr. Ben Carson’s name, but he may be more interested in a presidential bid.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.