Did Senator Mikulski pull a Brian Williams and play loose with the facts?

Few will forget the sudden fall from grace of NBC’s “Nightly News” anchor, Brian Williams. He got caught exaggerating his supposed role in a helicopter incident during the Iraq War. The mouthy dude couldn’t stop fibbing about it. As a result, William lost his job and became a subject of a national joke line on the Internet. He even got his own hashtag#brianwilliamsmisremembers.

Enter U.S. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Photo by Bill Hughes)
Sen. Barbara Mikulski
(Photo by Bill Hughes)

President Barack Obama awarded Mikulski the “Medal of Freedom” at a White House ceremony on Nov.24, 2015. In his remarks, Obama related, “the often-told story of how the Highlandtown native, a daughter of Baltimore grocers, rose to political prominence in the 1960s by successfully blocking efforts to extend Interstate 70 through Fells Point.”

Obama relying on information supplied to him by Mikulski’s public relation’s machine, continued: “Let’s just say you don’t want to get on the wrong side of Barbara Mikulski. She stopped ‘that’ highway!”

Well, here’s a relevant question: Did Mikulski really have anything to do with stopping “that” highway (East-West Expressway) or is she pulling a Brian Williams on the public?

Over the years, I have talked with several people intimately involved in blocking the “East-West Expressway,” and none of them can remember Mikulski doing anything to stop “that” project, a 16 lane mega-highway, during the critical 60s and early 70s. The ill-conceived road, if implemented, would have seriously infringed on the Federal Hill neighborhood and gutted the Fells Point and Canton waterfront areas of the city.

Mikulski said she attended a community meeting “way back when” about the planned highway and shouted out: “The British couldn’t take Fells Point, the termites couldn’t take Fells Point, and the State Roads Commission couldn’t take Fells Point.”

Fortunately for her contrived rebel image, someone at the rally took down her rant – word for word. It reads like it was authored by a public relation’s flake. It is now, (oh, what a sacrilege), enshrined on a tourist marker located in Fells Point.

Here are the facts: When the East-West highway came up before the Baltimore City Council for a final approval vote only one member of that 21-membered legislative body had the courage to vote against it – Tom Ward of the then-2nd District. This was in 1966. For years, he had done his best in the Council to delay and/or derail it.

Judge Ward (Photo by Bill Hughes)
Judge Ward (Photo by Bill Hughes)

Judge Ward, now retired, and a former chair of the Baltimore Liquor Board, emphasized that “Mikulski didn’t write any letters, speak out, attend any of the City Council meetings or work on the project. I know this because I was involved as a Council member from 1963 to 1967.”

Ward said the roadway was finally stopped by the legal strategy of having the impacted area designated as a “Registered Historic District.” Ward acted as the attorney for the “Society for the Preservation of Fells Point and Federal Hill” group. He drafted its charter and incorporated it. He added, “Mikulski had nothing to do with that effort either.”

Federal law prohibits a federally-funded highway from being built though such an area. This was accomplished in 1971, and as a direct result Federal Hill and Fells Point were saved.

When Mikulski became a member of the Baltimore City Council – after 1971 – Judge Ward underscored, she then became active in expressing her views on “where the road would go” in place of the original route through Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton. In other words, the original East-West expressway proposal was dead by the time Mikulski arrived on the legislative scene.

Eventually, the notion of an East-West project evolved into a part of 1-95. It was completed along the south side of Locust Point, leading into the Fort McHenry tunnel.

Mikulski was born in the Highlandtown section of East Baltimore. During most of the 60s, she lived in Towson in Baltimore County and had a job in Baltimore City as a social worker. She didn’t move back into the city until around 1967. She first resided in the Bolton Hill area, then moved to East Baltimore and ran for the City Council from there in 1971, and won.

Thanks mostly to the Feminist Movement, Mikulski has had a very successful political career. First in the Baltimore City Council, then in the House of Representatives, and beginning in 1986, as a member of the U.S. Senate. She is retiring from the Senate at the end of this term.

There has also been a dark side to the political life of Sen. Mikulski. Although, she posed as an opponent of the Iraq War, she also voted to fund it, along with the other “endless wars.” It was no accident, that when it was announced that she was going to receive the “Medal of Freedom,” one of the largest military contractors in Maryland took out a full page ad in the “Baltimore Sun” praising her fulsomely. In fact, she recently bragged about bringing “$1 billion to Maryland over the last decade for military construction.”

The record will show that many people and activist groups in Baltimore – especially Judge Ward, as an elective official, lawyer and activist – worked tirelessly to stop the building of the original East-West Expressway during the critical time period in question. Sen. Mikulski, however, wasn’t one of them.

Mikulski did work on 1-83 (the Jones Falls) when she was in the City Council. There were proposals for that that may have impacted on East Baltimore neighborhoods if they had gotten off the ground. Instead, it now begins at Fayette Street. Perhaps, she mistakenly conflated the controversy over  I-70 (East-West Expressway) and the I-83 road.

But the conclusion is clear: Mikulski has like Brian Williams, gone too far in bragging about her putative accomplishments. She played no significant role of record in saving Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton from the original East-West Expressway. It is long past the time for her to come clean about that salient fact.

Editor’s Note: Bill Hughes is an author, attorney, actor and photojournalist. His latest book, “Baltimore Iconoclast,” can be found at: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000076922/Baltimore-Iconoclast.aspx