Leslie A. Woolley's upbringing was tougher than the average policy wonk's. As a youngster in Oklahoma, she learned to hunt quail with a 20-gauge shotgun, ride horses, and round up cattle.

"A lot of times, when things get bad, I think it can't be as bad as getting thrown off your horse and getting your breath knocked out," said Ms. Woolley, policy deputy to the chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Ms. Woolley will need to muster plenty of strength in the months ahead. On the heels of last year's grueling fight to shore up the thrift insurance fund, she will throw herself in the agency's next legislative priority: merging the bank and thrift funds. The first step will be pushing for a merger of the charters.

Such a merger figures to increase protection for thrifts, because assets in the Savings Association Insurance Fund are skewed toward a relatively small number of large institutions concentrated mainly in the West. However, members of Congress and banking interests are still debating exactly what powers institutions would be given in the new charter.

Ms. Woolley may be just the person to ride herd on the issue.

Though low-key and affable, she displays patient tenacity and forceful persuasiveness. Those qualities, colleagues say, have made her highly effective both on Capitol Hill and inside the FDIC.

After building a career as a congressional aide specializing in banking issues, she joined the agency two years ago as one of Chairman Ricki Helfer's top two lieutenants. She heads up the agency's legislative efforts and oversees development of regulation.

"She's wonderfully dogged at staying on issues," Ms. Helfer said. "She doesn't give up easily."

Certainly, Ms. Woolley proved her mettle in last year's thrift-fund bailout.

"I think Leslie is one of five or six people who should get medals" for orchestrating delicate negotiations among Democrats, Republicans, and various industry interests, said Howard A. Menell, staff director for the Senate Banking Committee.

The merger of the funds promises to be every bit as tricky. Because a new Congress has just convened, officials will have to pace themselves and "work the process" for the next two years, proceeding through congressional hearings and negotiations, Ms. Woolley explained.

The fate of legislation merging the charters will be tied to the thornier questions of financial modernization. With Ms. Woolley nearby, Ms. Helfer recently testified before a House banking subcommittee in favor of combining bank and thrift charters and allowing institutions to expand into additional financial services.

Now in her early 40s, Ms. Woolley said she had little inclination toward politics when she came to Washington in 1977 after accepting a staff job dealing with banking issues for an Oklahoma congressman because it fit with her MBA from Oklahoma State University.

She has become the quintessential inside-the-Beltway operative, describing the intricacies of shaping policy and laws as "fun." Her attorney husband, Doyle C. Bartlett, is a former banking lobbyist now serving as chief of staff for her former boss, Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla.

Before joining the FDIC in late 1994, she spent eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate working on the staffs of both banking committees as well as those of individual lawmakers. She also worked briefly for Chemical Bank.

At a time when the major political parties are trying to just get along, Ms. Woolley possesses enviable bipartisan credentials. She worked for two Democrats and two Republicans, including stints as banking assistant and legislative director for Floridians on each side of the aisle-Rep. McCollum and Democratic Sen. Bob Graham.

Her first boss, former Rep. Wesley W. Watkins, noted Ms. Woolley's early devotion to banking issues. The Oklahoma Democrat said he was shocked in 1980 when she turned down a plum post as his aide on the appropriations committee to stick with banking.

"I think it (her decision) has been proven correct," considering her success, Rep. Watkins said recently.

Ms. Woolley said banking interests her because it helps people prosper in their lives and business.

Those who have seen Ms. Woolley in action describe her as someone who knows the Hill, commands respect, discerns the motivations of different political players, and builds consensus. Seemingly universally liked, Ms. Woolley can still be firm, observers say.

Ms. Woolley's character was fortified during her formative years on a ranch in the small town of Ada, Okla. The experience, she said, was "wonderful" but "tough."

Personal tragedy tested that inner strength. In 1982, Ms. Woolley's fiance was killed when an Air Florida jet crashed in the Potomac River. "I became more focused on what I was doing-and I mean that in all aspects of my life," she said. "You hope nobody has to go through it."

It was in Oklahoma that Ms. Woolley also received her first introduction to banks, working as a customer service representative and teller for Citizens Bank of Ada, which her father, Walter Woolley, helped found. Once, Ms. Woolley recalled, she kindly explained to a customer why his account was overdrawn even though he still had checks in his checkbook.

That is the kind of patience Ms. Woolley exhibited during the passage of last year's thrift fund bailout law, according to observers. Ms. Woolley worked the phones constantly, repeatedly explaining to legislators- especially those unfamiliar with banking-how the law would capitalize the Savings Association Insurance Fund and why they should support it.

Over two years, negotiations between the differing financial interests were strained, and the proposal, linked to other legislation, failed several times. But Ms. Woolley kept plugging away.

"She never lost her balance, or perspective, or good humor," said a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee's Democratic staff.

Trust in Ms. Woolley's word helped the various interests reach agreement when time was running out in the last Congress, said Edward L. Yingling, the American Bankers Association's executive director for government relations.

However, Ms. Woolley plays other roles at the FDIC than Capitol Hill operative.

"She is sort of a right hand" to Ms. Helfer, Mr. Menell said. "My impression is she is a troubleshooter, advance person, problem solver."

Ms. Woolley's office is two doors from Ms. Helfer's, and the two officials meet every morning for 30 minutes to an hour.

When asked about her ambitions, Ms. Woolley evaded the question. Her husband has been quoted as saying he would like to return to Oklahoma, but she said they have no short-term plans to leave Washington.

Right now, Ms. Woolley said, she is hunkered down overseeing various policy initiatives the agency has under way.

Besides legislative policy, she has responsibility for development of agency regulations. By the end of 1997, FDIC plans to complete the streamlining of more than 100 regulations and policies that it began reviewing last year, Ms. Woolley said. Cleaner regulations should make bankers' lives simpler, she said. For example, the FDIC is considering consolidation of all applications for such things as opening branches into one code section and easing application processes for healthy banks.

FDIC officials also are participating in task forces on interstate and electronic banking issues.

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