Three years ago, Jacqueline Jones-Smith was a staff lawyer with the Montgomery County Attorney's Office, working on cases such as infractions of local health and safety codes and child abuse.

Today, she is chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is responsible for enforcing product safety laws and monitoring consumer safety issues nationwide.

Jones-Smith, a Rockville resident since 1981, said her work for the Montgomery County Attorney's Office helped her become interested in consumer issues.

"While I was at the county attorney's office, I was attorney for the Department of Health, and I started getting interested in safety issues then. I also prosecuted municipal infractions in the health and safety areas. On the local level, {we dealt with} a number of safety areas that the commission is involved with, so I was very much interested in the public health and safety aspects."

Jones-Smith, a Democrat nominated by President Bush on Oct. 12 and confirmed by the Senate the next month, was appointed to the five-person commission for a seven-year term.

Because the commission had only two members and lacked a quorum for the 10 months before her appointment, it had been unable to conduct business during that time.

"As a result," said Jones-Smith, "there were a number of items that were pending and awaiting commission action."

Despite the backlog, the commission was caught up within six months after Jones-Smith took office and is moving on to current issues, she said.

Jones-Smith, the oldest of four girls, was raised in a tough South Bronx neighborhood of New York. "It wasn't unusual to walk outside my building and see a wino on the street or see somebody with a little tin can and a match burning his stuff," she said, referring to neighborhood heroin addicts.

Home life also wasn't always stable for her. "Sometimes {my father} had work, sometimes he didn't have work," she said. "Sometimes my parents got along and he was there, and sometimes he wasn't. The steady person was my mom."

The family moved to Philadelphia in 1962 when Jacqueline was 11. Through hard work, as well as her parents' desire to see her achieve, she graduated valedictorian of her high school class.

"The one thing my parents had always stressed for all of us from the time we were young was that you were going to college. Neither of them went, but they both felt that college was the way to succeed in life. 'The kids are gonna get an education.' They didn't know how, but that was going to happen," she said.

She won a four-year scholarship to Swarthmore College in 1970.

Swarthmore "was a bit of a shock culturally . . . but environmentally I loved it in terms of the academics, because there were people there who were interested in studying," she said. "It was a good thing to study, and you were rewarded in that environment."

She graduated from Swarthmore in 1974 and received a master's degree in library science from Syracuse University in 1978.

In 1979, she married Joshua Smith and went to work for his Rockville-based information systems company, MAXIMA Corp.

She graduated from American University law school in 1984, and the next year began work for the Montgomery County Attorney's Office.

Besides representing the Department of Health, she also worked for the Department of Social Services in child neglect and abuse cases. She said the cases were "very difficult . . . but you felt you were doing a good job because you were hopefully remedying a problem by getting a child out of a tough situation."

Montgomery County Attorney Clyde H. "Rocky" Sorrell, who worked with Jones-Smith for two years, recalls a dedicated, energetic colleague. "She was an extremely diligent attorney and a very effective advocate," he said.

In 1987, Jones-Smith left the county attorney's office for the Federal Election Commission, where, as a staff lawyer, she represented the agency in administrative actions.

Lawrence Noble, general counsel at the FEC, was unhappy to see her leave and is confident that she will succeed at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "She came in here with no election law background, and picked it up extremely quickly," he said. "She was very focused on whatever project she was involved in."

Jones-Smith's nomination for the consumer agency was not without controversy.

She was nominated to be chairman of the panel, catapulting her over the other commissioners, Carol G. Dawson and Anne Graham. But much of the criticism centered on her husband, who as an active Republican had helped raise more than $600,000 for the Bush campaign.

Jones-Smith bristles at accusations of political patronage.

"My record speaks for itself in terms of my legal experience and my management background. The proof comes in the performance," she said.

The commission's recent work has centered on such issues as the modification of aerosol spray cans, warnings on defective baby cushions and new laws concerning bicycle helmets.

Some of her short-term goals for the commission include dealing with children's issues, such as childproofing for cigarette lighters, residential swimming safety and accident prevention, and playground equipment safety.

Although there are many issues the commission could devote its time to, Jones-Smith said she is more interested in issues where results are more easily reached in a manageable time, as opposed to spreading the agency's resources too thin on a range of projects.

Jones-Smith is looking forward to a challenging seven years.

"What I love about the commission is that it so directly impacts the lives of people, and it has such an incredible mission," she said. "For the progress you make, you can see some direct results, in reducing injuries, in saving lives."