KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON HAS ALWAYS had the look of a winner. She was a popular high school cheerleader in her La Marque, Tex., hometown and later for the University of Texas Longhorns. She graduated from law school in the '60s, when few women in Texas even bothered to try, then became a star TV reporter in Austin. Since then she has had a charmed political career, culminating in a landslide victory last June that made her Texas's first woman senator and a darling of Republicans anxious for a vigorous female leader in national office.

But that all came crashing down last month when a Texas prosecutor charged that while stale treasurer she had used government employees for personal and political tasks—and then destroyed records to cover up the evidence. Hutchison, 50, suddenly found herself the 10th sitting U.S. senator in history to be indicted. "You would think for Kay Bailey Hutchison, this would be the time of her life," says her campaign manager, Brian Berry. "But lately it's been like the Aswan Dam thrown in front of her."

Hutchison, who is scheduled to stand trial on Nov. 29 and could face up to 61 years in jail if convicted, has denied any wrongdoing. She and her supporters have lashed back, contending that the five-count indictment is part of a Democratic conspiracy designed by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to ruin her chances for reelection next year. Earle, who was both a University of Texas law school classmate of Hutchison's and a fellow Texas legislator, seems confounded by the charge. "I always liked her," says Earle, 51. "We were friends. I'm just doing my job."

Those who know Hutchison aren't surprised by her combative response. Despite a beauty queen smile and a seemingly unmussable blond coif that has prompted Texans lo call her the Breck Girl, she ascended lo the top of Texas politics through gritty determination. "If you know Kay Bailey Hutchison, you know she's as hard as nails and she won't fold," says Republican pollster Linda DiVall. "Too many people think she is a country-club Republican and forget where she's from and how she's gotten where she is."

Born in Galveston and raised in nearby La Marque (pop. 14,500), Hutchison was the daughter of an insurance agent and a homemaker. In high school she was a ponytailed, poodle-skirted prom queen, but she later became one of the first women lo enroll in the University of Texas law school. ("I went to law school because I didn't meet anyone to marry in undergraduate school," joked Hutchison, who was married briefly after law school, though remarkably little information is available.)

Unable to find work as a lawyer when she graduated in 1967, in part because she was a woman, Hutchison took a reporter's job in the Austin bureau of a Houston television station. In her two years covering the state legislature she earned a reputation among some of her colleagues as someone who dutifully performed her job but didn't like to risk a run in her stocking. A cameraman recalls how she refused to help carry equipment because it was beneath her dignity, and says, "She didn't think it was ladylike lo cover certain stories, like crime."

After a short turn as press secretary to Republican National Committee cochair Anne Armstrong, Hutchison ran for the legislature in 1971 and, at 29, became the first Republican woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives. In 1976, Gerald Ford appointed her vice-chair of the National Transportation Safely Board. Two years later she married her political mentor, former legislator and bond lawyer Ray Hutchison, who is 11 years her senior. (They have no children, though he has two daughters from his first marriage.)

In 1981, Hutchison made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives. For a while she dropped out of elective politics and owned a candy distribution company. But by 1990 she had reentered the fray and was elected slate treasurer, succeeding current governor Ann Richards. Last June, Hutchison won the Senate seat vacated by Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, but from the start she was dogged by state workers who publicly accused her of using them for personal errands.

Earle says he did not begin lo press the case against Hutchison until he had the testimony of three former employees, all Republicans, including Sharon Connally Ammann, 44, daughter of the late governor John Connally. Ammann charged last fall that she performed such chores as shopping for household appliances and painting the trim on her boss's home. She also said Hutchison once struck her repeatedly on the shoulder with a notebook because she was too slow finding a phone number. But by far the most damaging charge is that Hutchison purposely covered up evidence by altering her employees' computer files.

Staffers concede that Hutchison can be an intense boss, but say she is no criminal. "She has fighting in her blood," says Berry. "But that's why she'll whip this." Hutchison has hired two of the country's top criminal lawyers and, according lo a recent poll, a slim majority of Texans agree that the charges are politically motivated. "You could not publish how I feel," says her husband, Ray. "Obviously no one enjoys trash like this, but she will be fine."

J.D. PODOLSKY
ANNE MAIER in Houston, JOSEPH HARMES in Austin and LINDA KRAMER in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Maier,
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Linda Kramer.