Thousands of people will soon descend on Seattle to protest the Clinton administration's support of the World Trade Organization, which convenes a major meeting there Nov. 30. They accuse the administration and the WTO of policies that cost U.S. jobs, promote pollution and weaken labor unions.

Mounting the administration's counteroffensive is Karen A. Tramontano, no stranger to labor disputes or sticky issues. Although she's virtually unknown to outsiders, White House officials see Tramontano as the classic behind-the-scenes fixer--not in a sleazy political sense, but in the tradition of worker bees who toil anonymously, soothing egos, following up on problems and making sure strategies are carried through.

Tramontano, 42, is counsel to White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, making her the top aide to the president's top aide.

Her portfolio includes labor, trade, economics, agriculture and issues involving the gay community. In reality, she handles matters that Podesta feels need special attention from someone who can work an extensive Rolodex of government insiders and outsiders and get recalcitrant parties to seek common ground.

As Tramontano puts it, she handles "things that are stuck, where there are disputes that appear that are not getting resolved. . . . The real front-burner issue now is coordinating the WTO."

Administration staff members say Tramontano is well-positioned to spearhead Clinton's defense of the global trade governing group, which advocates open trade. She has deep ties to organized labor, which often argues that unfettered trade tends to shift jobs overseas and discourages tough standards for working conditions and environmental safeguards.

These arguments frustrate Tramontano, who contends the benefits of open trade are often overlooked while the costs are trumpeted.

"For years, companies told their workers, 'We're closing because we can't compete' " with foreign operations, Tramontano said. "So the message people got for years was that trade is bad." Workers need the full story, she said, such as when pay and benefits improved because a company's exports grew.

To that end, Tramontano is organizing a number of pre-conference trips to Seattle by top administration officials, who hope to create a steady buzz of pro-trade arguments. She also has organized a "National Dialogue on Trade Day" for today--President Clinton will travel to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle plant in Pennsylvania and corporate executives and administration officials will fan out to dozens of other sites--to discuss how free trade can improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

"We've got to stop scaring people" about trade, Tramontano said.

She doesn't, however, lightly dismiss the concerns of organized labor, where her professional roots lie. She's served as a staff member at the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, an attorney specializing in labor law and director of the D.C. government's Office of Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining.

In 1990 she befriended underdog mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt Dixon (later known as Sharon Pratt Kelly), who won a surprise victory and recruited Tramontano to handle labor matters. By December 1991, Kelly's administration was struggling and the mayor tapped Tramontano, then 34, as her new chief of staff.

"That was the hardest job I've ever done in my life," Tramontano said in a recent interview in her White House office, which is painted pink. "Expectations were unbelievable. We were supposed to cure everything that was wrong with the city."

After Kelly lost the 1994 election, Tramontano became an assistant to John J. Sweeney, a union official who now heads the AFL-CIO. She joined Podesta's staff in 1997.

Some groups that often take issue with organized labor say they, too, find Tramontano a valuable conduit.

"Sometimes it's sort of hard to penetrate the White House and get an answer," said Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "Karen is one of those people you can go to and get an answer."

Podesta says: "She's a spark plug in the White House, in that she's smart, practical, tough, has good rapport with everyone. Most importantly, she gets stuff done."


Karen A. Tramontano

Title: Assistant to the president and counselor to the White House chief of staff.

Age: 42.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Boston College; law degree, Catholic University.

Personal: Lives with partner, Teresa Rankin, a staff member with the National Education Association.

Previous jobs: Attorney in private practice; director of labor relations and then chief of staff to D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly; chief of staff to John J. Sweeney at the Service Employees International Union.

CAPTION: Karen A. Tramontano, the top aide to the president's top aide, has a diverse portfolio beyond trade matters.