Kathleen McConkie Collinwood sat in her law office one afternoon earlier this year, wondering why more people weren't speaking out against a plan that would bring much of the nation's nuclear waste to Utah's western desert.

She and her brother, Jim McConkie, began brainstorming. They wanted a solution that would rally public passions against the waste proposal, and they knew they needed the help of some prominent Utahns, Democrats and Republicans alike, to muster a groundswell of opposition.

"We put together a respectable group," Jim McConkie said. Included in the citizens group are former Gov. Norm Bangerter, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Wayne Owens, a Democrat.

"If we join together we can stop these things," said Collinwood, the Democratic candidate for Utah's 1st Congressional District seat. "Together, we're much stronger."

That's the way Collinwood plays politics. Bold, upfront, in your face, yet willing to sit down with Republicans to find a solution.

If her GOP opponent, Jim Hansen, seems somewhat elusive about his political strategies, preferring to huddle with key players to tackle tough problems, then Collinwood would be more of a cheerleader, rallying for a common cause.

That Collinwood, a 50-year-old lawyer who has never held public office, is challenging a man who has never lost an election shows she has spunk.

"When I think of my sister, she's always moving quickly, walking fast, talking on the phone while walking down the street," says her brother, Jim. "Then she goes home, takes her batteries out, wakes up with tons of energy the next morning."

In addition to her energy — on top of her full-time job, she and her husband have 10 children — "she's a very affable person," adds Scott Lee, her law partner with Randle, Deamer, McConkie & Lee. "Kathleen is just a good, down-to-earth person. She's sensible and hard-working."

Collinwood was born in New York, grew up in England and returned to the United States after high school.

She learned the value of education and family at an early age. Her father, James McConkie, died when she was a toddler. Her mother raised three children while earning her doctorate at Columbia University in New York. She remarried, to an executive, and the family moved to England.

After high school, Collinwood came to Utah to attend Brigham Young University, graduating in 1971. She moved to Minnesota, where she taught high school English while raising a family. She later moved to Rochester, Minn., where she lived while attending Hamline Law School in St. Paul, Minn.

"When she was going to law school, she would drive 100 miles a day while reviewing legal principles," Jim McConkie said. "She has the highest energy level of anyone I know."

She received a law degree in 1981. And after a divorce, she moved to Utah to become a lawyer. She married Dean Collinwood, and they blended their families, raising children who now range in age from 14 to 28.

Collinwood quickly became involved in her Bountiful community, gaining the admiration of her neighbors.

"She's a very remarkable woman. I'm very impressed with her. She has a keen sense of social values," said Jim Bromley, a retired state employee who lives in her neighborhood. "Although she belongs to a different political party than I do."

Despite her popularity and a family name firmly ingrained in Utah politics, no one doubts she has an uphill battle. Not only is it hard to raise campaign funds to run against a well-entrenched incumbent, but 1st Congressional District voters, like Bromley, have been voting Republican since Hansen defeated the late Rep. Gunn McKay 20 years ago.

Collinwood is hopeful because she sees herself as a "moderate" Democrat, one that reflects the values of mainstream Utahns.

"I believe in the principles of the Democratic Party," she said. "It's a party that cares about people."

Like the national party, she is focused on family issues, such as education and health-care costs.

Like Hansen, Collinwood vows to continue to make sure Hill Air Force Base is protected. And both candidates oppose the plan to put a nuclear storage facility in Skull Valley.

But Collinwood believes it's time for a change in leadership in the 1st District, and she bristles at the notion that voters should support Hansen simply because he's got seniority. "Look to his record," she said. "See how he voted on education. See what he did for seniors. Is this effective representation?" Collinwood would like to see more of Utah's federal tax dollars spent on education.

To do that will take a united approach, Collinwood said. That means state lawmakers and Utah's congressional delegation working together to find solutions, despite party differences.

"We've got to be able to work together. It's not a matter of partisan politics," she said.

That's the way Collinwood does business. As a litigator, she works with the opposing counsel to come up with the best deal for her client. "My clients are better off when I can talk to the opposition."

Collinwood's roots are bipartisan: Her grandmother, Madeline Bitlin Wirthlin, was a national committeewoman for the Republican party, and an uncle, Richard Wirthlin, was a political strategist for President Ronald Reagan.

But the McConkie side of the family have all been lifetime Democrats, and only a few have been successful getting elected.

Her uncle, Oscar McConkie Jr., was one of the successful ones, winning election to the state Legislature and eventually becoming president of the Utah Senate. Her grandfather, state District Court Judge Oscar McConkie, ran unsuccessfully for governor. Her brother, Jim McConkie, considered a run for Congress in 1996, and he is now the Democratic candidate for the state Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Scott Howell, D-Granite.

Collinwood herself lost a run for a Davis County Commission seat in 1996, and her husband, Dean Collinwood, a University of Utah professor, made an unsuccessful run for the state Legislature.

Her friends and supporters agree it's difficult for Collinwood, or any Democrat, to get elected in Davis County, as well as in other areas of the sprawling 1st District that encompasses the western half of Utah, from Idaho to St. George.

Even so, Bromley, a Republican delegate, says it could be a close race. "I have a high regard for Rep. Hansen. I've got a real dilemma when I go in the voting booth."

E-MAIL: donna@desnews.com