Two Mentors and a Senate Legacy


Senator Barbara Mikulsk
Senator Barbara Mikulski (Photo: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Hrybyk)
The importance of mentoring and serving apprenticeships has become a mantra for those who evince concern about the failure of education systems and the future of the workforce. Yet finding “someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be,” as Emerson once said was “our chief want,”  is not always easy and sometimes he or she can come from all walks of life. I want to focus on two mentors: a remarkable music educator and a special politician.

Howard J. Silver
Howard J. Silver served for a quarter century as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Sciences Agencies. His blog appears monthly at Social Science Space.
I recently viewed the terrific documentary Keep On Keepin’ On about the fabulous trumpet player Clark Terry. Some of you may remember him from the Tonight Show Orchestra during Johnny Carson’s tenure, although this was a small part of a playing career that stretched past his 90th birthday. The film, made by Alan Hicks, focuses on Terry’s role as a music educator. He mentored a young Miles Davis, who grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois across the Mississippi river from Terry’s native St. Louis. He also encouraged a 12-year old named Quincy Jones to follow his dream of a musical career. However, most of the film tells the story of a bed-ridden, diabetes-suffering, past 90-year-old man, who is mentoring a young, blind, pianist from New Jersey, named Justin Kauflin. A nocturnal being, Terry will keep Kaulfin up to the wee hours of the morning, listening, encouraging, and scat-singing as he imparts his many years of wisdom as well as wonderful stories from his career of playing with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, and many others from the jazz world. Kaulfin is a willing student and a wonderful bond develops between the two. Although he does not succeed in the prestigious Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition, Kauflin will meet Jones through Terry and begin a recording career. Terry will lose his battle with diabetes and pass away in February of this year.

Politicians often talk of their “inspirers.” For Democrats who came of age in the 1960s, John F. Kennedy is given credit for their entry into public service. For Republicans of a latter era, Ronald Reagan serves as that person. Yet those who succeed and enter our political institutions, particularly the U.S. Congress, will seek mentors to teach them the ropes. For Lyndon Johnson, it was House Speaker and fellow-Texan Sam Rayburn, who would become part of the Johnson family. When he got to the Senate, Georgian Richard Russell would guide LBJ and continue to be his confidant during Johnson’s White House years. For earlier Presidents, Mark Hanna would advise William McKinley as Roscoe Conkling had counseled Chester Arthur. Sometimes the mentor-mentee relationship sours, as in the case of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

On March 2, 2015, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland announced she would not run for re-election in 2016 and retire at the completion of her current term. By that time, “Senator Barb,” as she calls herself, will have served the longest tenure of any female in the history of the United States Senate (30 years) and the longest period for any female in the history of the U.S. Congress (40 years).

In the news accounts accompanying her retirement announcement, Mikulski was praised for many things, but chief among them was her role as a mentor to the women who have joined her in the Senate during her time there. Mikulski herself was mentored on the Appropriations Committee, an assignment she received upon joining the Senate, by the late Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, who chaired the panel for many years. She rewarded Byrd by supporting him for Senate Democratic leadership positions. Her role with the still small number of women (there were two when she entered the Senate, there are 20 now) was bipartisan. Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, praised her Maryland colleague saying “she has been an extraordinary role model, a wonderful mentor, and a close friend.” She was also willing to compromise to get things done in the Senate, not an easy task these days.

After a stint as a community activist in Baltimore, Mikulski was elected to the Baltimore City Council. She also became active in national Democratic politics, chairing a commission that helped solidify the reforms that opened up Democratic national conventions to women and minorities. After an unsuccessful Senate run in 1974, she would succeed Paul Sarbanes upon his election to the Senate, as the U.S. Representative from a district that centered on her beloved Baltimore. After five terms in the House, in 1987, upon the retirement of Charles Mac Mathias, who had defeated her 12 years earlier, she would join Sarbanes in the Senate

As mentioned, she immediately obtained a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and in 2012 became the first woman to lead that panel. During her tenure she would also chair or serve as ranking Democrat on the two subcommittees, the Veterans’ Affairs and Housing and Urban Development panel and Commerce, Justice, Science, or CJS. That CJS subcommittee has jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Science and Technology (NIST), and NASA, as well as those great providers of social science data like the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice, plus the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

During my tenure at the Consortium of Social Science Associations, we had many dealings, some of them difficult, with the senator and her staff. We knew that she was going to protect NASA and NIST because of their presence in Maryland. She once threatened to turn the NSF into a National Endowment for the Humanities-like agency with its $100 million-plus budget, rather than NSF’s multi-billion dollar funding, when she was convinced that the foundation was only funding “elite” institutions.

As chair of the veterans/housing subcommittee she would organize rallies where she would urge us to seek greater funding for her panel through the obscure process by which the full Appropriations Committee provides funding allocations to its subcommittees. Even though the Census Bureau was located in Maryland, trade-offs in the CJS bill made it difficult to provide the requested funding in some years. Despite having one of the best criminology departments in the country at the University of Maryland, Mikulski was not a big fan of either the National Institute of Justice or the Bureau of Justice Statistics, leaving their funding levels inadequate to their missions.

Most significantly, during the past few years of attacks on social and behavioral science funding at NSF, Senator Mikulski played a pivotal role as leader of the Appropriations panel. In 2012, she refused to include the House-passed amendment sponsored by then-Representative Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, that would have eliminated funding for NSF’s political science program. The following year, faced with an amendment from then-Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, to constrain NSF’s political science funding to projects “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States,” she acquiesced in the interest of getting the funding bill through the Congress. In early 2014, after intensive lobbying by COSSA, other science groups, and American Political Science Association-hired lobbyists, who included a former member of the House, Mikulski refused to include Coburn’s amendment in the appropriations bill and political science at NSF was safe again.

Senator Barb’s historical legacy is safe. She was a pioneer in many respects and her career represents a remarkable record of achievement. Her legacy will also live on in the Senate where she was, as her colleague Diane Feinstein, D-California, remarked, “a formidable partner, a mentor to many and a consummate public servant. She’s the type of legislator we need more of. She strives for compromise, and more often than not her no-nonsense approach bridges divides that seemed insurmountable.”


Howard J. Silver

Howard J. Silver served as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) in Washington, DC, from 1988 to 2013. He has testified before Congress, spoken on federal funding of science at many professional meetings, and written extensively on executive-legislative relations, the federal budget process, and science policy as it affects the social and behavioral sciences.

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