May 7, 2011

For Susan Collins, persistence, work ethic are keys to success

“I love bringing people together from both sides and sitting down and figuring out what ideas they have. That’s exciting for me," she says.

By MARTHA SHERRILL Special to The Washington Post

Susan Margaret Collins is more optimistic and habitually cheery than her sometimes-downbeat Senate sister, Olympic Snowe. On a snowy day, she welcomes a constituent, a man in a plaid shirt and jeans, into her office for a photo and sounds like a joyful first-grade teacher leading a field trip.

"Oh my gosh," Collins exclaims after he hands her a bumper sticker that says Maine-iac, a nickname for native Mainers. "I love it! You know, I have found these all over the world and stuck in the silliest places."

Her voice has an unusual cadence -- a quavering staccato. It seems on the verge of stalling, but never does. When concerned inquiries are made to her staff about whether this stems from a medical condition, the reply is, "No, that's just how she talks."

Athletic and trim, wearing a gray and black workhorse suit and low-heeled patent leather pumps, Collins seems younger than her age, 58, and her blue eyes radiate intelligence, good will and a sturdy confidence that can be infectious.

Just a building away from Snowe's green office with its clutter of watercolors, souvenirs and crystal trophies, Collins dwells in a spare space with flags, state seals and New Englandy furnishings. The walls are midnight blue. The wainscoting is dark mahogany. The carpet is terracotta orange. A dead orchid plant sits on a shelf behind her desk.

The phone rings and it is Mitch McConnell. The minority leader is ready to hand out committee assignments for the 112th Congress. Collins slips into another room to talk to him -- "in case I get bad news" -- and returns five minutes later, glowing. "I got everything I wanted!" Her committee load is so heavy -- Armed Services, Appropriations, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs -- that it requires a special waiver of Senate rules.

Two staffers pop their heads in the door to hear the outcome and congratulate the boss. "More work for you!" she calls out, with a sing-songy laugh.

More work for Collins, too. And what could be better? She is quick to mention her love of cooking, and her cabin on a lake north of Bangor where she kayaks and spends three weeks in summer. But for the 49 other weeks of the year, she is a prodigious grind.

Never married and, like Snowe, without children, Collins is known for carrying a bulging briefcase home in the evening, for night-owl emails to exhausted staffers and for plunging into every bill on her desk and catching mistakes and oversights, such as the 17-word clause she spotted, inserted by an anonymous colleague in the 1999 budget, that would have kicked back $46 billion to the tobacco industry.

"She does 100 things at once," says Steve Abbott, her former chief of staff, "goes from committee meeting, to constituent meeting, and on to another hearing, without missing a step." She is a classic junior senator in this way: happiest when she's trying harder.

"I truly enjoy legislating," Collins says, pausing for a 30-minute interview, all she has time for today, before an informational meeting with Us Against Alzheimer's. "I love bringing people together from both sides and sitting down and figuring out what ideas they have. That's exciting for me. And that's why I think Maine has sent me here -- not to be particularly ideological, although I am proud to be a Republican, but to solve problems and to work with people who are interested in solving problems."

When Snowe, as The Listener, describes herself as "a problem solver," it has an emotional component, a poignancy. She would fix life if she could, to soften its blows. Collins' connection to her work seems strategic and process-loving, as though she is talking about a puzzle she's passionate about piecing together, or a clock she's itching to repair.

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