U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) on Monday announced she will retire from the U.S. Senate once her term ends in 2016.
“I’m here today in Fells Point to announce that I will not be seeking a sixth term in the United States Senate,” the Maryland Democrat told reporters during a press conference in Baltimore. “This has been a hard decision to make.”
Mikulski said during the press conference that her decision to retire from the U.S. Senate has nothing to do with her health or any frustration she has with her colleagues.
“There’s nothing gloomy about this announcement,” she said.
Mikulski, 78, has served in Congress longer than any other woman in history.
Voters first elected her to the House of Representatives in 1977. She has been a member of the Senate since 1987.
Mikulski is among the senators who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
She later co-sponsored a measure that sought to repeal the law.
“I am proud to co-sponsor legislation to repeal key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act,” Mikulski told the Washington Blade in a 2011 statement. “I believe all Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law and all of our citizens deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Mikulski voted against a proposal that would have amended the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. She also backed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
The Maryland Democrat over the years has faced persistent speculation about whether she is a lesbian.
“She’s been a powerful force for our state,” U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told reporters in Baltimore immediately after Mikulski announced her retirement.
Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, told the Blade on Monday that Mikulski gave no indication that she was planning to retire when she saw her at the annual Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee Brunch in Rockville on Feb. 22.
“She was in campaign mode,” said Beyer, noting Mikulski’s retirement comes as a surprise. “She was talking about last year. She was talking about next year.”
Gay state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County) during a telephone interview with the Blade said that Mikulski played “an incredibly helpful role” in the 2012 referendum on Maryland’s same-sex marriage law in terms of fundraising and building support for the statute that voters ultimately approved.
“I don’t know few people in Maryland history who won five statewide elections, certainly in modern history,” said Madaleno, who added Mikulski’s announcement also came as a surprise to him. “Having her network and understanding of the state was critical in the marriage referendum.”
“She’s been an incredible figure for the state of Maryland, for all 30 years in the Senate,” added the Montgomery County Democrat, noting that Mikulski had previously chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee. “She has been a passionate and determined in fighting for every dollar for the state of Maryland.”
Observers have already begun to speculate that Maryland Congressmen Chris Van Hollen and Elijah Cummings and former Gov. Martin O’Malley could potentially seek Mikulski’s seat.
Others have noted they feel that former Lieutenant Gov. Anthony Brown, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Congresswoman Donna Edwards and former state Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery County) could also run.
“We will have an open senate seat and that will create some interest,” said Cardin. “We have a great talent pool.”
Mizeur, who unsuccessfully ran for governor last year, did not immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment about whether she plans to seek Mikulski’s seat in 2016.
O’Malley spokesperson Lis Smith on Monday sought to downplay the growing speculation over the former governor’s future plans.
“Today is a day to reflect on Senator Mikulski’s service to the people of Maryland, not engage in political speculation,” Smith told the Blade.
Michael Estève, chapter leader of Log Cabin Republicans of Maryland, also weighed in.
“We thank Sen. Mikulski for her years of service as a fierce defender of historic Baltimore, a mentor to women in the Senate and a passionate advocate of LGBT equality,” Estève told the Blade. “Her office especially deserves praise for years of quality constituent services as the senator provided much needed help for veterans pursuing disability and retirement benefits.”
“While we certainly have policy disagreements with Sen. Mikulski on other issues, we appreciate her service to Maryland and look forward to supporting a successor who believes as fiercely in LGBT rights as fiscal responsibility and pro-market policies,” he added.