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Barbara Mikulski: Senior Senator, Appropriator, Crime Novelist

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Mikulski is the longest-serving female senator and the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. She’s also the co-author of two set-in-the-Senate crime novels focused on a lawmaker-turned-sleuth.

“I walked the few yards to the escalator, then rode down to the overlit brilliance of the subway platform.

“The Senate subway looks like a Disneyland ride. The cars to Hart and Dirksen resemble some futuristic monorail, the passengers enclosed in plastic and metal, while for some reason unknown to me, the cars to Russell are open. All the cars carry about a dozen passengers, constantly shuttling back and forth, underground, between the Capitol and the office buildings.”

Any senator could have written those words just a week ago, but they date to a 1997 work of fiction — and the routine Senate subway trip is soon disrupted by the murder of a Vietnam veteran.

CQ Roll Call’s ongoing exploration of novels set in Washington, D.C., would be incomplete without a couple of 1990s volumes written by none other than the longest-serving female senator in history.

A decade after being elected, but before becoming chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Barbara A. Mikulski briefly moonlighted as a crime novelist.

The Maryland Democrat wrote two novels with journalist Marylouise Oates — “Capitol Offense” and “Capitol Venture” — about a crime-solving female senator from Pennsylvania (who, of course, went to school in Baltimore).

The novels are told from the first-person perspective of fictional Sen. Eleanor “Norrie” Gorzack. Gorzack is serving as the Keystone State’s director of public health when the governor appoints her to serve out the term of a senator who dies unexpectedly.

The first novel, “Capitol Offense,” starts with a lot of narrative setting up Gorzack’s first impressions of what it’s like to be in the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Gorzack is not Mikulski, as the real-life senator told The Washington Post at the time of publication.

“She’s 5-feet-4,” Mikulski said. “I’ve always wanted to be 5-feet-4.”

The Post explained that the novel came about at a predictably Senate-centric occasion, a birthday party for the legendary Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

While there’s no shortage of dated references (the books are more than a decade old, after all) many elements still ring true.

In the story, Pennsylvania’s governor seemed to think he was appointing a placeholder before running for the seat himself — much like Sen. Joe Manchin III did as governor of West Virginia when he appointed Carte Goodwin to hold the seat vacated when Sen. Robert C. Byrd died.

“Capitol Offense” deals with an issue that has not gone away: U.S. military personnel reported missing in action. Gorzack’s husband disappeared in Vietnam, which made MIA affairs her first key focus as a senator.

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