Elsie L. Munsell remembers exactly what she got for her eighth birthday: "A load of trash lumber and a keg of nails." She and her father, a Connecticut contractor, drew up a blueprint for a chicken coop.
"I was a construction brat," she says, grinning. "My parents tried to teach me to be independent."
Now in her 10th month as U.S. Attorney for eastern Virginia, many Northern Virginia lawyers say the even-tempered, chain-smoking Munsell, 43, has succeeded in planning and building herself a solid, even remarkable legal career.
"She's had to deal with the handicap of inherent prejudice against women in Virginia," says Alexandria defense attorney Marvin Miller, a frequent opponent of Munsell's office in court. "I'd give her a 7 on a scale of 10. Her heart's in the right place."
Nominated last fall by President Reagan, Munsell, a one-time Norfolk school teacher, is the first woman to hold the post in Virginia history and one of only two female U.S. Attorneys in the country's 94 federal districts. "We both came up when it was a tough ladder to climb," says her counterpart, friend and admirer, Sarah Barker of Indianapolis.
The women are among 15 U.S. prosecutors who meet regularly as members of a special attorney general's advisory committee. ("We're the voice of the field offices," says Munsell.) That, plus a 2 1/2-year stint as a U.S. magistrate in Alexandria, has led to open speculation in local legal circles that Munsell is bound for the bench -- a federal district judgeship -- given fair political winds in the future.
"She's a woman. It's a big factor," says Alexandria lawyer Jack Stevens. "She's very capable -- but she also happens to have been born at the right time. She's not the brightest lawyer in the world, but it's not a necessity. Who the hell is?"
Munsell brushes aside the judgeship question, claiming her duties as chief federal law enforcement officer for a 250-mile stretch of Virginia, with its special problems, already keep her occupied. Is she swamped? "Not yet, not yet," she says, stubbing out one cigarette and immediately lighting another.
From her second-floor corner office near Alexandria's federal court house, Munsell maintains ties with an array of U.S. agencies with field offices in her district. She is frequently in touch with the FBI, postal inspectors, the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, IRS, U.S. Customs, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Park Police and the Federal Aviation Administration, which runs National and Dulles airports.
About once a week she is on the road to Richmond or Norfolk, where a total of 17 assistant prosecutors are stationed in addition to Alexandria's 10. On Mondays, she presides over a regular meeting in her office with four aides. What goes on there? "Scheming and chatting," she jokes.
Those on the inside say an ability to mix pleasantness with discretion is a key to her management style. "She's very comfortable with power," says Thomas Berger, her chief assistant and a longtime friend.
"She defuses a lot," agrees assistant prosecutor Karen Tandy. "You can get a decision from her without ever knowing how she felt about it."
If Munsell has put an imprint on the office, it is largely that of the current Republican administration. A program to regain money owed the government is receiving major new emphasis, with "a tremendous push from Justice," says Berger.
Using a computer and word processor located in Norfolk and nicknamed Albert, government lawyers in each of the district's three divisions are working full time to recoup defaulted student loans, veterans' benefits and Small Business Administration funds -- once a part-time, collateral duty.
Munsell also heads a new Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee, created at the suggestion of the administration's Task Force on Violent Crime. The panel brings together federal, state and local officials to share information and resources and reduce battles over turf. One focus of the organization is illicit drug trade. Following a recent crackdown in south Florida, smugglers have made Virginia "a target of choice," says Munsell.
"It's extremely useful," says Virginia Deputy Attorney General Donald Gehring about the committee's work. "Elsie's not the type to lie back and let things take care of themselves."
Although Munsell's impact on her office appears low key, one shift -- abolishing a special fraud unit -- recently drew criticism from retired Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, who accused Justice and Munsell of attempting to "scuttle" a criminal investigation of alleged fraud involving a Tidewater shipyard. Munsell has declined to discuss the case, describing it only as "not as dead in the water as the admiral might think."
Colleagues say their boss is not a workaholic, a view Munsell shares. Her days average "about nine hours," with some homework. "I try to read everything that goes out over my name," she says.
She and her husband, Skip, an assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia, share a house south of Alexandria with a Japanese Chin, a dog with a face so flat, she says, it "looks like he's been chasing parked cars."
She refers to her routine as "administrative wanderings, less tangibly productive" than life as a magistrate or assistant U.S. prosecutor, which she was in the mid-1970s. Unlike her predecessors, she has spent little time in the courtroom since taking office, but has been working on a federal appeals court brief.
"Her assistants draw the line as close as they can . . . ," says Alexandria lawyer John Zwerling, echoing what some local defense attorneys considered prosecutorial excess during a recent drug investigation. "But I'd rate Elsie a 6. If she tells you something, she means it. She's honorable. It's her strongest point."