"I'm a teacher, not a politician."

So said Lily Eskelsen in 1990 just after being elected Utah Education Association president."Oh, wow, it's true" that she said that then, Eskelsen recalls today.

But being a politician is exactly what Eskelsen wants now; although she adds she'll always be a teacher at heart.

Eskelsen seeks to walk in the footsteps of Karen Shepherd, a Democratic woman elected to the 2nd Congressional District.

In her way stands Rep. Merrill Cook, the freshman GOP incumbent who spent 10 years and more than $3.6 million of his own money on various campaign endeavors.

Eskelsen has neither the time nor money for that.

And for a sixth-grade teacher who put herself through college singing folk songs with her high-school-boyfriend-turned-husband, Eskelsen says now is the time for her.

Ironically, in a very real way it was Cook and the 1988 tax-cutting ballot initiatives he embraced that got Eskelsen into public life in the first place.

"I'd just been selected Utah Teacher of the Year," she recalls. The tax cutting/tax-capping citizen initiatives were on the ballot and Cook was running for governor as an independent, his candidacy closely associated with the tax protest movement.

"A young insurance executive named Mike Leavitt was co-chairman, along with Pat Shea, in the effort to defeat the initiatives. They and some other people asked me, as Teacher of the Year, to go around speaking to various groups about how the tax cuts would just devastate public education."

That's when she got the taste for public debate and policy. And realized that she wasn't half-bad at it, either.

Now, at 43, with one boy out of high school, another in high school, Eskelsen says it's time to try to really make a difference - not talk about it or lobbying it, but get in a position to actually do it.

The differences between herself and Cook today are as stark as they were in 1988, she says.

So many people, including Cook, are looking for the easy answer, "the silver bullet that will solve the complex problem. It isn't there," she says.

"I can give a perspective that's truly missing from politics today; a perspective that you really can sit down with people, bring them together and find real solutions.

"I know it can happen, because I've done it, at the (Utah) Legislature and in other situations. It's amazing what can happen when you don't care who gets the credit.

"I don't kid myself. It will be incredibly tough" - both to win the election and to make a difference in Congress, perhaps being in the minority. "But if we have the right people in the right seats, it can be done."

Teaching kids is about watching them grow, physically, intellectually, emotionally. That same growth has been part of her life, as well, says Eskelsen.

She was an Army brat, born in Fort Hood, Texas. "My dad moved the family about every year or so" as he was transferred around the country. When she was 16 her father retired and moved his family to Brigham City.

"I learned to play the guitar and sing." And at Box Elder High School was this great guitar player - not bad looking - a year ahead of her in school. Love of music - folk music - drew Ruel Eskelsen and Lily Pace together.

"He was a year ahead of me in school. We got married a week after I graduated." To augment various regular jobs - she taught in a low-income pre-school - they played folk music all around northern Utah. "We played in every pizza parlor around and, it seemed, most of the wedding receptions."

The couple put themselves through the University of Utah playing folk music. "Yes, we wrote a bunch of songs. Don't you have to?" when one is a 1960s-70s folk singer? "We even joked that Tacky-Teacher-Tunes-R-Us was our nickname."

While Eskelsen appeared at the 1997 state Democratic organizing convention to sing a song or two, the guitar has been retired for this campaign.

Running for Congress is serious business and she didn't want to give the impression she's not weighty enough for the job. Also, appear at a public event with an instrument or silly outfit and you never know how your opponent may use the TV footage. Remember how bad former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis looked wearing that tank helmet in the 1988 presidential campaign?

After graduating from the U. with a teaching degree in 1980, Eskelsen immediately went to work as a sixth-grade teacher at Orchard Elementary School in the Granite School District.

Except for the period from 1990-96 when she was president of the Utah Education Association - a full-time job - she's been in the classroom at least part time for 18 years.

"Right now I've taken a leave (from her part-time teaching assignment at Orchard). But I've told the principal that win or lose, I'll be back in the classroom Nov. 4," the day after this year's election.

Eskelsen has also taken a leave from her part-time job on the executive board of the National Education Association, the national affiliate of state education associations.

"Things came together this year for my race," says Eskelsen.

"The issues people are talking about, care about, are the issues I've been involved with most of my adult life: education, crime - especially juvenile crime - and retirement, specifically saving Social Security."

As a union leader, Eskelsen's been involved in the Utah State Retirement System, appointed to that board recently by now-Gov. Leavitt.

"We have to stop the partisan bickering" on Social Security, stop pointing fingers "and sit down, make the system sound and solve it."

A profile of Cook was published yesterday.

Starting tomorrow: 1st Congressional District candidates.