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The Three Senate Ds: Leaving Vigor And Voices Behind

The Senate chamber holds a fascination as political theater, but three great Democratic players are taking their last bows. Their vigorous voices will be missed in the fight against President Trump. There’s nobody quite like this trifecta, all proudly from humble origins.

“Where’s the justice, Mr. President?” This question was often asked of the presiding senator by Senator Barbara Boxer of California. Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was once a boxer himself, and it showed up in his style. Never one for subtlety, his blunt political punches can be felt a mile away. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, dean of the Senate women, is formidable as a friend or foe — always with a touch of the Baltimore girl she was. She has reached 80; Reid and Boxer are in their 70s. They decided it was time not to run again.

Gone unnoticed amid election frenzy, their leaving feels as autumnal as the tree leaves outside the Capitol. Seems like yesterday when I was a rookie reporter, studying these characters.

In total, they’ve served 84 years in the Senate. Thinking it over, they changed it forever, especially the two trailblazing women. Reid was frank in a floor speech on how Boxer “mentored” him on women’s issues. Then he spoke in closing, “You are and will always be my sister.” Such open sentiments are rare.

Reid is also open about his contempt for Donald Trump, cutting him as a racist and a sexual predator as the 2016 campaign wore on. He worked hard to deliver Nevada for Hillary Clinton. After the election, he urged Trump, “Rise to the dignity of the office.” His successor as Democratic leader, Charles Schumer, is a silver-tongued New Yorker, likely to have a better art of dealing with Trump.

Reid’s antagonism toward his rival, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., went both ways: no love lost. They contained it on the floor, but in his new memoir, “The Long Game,” McConnell made plain his frustration with Reid, “bombastic” in front of cameras, saying his floor style was like a campaign studio. Usually, party leaders strive for decorum. Leaders Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., got along.

Actually, Reid’s Trumanesque way with words made a foil for the abstract president: “Professor Obama,” as McConnell calls him. Barack Obama erred early, thinking he could charm and work with House Republicans — even sly McConnell. Against Reid’s strenuous advice, he surrendered and extended the George W. Bush tax cuts for the well-off, close to Republican hearts. That may have marked Obama as naive in negotiations — he tried to be friends with his enemies. Reid, son of a miner in Searchlight, Nevada, never does that.

Oh, Barbara. Both Mikulski and Boxer are heroines in my book. They radiate intensity. Boxer ran for the Senate in 1992, Year of the Woman, after the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Thomas squeaked by, 52-48, in an unforgettable drama involving Anita Hill’s testimony that he sexually harassed her. America was unimpressed to see the Senate at work, under Senator Joe Biden’s sloppy gavel, to see a sea of ties voting. There were two women in the Senate.

Today there are 20. Every woman elected since owes a debt to Mikulski for bringing a bipartisan dinner group of Senate women together to get to know each another and discuss ropes and rules of the clubby Senate. Mikulski hosts the monthly dinner, building community. As a social worker, she organized opposition to a highway cutting through Baltimore’s downtown — and won. She told me, “Being a senator is like being a social worker with power.” And then she laughed. Her first run was for the city council.

A grocer’s daughter, Mikulski went to the same Catholic girls school as Nancy Pelosi. When she chaired the Appropriations Committee and Pelosi was House speaker, they were the most powerful women in Congress — and still are. Reid praised the Marylander’s floor oratory: no one better. Her words are heard across the aisle, and when she’s mad, you know it.

Same goes for Boxer, a Brooklyn native who shows resolve and fury at any injustice that crosses her. A champion of the environment, she crossed swords with Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., a climate change denier, yet they seem friendly. In a final stand, Boxer denounced the election results: “We have a system where the winner can lose.”

Time to hang up the gloves. But the fighter still remains, as the Simon and Garfunkel song says.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) responds to Republican leadership during a news conference on Supreme Court nominations after party caucus luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

U.S. Senator Mikulski Gives Obama Key Vote To Protect Iran Nuclear Deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski said on Wednesday she will support the Iran nuclear deal, giving President Barack Obama the 34 Senate votes needed to sustain a veto of any congressional resolution disapproving of the deal.

Thirty-two Senate Democrats and two independents who vote with the Democrats now back the agreement.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Emily Stephenson)

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) arrives for a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington March 2, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Mikulski Leaves The Senate A Changed Place For Women

By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun (TNS)

WASHINGTON –– When Barbara A. Mikulski first stepped onto the Senate floor in 1987, she saw only one other female senator. They were required to wear skirts and were prohibited from using the male-only gym.

But as the retiring Maryland Democrat prepares to relinquish the title of “dean of the Senate women,” she leaves a political environment that is fundamentally changed — from access to the treadmills to the possibility that a woman could ascend to the presidency.

The number of women serving in Congress has increased from 25 to 104 since 1987, and research indicates that female candidates now are just as likely to raise money, capture media attention and get elected as their male counterparts.

“The Senate, certainly, has changed,” said Republican Senator Susan M. Collins of Maine. First elected in 1996, she’s now one of 20 female senators.

At the same time, advocates are troubled by a deep enthusiasm gap that has slowed the pace of gains among women at some levels. The proportion of women serving in state legislatures, for instance, has remained essentially stagnant, at just over 20 percent, since the mid-1990s.

And while the number of women in the Senate has grown, they still represent a smaller share of the body than in the U.S. population at large. Women hold just two committee chairs in the new Republican-controlled Senate and only one in the House.

“There has been tremendous progress,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. But “I wouldn’t want it to sound as though we’re post-gender, that there is no issue here, that the problem is solved.”

Mikulski, who waited until her fifth term before she was given her first committee chairmanship — she took over the Appropriations Committee in late 2012 — believes that significant work remains.

The first female Democrat elected to the Senate in her own right, Mikulski has campaigned for other Democratic women across the country for years. And she founded the bipartisan, closed-door dinners of female senators that have long been a Washington institution.

“Now we’re going to go for the big enchilada, which is Hillary,” said Mikulski, who announced this month that she would not seek re-election in 2016.

She has been an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton, having served as national co-chair of her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. And she is backing Clinton in her potential 2016 race, even as former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley considers a run for the nomination against her.

Mikulski bristles at the notion that the country is approaching an environment in which gender no longer matters.

“Whenever you have a minority status in our society, it’s like, ‘Oh, why should that count?'” she said. “Well, it does count.”

She noted that the election of President Barack Obama did not eliminate racism: “You look around at our country and you tell me if race doesn’t matter.”

But in some ways, analysts say, gender matters less in politics than it used to. Jennifer Lawless, who heads the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said her research shows that gender does not seem to have been particularly relevant in elections for about the past 20 years.

“Increased party polarization has made it such that whether you have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ by your name is far more important than whether you have an X or a Y chromosome,” Lawless said.

“Campaigns can still be quite gendered,” she said, “but it’s when the candidate wants them to be.”

Consider Clinton, who has taken to pointing out that she recently became a grandmother — an effort that many view as an attempt to soften her image.

The former first lady and senator, seen by some as lacking empathy, experienced a boost in popularity in early 2008 when she teared up on the campaign trail.

Still, women are less likely to run then men. Lawless attributes the gap in part to perceptions about the system.

Of Maryland’s ten representatives in Congress, only two are women: Mikulski and Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County. That share — 20 percent — is about average; women make up 19.4 percent of Congress.

But several women in the state point to a burgeoning farm team, and a coordinated effort — influenced by Mikulski — to change the numbers. Women are increasingly running for state and local office, they say. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is the second woman in a row to hold that job. And the state ranks seventh in the nation in the number of women serving in the legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

“There is no reason to sit around wringing our hands thinking that it’s bad to be a woman in politics,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic operative in Washington with deep ties to Maryland. “We’re laying the groundwork for something that’s going to be very significant.”

McKenna chairs a group called Emerge Maryland, launched in 2012 to encourage and train Democratic women to run for office.

She said Mikulski cut the group one of its first checks.

Another measure of progress is the number of women who could step up to try to replace Mikulski in the Senate. At
least six have publicly expressed interest, including Edwards, Rawlings-Blake and former Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat who was the first to formally announce his candidacy, already has secured an endorsement from Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, an indication that some in the party hope to avoid a bruising primary. Others have embraced the idea of a large, diverse pool of candidates.

Edwards, who announced her Senate bid last week, said it’s important that a woman win Mikulski’s seat. If elected, Edwards would also be the first black woman to represent the state.

“Maryland needs that kind of inspiration,” Edwards said. “When you go into classrooms, all the girls know Barbara Mikulski.”

Collins remembers meeting Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine Republican who was the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate. Smith didn’t discuss her gender when they met.

For Collins, she didn’t have to.

“As someone who had just turned 18, when I left her office my reaction was that it opened my eyes to the fact that a woman could do anything,” Collins said. “So, I don’t think you have to talk about your gender for gender to be an influential factor.”

Collins would later serve with Republican Senator Olympia J. Snowe, making Maine one of the few states that has been represented in the Senate by two women at once.

“We will get to the day — and I want us to get to the day — when gender is not an issue,” Collins said. “But right now, there is still a sense of pride when another woman makes it to the top ranks.”

Photo: Maryland National Guard via Flickr

Secretary Of Labor Perez Rules Out Maryland Senate Run

By Alexis Levinson, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

CHESAPEAKE BEACH, Md. — Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez will not run for Senate in Maryland, he told CQ-Roll Call Thursday.

Several Maryland Democrats have mentioned Perez, a Maryland resident who held public office there, as a possible Senate candidate following Senator Barbara A Mikulski’s recent announcement that she would not seek another term.

But Perez, who was the keynote speaker for the Calvert County Democratic Central Committee’s Louis L. Goldstein Dinner, said he has no interest.

“No,” he scoffed when CQ-Roll Call asked if he was thinking about a bid. “Isn’t there enough people running for the Senate?”

Two Maryland Democrats have already announced their candidacies for the Senate seat: Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Donna Edwards. Edwards was also at the dinner and delivered brief remarks.

The primary for the safe Democratic seat is likely to be crowded. A number of other people, including several members of Congress and current and former state officials, are also considering running.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez addresses the AFL-CIO Convention, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013 in Los Angeles. (US Department of Labor/Flickr)