Leslie L. Byrne likes to warm up a crowd with a story of a group of Brownies visiting her office in the House of Representatives on a tour of the U.S. Capitol:
As Byrne wrapped up her explanation on the basics of federal government, one 7-year-old raised her hand. "She asked if boys can be in Congress, too!" says Byrne, the first woman elected to Congress from Virginia.
Now the Fairfax County Democrat is running for lieutenant governor, her eighth campaign since 1985, when she won a seat representing the Falls Church area in the House of Delegates.
At 58, she is a familiar face to many Northern Virginians, a leader whose brash, in-your-face style has distanced some politicians and rallied others over two decades.
When she was defeated after one term in Congress, she alienated the Democratic leadership by announcing the next year that she would run in a primary for U.S. Senate. She lost that race.
When Republicans redistricted Byrne out of her state Senate seat in 2001, she accused them during a floor speech of "gender gerrymandering" to force Democratic women from state politics.
Her unabashedly liberal message and outspokenness in a state where gentility among female politicians is the norm give her critics plenty of ammunition.
"One thing we can all agree on is that there is a real choice in this race," said Sen. Bill Bolling, a conservative leader of the state's anti-tax movement and Byrne's Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 election.
But Byrne said she's embracing the idea that to get anything done in politics, one has to find common ground by seeing things the way the other guy does -- "even if you disagree with 99 percent of what they think."
"It's what I try to look for more than I used to," she said.
Byrne said she reached out to conservatives while she was in the General Assembly. She co-sponsored a bill with Republican Randy Forbes, now a congressman, to protect abandoned babies, and she worked with Richard Black (R-Loudoun) on increasing tax benefits for the elderly.
She and Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) worked on a proposal to give local governments more control over development, which was defeated.
"These are people I found common ground with," she said at her McLean campaign headquarters, laughing over her unlikely collaboration with three of the legislature's most conservative members.
Friends say they see in the candidate's emphasis on bipartisanship a mellower politician, one whose edges have softened.
"She's not as competitive as she once was," said Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who served with Byrne in the Senate and is running for governor as an independent. He said her bluntness comes only from her passion for issues she cares about. "Leslie's all business," Potts said. "She's a serious legislator. 'Let's cut to the chase' is how she approaches things."
But there she was playing hardball before the Virginia Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 21 in her first debate with Bolling, assailing him for his former ties to a Richmond insurance company whose collapse prompted state and federal fraud investigations.
"I'm a businessperson who has had three successful businesses in Virginia, and I have done it without declaring bankruptcy or committing fraud," Byrne said in closing remarks. "I know that's not a very high standard, but on this stage it is."
Bolling, a former executive at the firm, is not under investigation and has called Byrne's accusation "a cheap shot."
Byrne later said she was fighting back at her opponent's characterization of her as a liberal. "I give as good as I get," she said, smiling. "I will not be a punching bag for ideologues."
As she makes her pitch to voters from Roanoke to Norfolk, Byrne preaches many of the messages that formed her political roots: more resources for Head Start, the preschool program for poor children, and vocational education in high schools; cheaper health insurance for small businesses; and more freight capacity on railroads to take truck traffic off the highways.
She calls these subjects "kitchen table" issues. She still supports abortion rights and gay rights and opposes Virginia's right-to-work law, which prohibits mandatory participation in unions. The position drew criticism from Bolling as anti-business.
Byrne takes pride in getting a safety law through the General Assembly that mandates covers on debris-carrying trucks, legislation that put her at odds with powerful business interests and their supporters in the legislature. She tacked the mandate on as an amendment to another bill to raise the speed limit for trucks to 65 mph.
"At the time, it was the hugest victory you could imagine," recalled Margaret K. Luca, Byrne's chief of staff in Congress and a former General Assembly aide who is now Board of Elections secretary in Fairfax.
Byrne said her no-nonsense style comes from her mother, an office manager, and father, a smelter at a copper company in Salt Lake City. She met her husband, Larry Byrne, at a fraternity party during her freshman year at the University of Utah and married him the next year.
They moved to Falls Church soon after that, when he got a job with the federal government. Her entry into politics was fighting development in the environmentally sensitive Occoquan watershed while she was president of the Fairfax League of Women Voters.
She became the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor by defeating three others in the June primary.
Larry Byrne, a Democratic activist in Fairfax and a member of the county's electoral board, put his consulting business on hold to help his wife's campaign.
He drives; she eats and sleeps. Together, they talk strategy. She estimates that they've logged 60,000 miles driving their Chrysler 300 across Virginia in two years of reaching out to Democrats. When they're back in Falls Church, she dotes on her 3-year-old grandson, Jason.
The candidate is unapologetic about her approach to politics:
"I don't like duplicity. I don't like hypocrisy. I don't like basic unfairness. If these are considered edges, I still have those edges."