August 20, 2001 12:00 PM

In the sixth of PEOPLE’s occasional series on the 13 women in the U.S. Senate, we profile Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, who learned politics at her father’s knee. She has already made a name for herself as a tough lawmaker, but as the mother of two adopted children, she will always put family first.

As early as age 5, Mary Landrieu had figured out a very important fact of her young life: One of the best ways to insure quality time with her dad was to join him on the campaign trail, going door-to-door in their New Orleans neighborhood as he ran for state legislature. “My little knuckles used to hurt knocking on the doors, so my father would give me a rock to use,” says Landrieu, 45, of Moon Landrieu. “I’d tap on the door and say, ‘Hello, I’m Mary Landrieu, and this is my dad.’ ”

Her cigar-chomping father, who would become a Louisiana legend as a two-term mayor, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Jimmy Carter and a federal judge, now needs no introduction. But then, neither does his daughter. Following him into politics, Landrieu became the state’s youngest female legislator in 1979 and, five years ago, won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Moon, now 71, knew all along that she had it in her: “This family’s been up to its eyeballs in politics all of Mary’s life.”

One of only two women senators with young children, Landrieu has become a role model for working mothers on Capitol Hill. She regularly slips out of her office to catch dinner with her husband, Frank Snellings, 52, a lawyer, and their two children, sometimes bicycling back to make a Senate vote. At adults-only D.C. receptions, she has been known to ignore the rules and bring along her daughter Mary Shannon, 4, and son Connor, 9. And a suitcase of toys sits at the ready near her desk. “She’s dedicated to her kids,” says Sen. Joe Lieberman. “She manages to pull all the roles together.”

Landrieu is certainly no softy when it comes to making law. She has earned a reputation as a tough and articulate moderate, pushing to create tax credits for families who adopt special-needs kids, backing a missile-defense system and seeking more profits for Louisiana from offshore oil drilling. Along the way she has also made waves on the bayous for refusing to cave in to the state’s more conservative factions. She was condemned for supporting abortion and gay rights during her first election, and Republicans have targeted Landrieu in 2002 because of her opposition to the nomination of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and her early opposition to the Bush tax cut. “What she’s doing is out of step with Louisiana,” says Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Counters friend and fellow Louisiana-raised Democrat James Carville: “It’s going to be a tough reelection fight, but she’s in pretty good shape. She’s grown a lot. She’s not Moon’s daughter anymore.”

Even when she was little, Landrieu took charge, helping babysitters police her eight younger siblings (all with names beginning with the letter M) when her parents were out. “We’d find notes from Mary pinned to our pillows telling us who’d been good and who’d been bad,” recalls her homemaker mother, Verna, 68. “We’d laugh ourselves silly.”

Her first brush with the ugly side of politics came early, when classmates taunted her for her father’s pro-civil-rights stands in the early ’60s. Elected student body president of all-girls Ursuline Academy, she wasn’t so sure a future in politics was appealing. “If anything, I assumed I might play a supportive role—as the wife of a politician,” she has said. But not long after she graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in sociology, she was working on a friend’s campaign for municipal judge when a colleague took notice of her good political instincts and suggested that Landrieu run for office herself.

She did, and at 23 was elected to the state’s House of Representatives, one of three women among 144 legislators. “I still remember walking in and saying, ‘Where are all the women?’ ” Landrieu says. Male colleagues catcalled when she took the podium and even put rubber snakes in her desk drawers. “But,” she says, “it made me stronger.”

Two big events marked her life in 1988. She became state treasurer and, probably more important, as a favor to a friend, had dinner with Frank Snellings, a local attorney and pol from Monroe, La. After an unremarkable meal at a Monroe restaurant, Landrieu was preparing to leave when he insisted she stay for coffee. “I thought, ‘This guy is so pushy,’ ” she recalls. “But the more he talked, the more I kept thinking this is the most wonderful man I have ever met.” Says Snellings: “I had dated a gazillion people, but when I went out with her that night, it just clicked.”

They married eight months later. The couple were eager to start a family, but when they started trying, Landrieu had trouble conceiving. “My mother had all nine of us in 11 years,” she says. “I thought I would have no trouble.” In 1992 they decided to adopt, although the private agency warned of a long wait. But in just two weeks they were called about Connor. “We were literally, ‘Yikes!’ ” says Snellings, who recalls running to the store for diapers and bottles. “We were totally unprepared.”

Child rearing didn’t slow Landrieu’s career pace. Within months of failing to win a crowded primary race for governor in 1995, she entered the race for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat J. Bennett Johnston. She won by just 5,788 votes and spent her first months in D.C. fighting charges from her Republican opponent that a supporter had illegally paid people to cast multiple votes—a matter investigated by a Senate Rules Committee, which eventually voted to drop the matter. It was in the middle of that inquiry that Landrieu and Snellings—they had applied again to adopt—learned that a newborn girl was available in Baton Rouge. The timing was awful, but they headed south. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to let politics get in the way of what I know is the right thing for us,’ ” says Landrieu.

To maximize time with her children, she and her husband live close to the Capitol in a rented townhouse not far from where Snellings, who does fund-raising for his wife, is overseeing construction of their new four-bedroom house. Landrieu flies home two or three times a month to meet with constituents but tries not to leave Frank and the kids for more than two nights at a time. Living in Washington, she believes, is the right choice as she tries to be both a good mother and an effective representative of her state. “Neither job is perfect,” she says, “but any parent who works outside the home understands that.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C, and Gabrielle Cosgriff in New Orleans

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