Delano Eugene Lewis doesn't have to talk about maybe running for mayor. Everyone else does it for him.

"He is regarded as one of the pillars of the establishment," says hardware tycoon and D.C. Democratic national committeeman John Hechinger, "one of the outstanding men of his generation ... I would like to see him get back into politics."

"I don't think there is anyone else so involved with such a broad spectrum" of the community, says attorney Robert Linowes, a major background player in D.C. Democratic politics. "I think he is a real comer ... a respected and consulted player. I think he is clearly going to be one of the more important leaders of the region in years to come."

Democratic activist and historian Janette Hoston Harris says his entrenchment in the corporate world might raise questions for the average voter, "but you know, he really looks like a mayor. He dresses like a mayor."

So prevalent and constant has the talk been that last spring, when the Lewises put their seven-bedroom Potomac home on the market to move back to the District, the rumor mill spun into overdrive. Lewis, the prevailing wisdom went, was finally readying himself for the mayor's race in November 1990. He and his wife took their home off the market. Some say he did it to quell the rumors. Lewis said the house just didn't sell.

"I am flattered" at all the talk, he says. "It is heady stuff, no question about it. But you have to put your feet on the ground and think about what you really want out of life, and what's important to you in relationship to your family ... I am pleased by those accolades. But when I look at where I want to be at this time, I am not sure being mayor is the place."

Yesterday, as Lewis, C&P Telephone Co. vice president in charge of District of Columbia operations, assumed the presidency of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the question came up again at a news conference. Are you running for mayor? he was asked.

He looked straight at the television cameras, humped his broad shoulders forward and tried again to dampen the notion. "I have no intentions of running for mayor," he said. "I am gainfully employed -- the last time I checked."

After almost 25 years in Washington, Lewis, 49, is an undisputed force with a well-crafted portfolio. The presidency of the region's preeminent business group is just another step for the man who oversees the rates, ringing and repair of the 800,000 access lines in town.

But, as with many people in Washington power circles, it's more than his performance that makes Lewis a power contender, it's the possibilities. He is well connected to local government officials from Walter Fauntroy to Marion Barry. Lewis was involved in all three of Barry's mayoral campaigns and was a member of a small group of advisers who for two years before the last election fueled the mayor with suggestions on new directions for the city. Though he lost his only political race, for an at-large City Council seat in 1974 to Barry and Douglas Moore, when the parlor game of a post-Barry District Building is played, Lewis' name always comes up.

The man himself, his family and his friends have an instant list of reasons why they think he wouldn't run. David Abramson, an advertising executive and one of Lewis' closest friends, has his own list: "The job stinks because of Congress; it is one-dimensional; he's too private; he would lose money; and Gayle would leave."

Right now, Lewis enjoys being the insider's outsider. He was chairman of Barry's transition team in 1978 and chairman of Barry's financial committee in 1982, but his advice to the mayor before the last election "was not always what the mayor wanted to hear," says James Gibson, a former Barry official now at the Rockefeller Foundation.

It was, says Lewis, "things I thought could be helpful."

Allegations of corruption and recent convictions of high-level officials in the administration, Lewis believes, have "clouded much of the good work that the administration has done. That is unfortunate because I think the mayor has accomplished a number of things."

But unquestionably, he says, "The Barry administration has made mistakes and there have been problems. I can't blame that on a conspiracy theory or a race of people ... It's the thing I call accountability. Marion Barry has to be accountable. If things go wrong here in the telephone company, I am held accountable ... Ultimately," in the city "it rests on Marion's shoulders."

Lewis' election to the presidency of the Board of Trade stands as a remarkable personal achievement for the son of a Arkansas City, Kan. railroad porter and his wife, who worked as a maid. He freely acknowledges it is part of his drive for success. "Not that I had planned it ... but obviously if you are upwardly mobile and looking toward the future, you look for opportunities that will do it for you."

It is also a notable benchmark for the Board of Trade. In its 99-year history, two other blacks have been in line for the presidency, Flaxie Pinkett and Roger Blount, but each withdrew. And when Lewis looks around the wood-paneled board room off L Street in Washington's nouvelle money corridor, he sees very few other blacks. "I would have been content to be the third black president of the Board of Trade. It is not important to be a first," says Lewis. "It is important to be there."

One of the slowest changes in Washington in the 15 years since home rule has been the movement of black executives into the private sector and especially into decision-making positions there. Principally, the black power of the 1980s in Washington is exercised through elected political posts, administrative posts at universities and medical complexes, partnerships at downtown law firms and the pulpits of local churches. The most powerful names in Washington's business world are those of white developers.

In this transition era, a few blacks have broken the mold with their own businesses and others, such as Lewis, have emerged from an institutional base, including Thomas Duckenfield, an attorney who is vice president and general manager of District of Columbia Gas; Sharon Pratt Dixon, general counsel of Pepco; and Kent Cushenberry, director of corporate community relations/governmental programs for IBM.

Within those ranks, Lewis holds a special leadership position, in part because of his diverse interests. Reaching far beyond the business community, he has been particularly influential with minority education groups and arts groups. He tap danced as a kid, starred in school plays, was a drum major in his high school band and a cheering parent as his childrentook to the stage.

A founder of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, Lewis was president of the Capitol Ballet Board during its most active years, a past member of the Capital Children's Museum board and, as president of the Library Theater, made the production company one of the most successful local nonprofits. In demand by a number of groups, Lewis is a member of eight boards, pared down in the past year from about 15. Until recently he was a director of the National Bank of Washington, the city's second largest, but left to help Jeffrey Cohen, a developer and a friend, start City National Bank. Lewis will be chairman of its board of directors when it opens next year.

There's more than just a polite and politic nod to Lewis' success from his black associates. Says Cushenberry, an officer with the Board of Trade: "His support and leadership is a shining example of unselfishness." The Rt. Rev. John Walker, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, says, "He's very comfortable in the business community and he also gives considerable time and leadership to programs that help people in need. His is never a role of just writing a check. He does the legwork."

In addition, says Peter O'Malley, a former president of the Board of Trade and former president of the University of Maryland regents, Lewis' "thought process takes you beyond the bottom line, and he is aware that the business interest is serviced when the community is serviced. He has vision."

Lewis declares himself ready to tackle some hard issues at the board, including race relations. "Being here may afford some opportunities for bridge building because I think race relations in the community are at an all-time low," he says. "Maybe there are racial tensions in all of us ... I have always cautioned people about using the word racist anyway ... I never used it growing up. It was such a strong term."

Part of his concerns have been shaped by his Roman Catholic faith, a religion this "good Baptist boy" converted to when he married his wife 28 years ago. "His religion gives him a sense of proportion -- the 'you are not the center' philosophy," says Nancy (Bitsey) Folger, director of special projects at the Children's Defense Fund. Lewis was recently installed as a Knight of Malta, an elite service organization of the church, nominated by businesswoman Julia Walsh and his parish priest.

In the fall of 1957, Gayle Lewis, a petite, introspective school principal's daughter from Topeka attending the University of Kansas, got a call in the middle of the night from Delano Lewis asking her to a dressy fraternity party. She accepted even though she didn't dance because Lewis "was personable, exciting, involved." She soon noticed him penciling her into his appointment book. Five days after their graduation from the University of Kansas in June 1960, they were married. The children came quickly: Delano Jr., now 26, a marine engineer; Geoffrey, 24, president of a new telecommunications group; Brian, 23, a chef; Phillip, 19, an actor in Los Angeles; and two grandsons. Their careers, he says, are a major priority in his life.

They, in turn, gleefully note some cracks in Lewis' reputation for efficiency. Once, en route to visit his wife's family in Texas, they say, Lewis became so engrossed in singing 1960s hits that he never noticed he had driven 200 miles out of his way. Until he saw the sign that said "Welcome to Florida." Another time, as the organizer of what they call "Forced Family Fun," they say, he planned a trip to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. At the crack of dawn, he piled the youngsters into the car and headed off. When they arrived the park was closed. "It was like the scene from the Chevy Chase movie," says Delano Jr.

When the Library Theater gave Lewis a testimonial last spring, the afternoon brunch at the Willard Hotel wound up with Lewis' youngest son jumping out of a ribboned, life-size box.

The senior Lewis, who had been roasted and toasted by Mayor Barry, Hardy R. Franklin, director of the D.C. Libraries, Fran and Jeff Cohen, Nancy Folger and John Hechinger, cried as his sons sang a song about him. Then he gamely took a top hat and cane and joined them in a spirited tap dance to the song, "Tea for Two."

The 300 people at the brunch, a fundraiser for the children's theater, stood and cheered.

Lewis moved to Washington after law school at Kansas to work in the Kennedy administration's Justice Department, then moved on to a year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, three years with the Peace Corps and four years on Capitol Hill with Republican Sen. Edward Brooke and then Democratic Del. Walter Fauntroy.

Within a year of joining the Peace Corps, Lewis, as associate country director in Nigeria, had to evacuate all volunteers and their families because of the Biafran war in eastern Nigeria. Then he and his family moved to Uganda, where he was country director. "When we returned he was offered Korea and Taiwan and he turned them down before he told me," says his wife. Gayle Lewis could have kept on being reassigned: "I love the first two weeks in a new place. He wanted roots, he wanted a neighborhood."

In January 1973, opportunities for Lewis in the private sector began to unfold.

The telephone company needed a link to the newly elected, predominately black D.C. government. "He was looking for a career change and it was a happy coincidence that we were looking for people with connections to the local government," recalls Ralph Frey, a former vice president of C&P and past president of the Board of Trade. The Lewis who moved into the private sector, recalls the board's executive director John Tydings, had "a high energy level, probably was a little more idealistic and didn't know much about the free enterprise system. But he had a good intuitive feel for how to get things done."

It all worked out, says Frey, because Lewis is "not locked into his thinking ... being a non-Bell System baby, he had a different viewpoint. That's what we were looking for. He reached out on his own and established a procedure where the phone company would have regular input from the grass roots and the advisory neighborhood commissions."

But Lewis says he was cautious as he made his way in the business world. "I'd been involved in the helping kinds of causes," seeing things always from a human perspective. He had come, he says, "into a business world where the focus is on productivity and profit. People are only part of that equation. They are either cut or they're added. It was a new thing for me to get a handle on. I don't think I was as much an adversary as I was a questioner, raising questions of myself and others about what company actions might mean or not mean."

In fact Lewis says he didn't reach a comfort level in the business world until he was named vice president five years ago, and took charge of C&P's operations in the District. Then he was on a par with C&P vice presidents in charge of West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia, and became a member of the company's board of directors. His personal satisfaction with the insider role involved more than titles and trappings. He had to answer, he says, "the internal question of the balance between the objective of business and the objective of other associations."

Part of his feeling of security is based on the company's performance. His office has overlapped with dramatic changes in the telecommunications industry, from the breakup of the Bell System to the advent of computer communications to competition from other phone companies. Five years ago, the local wasn't meeting its net income goals. Now it is. "We came from earning 6 percent on equity to meeting our near authorized rate of return of 15 percent. We have really crossed some hurdles," says Lewis.

Mark Plotkin, a longtime critic of the utilities companies, thinks C&P is smart to have moved Lewis into a prominent role. "With some of the practices they want to stuff down our throats, I understand why they hire someone charming like Del to sell them."

He calls their business relationship one of "good-natured adversaries." Another institutional adversary, Brian Lederer, the former city People's Counsel, which represents consumers with the utility companies, says, "He has given {the phone company} a humanity."

Right now Plotkin worries that Lewis might be starting to believe the corporate lingo. "At a hearing, Mr. Lewis talked about access to 'our' system. I hope he really didn't think that, but he was talking like a believer, not just a good soldier."

Lewis says Plotkin heard him correctly. "I give speeches to our employes, particularly to predominately black groups, and I have said, 'we should stop talking about we and they. We should start talking about our.' "

Lewis also moved C&P into a partnership that bid successfully on the District's long-delayed cable television franchise. No other phone company in the country had formed a cable partnership but Lewis thought it a good -- and potentially highly profitable -- business. "It took some effort," says Lee Satterfield, the company's general counsel. "But at that time, shortly after divestiture, the company was looking for business ventures." Lewis, he remembers, said C&P would have to be involved eventually with any successful bidder, "so we might as well provide the transport system." Eventually C&P joined District Cablevision, headed by an old associate of Lewis', Robert Johnson. That bid won the 15-year contract, many observers believe, because of both the friendships involved and the construction expertise of C&P, which is building and maintaining the lines. So far 193 miles of cable have been laid, though only a fraction of the District's households have received cable service.

There were reports that Lewis exerted political pressure on Barry to win the bids. Charles Tate, the president of the Booker T. Washington Foundation and a competitor for the cable franchise, found no fault with Lewis' role. "Del is such an honorable guy. He saw it as a way to leverage his position at C&P to promote economic development activity," says Tate.

"He is the type of person who doesn't know how to say no. He is a soft touch," says Marcia Ciccarelli, Lewis' special assistant. "Community groups come to us for grants that are not prebudgeted. He will almost always find the dollars to help bring them through the crisis, then go a step further and either involve himself or find someone in the company to work with the organization."

"When he promises something it is like money in the bank," says C. Payne Lucas, the founder of Africare. "He organized a series of breakfast meetings for our fundraiser for the new headquarters, Africa House. He hand-wrote notes to 40 or 50 people. And he raised $100,000. "

But what does Del Lewis want next? In the months ahead, the question about the mayor's race will almost certainly continue to dog him. He expects that. "It reflects a certain amount of interest in a number of people because our political life is still so young and it reflects some dissatisfaction in the present administration," he says. But I keep vehemently denying it."