A Washington convert

Colleen Kelley hardly fits the profile of a grizzled union boss. Curly-haired and bespectacled, she moved to the Washington, D.C., area 16 years ago with a great deal of reluctance. "I had just bought a house in Pittsburgh and I was going to be in Pittsburgh for the rest of my life," said Kelley, who has dedicated a section of her office to "Steel City" memorabilia and family photos. "When I have free time, that's where I am."

And not just anywhere in Pittsburgh. Kelley spends much of her time in the one-mile swath in which her parents and all five of her brothers and sisters reside. The oldest child of Bob and Eleanor Kelley was, it turns out, the only one to leave home. She has since bought a vacation home just outside Pittsburgh with one of her brothers.

But it was not just Pittsburgh and Kelley's family that were holding her back. She started working at the Internal Revenue Service right out of college and worked 15 years as a revenue agent, auditing individual tax returns and examining corporations that owned foreign subsidiaries. She became president of the local chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union in 1982. She was happy with her lot.

"It was a very hard decision for me," Kelley said. "I was an accountant. I loved my job as a revenue agent. When a position came up on the NTEU staff, I said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' Everyone else thought this is where I would end up. They all saw it much quicker than I did."

Kelley was so unsure about living in Washington, D.C., that she secured a two-year leave of absence from the IRS before accepting the job as membership director for NTEU (she pronounces it "N-2") in 1988. It was a safety net, she said. But after just one year in the capital, she went home to Pittsburgh and resigned from the IRS.

"It was clear this was what I wanted to do," she said.

Kelley's rise was meteoric. In 1995, she was elected NTEU's executive vice president. Four years later, she ascended to the top job, beating three opponents and capturing 93 percent of the vote. A fourth opponent dropped out at the national convention. Last year, Kelley was re-elected, winning an astounding 99 percent of the vote against one challenger.

Her popularity stems from grass-roots politics, she said. "I knew all of our chapter presidents," Kelley said. "I grew up with many of them."

Kelley has Clintonian political skills, such as the ability to remember the names of people she met years earlier and to empathize with workers with whom she outwardly has little in common, NTEU chapter presidents said.

"We're a kind of a rough lot," said Thomas Keefe, president of NTEU Chapter 138, which represents customs agents in Champlain, N.Y. "We feel we're different because we carry badges and guns. We always felt like we weren't heard."

Things changed when Kelley took over, Keefe said. "I always felt she was talking to me personally and feeling the pain of my members," he said. "She's a very active listener, she restates what you say and makes sure she understands. She's really gone out of her way to meet us, to understand us and to be able to negotiate for us. She's very approachable, very easy.

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