Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's announcement Monday that she won't seek another term sparked national reflections about her legacy and speculations about potential successors , but in the District of Columbia, officials and activists focused on the Maryland Democrat's advocacy for D.C. and the capital region.
“Barbara’s retirement is a special blow to the District of Columbia," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said in a statement Monday. "Senator Mikulski was a champion for D.C. democracy, statehood, and home rule, and in fiscal year 2014 got the most pro-home-rule D.C. appropriations bill in history approved by any committee." Norton pointed to Mikulski's role on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee — she became the first woman to lead the committee in 2012.
"One of the most important things she did was to get very important riders out of our appropriations [bills], like riders against our gun laws,” Norton said in a phone interview Monday. Congress routinely seeks to influence D.C. social policy — including on abortion, needle exchanges and marijuana — by attaching policy riders to spending bills that dictate how the District can spend local and/or federal funds.
As a senior member on Appropriations, Norton said Mikulski fought against those riders. But, during the most recent appropriations process, lawmakers attached several provisions affecting the District, including one targeting the voter-approved initiative legalizing possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana.
When news spread that a rider targeting the initiative was on the table in negotiations, activists were quick to blame Democratic leaders, including Mikulski, who had said they opposed such amendments. DC Vote, a group advocating for District autonomy, listed Mikulski as a lawmaker who undermined the District in its recent "30 Days of Disapproval " effort.
"Sen. Mikulski has expressed support for D.C. democracy and even cosponsored the D.C. statehood bill, but as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she negotiated the 2015 spending bill that included language undermining the will of D.C. voters on Initiative 71," the group wrote in its description of the Maryland Democrat. "As the Democratic floor leader, Sen. Mikulski also failed to raise concerns about the D.C. riders and voted for the final bill."
But for Norton, those criticisms fall flat, considering the District moved forward with marijuana legalization last week despite the rider.
“Let’s look at the results,” Norton said. "What is it they’re blaming her for doing? On Barbara’s watch, marijuana reform did not get eliminated. That’s the bottom line.”
Norton pointed out that in Senate Democrats' versions of appropriations bills, crafted under Mikulski's leadership, the bills allowed D.C. jurisdiction over its own affairs.
“If we could have gotten what was in her bill — budget and legislative autonomy, no anti-democracy riders, permanent shutdown authority — we would be pretty close to being an equal member of the union,” Norton said.
But for other D.C. activists, the fact that riders targeting the District were part of the spending negotiations was not acceptable.
"I'm a bit torn," Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood Co-Founder Josh Burch wrote in an email regarding Mikulski's retirement. "Always glad she was a stalwart supporter of the statehood bill, but I'd be lying if I didn't also say it hurt that she didn't use her perch as chairperson of the Appropriations Committee to take the District off the negotiating table."
As a top appropriator, Mikulski worked to allocate funds that would benefit the national capital region, including D.C. She worked to secure annual $150 million installments to improve the Metro system. As dean of the regional delegation, Mikulski also led the charge on Capitol Hill to seek answers about a recent Metro accident that lead to one death.
Mikulski, as Burch pointed out, is also an ardent supporter of statehood and home rule for the District of Columbia. She co-sponsored the New Columbia Admission Act, which would make D.C. the 51st state, and has spoken on the Senate floor in support of D.C. voting rights.
Speaking about the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009, Mikulski said on the floor, "It's about democracy. It's about fairness. It’s about empowerment. And it's about righting a terrible wrong by giving the nearly 600,000 residents of the District voting representation in the U.S. House of Representatives."
Norton said that because Mikulski hails from Maryland, she did not need to be educated about the District's unique political status.
“To be from the region is to know D.C. first-hand," Norton said. "Barbara didn’t just come here on her way to work.”
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