It was anything but an ordinary day for Carol Belita Thompson. Late one afternoon, some restaurant inspectors called to alert her to a "political" problem.

They had found health code violations at J.J. Mellons, the mayor's favorite dining spot, and a preferred lunchroom for many powers in the District Building. It was, they announced, going to be impossible to close.

"I said, 'Okay, let's go through the report,' " said Thompson, who was then the city's chief licensing official. And as she methodically reconstructs how methodical she was that afternoon, she starts to laugh at what became a funny incident, a tiny slice of the absurdity of turf and clout.

"I started getting calls from {city department} directors and other people and they basically took the position that my staff didn't know what they were doing, that they had gone too far," says Thompson. Her sigh is half amusement at the remembered heat of the battle and half resignation at having had once again to prove herself.

"At that point the mayor hadn't called. When I called {him} to indicate we were about to take an action, he asked all the right questions, but he kept saying, 'Do you really have to close it?' He got a lot of pressure. The staff in the department took bets I would not be successful. But we closed it."

Nowadays, Marion Barry uses the story as an object lesson on Carol the Independent, Carol the Loyal and Carol the Brave, citing Thompson's tenacious support of District employees in the performance of their often thankless tasks.

She has been, in addition to the director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, where she headed the licensing department, his chief of staff and his deputy mayor for economic development. Now, after nine years in local government, she's moved up to city administrator, the $77,500-a-year, lightning-rod post that rules the District's day-to-day operations. There is no higher nonelective position in the District government.

The mayor badly needed someone like Thompson, a 36-year-old second-generation Washingtonian and Smith College graduate, in a more prominent position. As Barry bunkers down in his ninth year, the District Building is hampered by sagging morale, staff problems and continued tensions and distractions from ongoing investigations into official misbehavior. A mutual friend of Barry and Thompson who recommended her for the city administrator post says, "I told the mayor she was scrupulously honest, and he needed someone honest." Barry says he selected her because "she is always thinking ahead and she is a very detailed person."

Still her credibility with a range of constituencies makes her promotion seem a smart political move for Barry as well. "She is a ray of sunshine. She is personally secure, she knows the government system, she knows how to make it work," says John R. Tydings, executive vice president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

"She has a good sense of how things should function," says Betty Ann Kane, a city council member frequently at odds with the Barry administration. "She has a tendency to look at {a problem} from what needs to be done rather than what would make her look good."

What she needs now more than anything, says Thompson, is flexibility. She is the first stop on the mayor's firing line. "As deputy mayor I pretty much called up and said I wanted to be on the mayor's schedule," she says. "Now it's, 'Carol, so and so happened, get on it. Move it.' And then he calls back in 20 minutes and says, 'Well, what did you do? We are still waiting. Hurry up! Hurry up!' "

Thompson is not the sort of person who leaves a lot to chance. She's thought a lot about her career and what it means to be a professional public servant. She has lived and learned the mundane, quirky, endless and fundamental tasks of a bureaucrat, including dealing with jobs nobody else wanted and issues that at first she knew nothing about.

In her first week in her new job, the mayor dumped in her lap the explosive issue of the District's ambulance service, which has been criticized for poor service and linked -- if not officially, then certainly in the public mind -- with nine deaths in the past two years.

"My baptism of fire," says Thompson, dryly.

But far from her first. In August 1986, after The Washington Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request, Barry assigned her to review his expense records. "My books weren't in order," Barry remembers. "I told her to look into it, so we could answer all this. She came back and said things are really a mess. That is one of her favorite words."

Thompson's review disclosed that nearly one-third of Barry's expenses during the previous four years had been paid with funds intended for use by other city officials. She then led a broader inquiry into the fund, which included disclosures that an aide had paid part of a fur coat bill for the mayor's wife.

A benchmark in her career was the creation in 1983 of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs through the merger of four existing agencies and the abolishment of four others. When originally assigned to one of the predecessor agencies, she says, "they didn't even tell me there was a reorganization proposal ... They told me I would be there six weeks."

She discovered, she says, that not only was she in charge of the reorganization but also "no one could really tell me how you do a reorganization. I thought there must be a chapter in the personnel rules, something you go to. No such luck."

Thompson, whom a close friend describes as so organized she even lines up the hairpins in her bureau, found her institutional memory in Joseph Yeldell, the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. He is now a Thompson staff assistant.

Her energy level is legendary. Donald G. Murray, now director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, remembers undergoing a job interview with Thompson that lasted three hours. "I was worn out," he remembers. "It was a real give-and-take, but it was fun." Robert Gladstone, president of Quadrangle Development Corp., remembers a recent meeting in which "we were talking about the Pershing Park ice skating rink. And Carol started talking about how she was in her office at 11 p.m. one night and heard this music and looked out the window and saw what an active scene this was. She didn't act like that was unusual."

Even out of the office, friends say, she can be intense. "She is an extremely good listener and by the time you finish a conversation, she will have dissected it," says Dana Stebbins, a Washington attorney. "Even over lunch if she asks you what you think she expects the same level of study and analysis."

The Family

Thompson comes from a special segment of Washington's black Old Guard. While the prominent alumni of Howard University had degrees and a measure of fame, families like the Thompsons had a different kind of advantage and education: a front-row seat at the workings of the white power structure.

Leon Thompson, Carol Thompson's grandfather, is believed to have been the first black man to have a desk job at the White House. He worked for Herbert Hoover and kept the presidential gift inventory. His wife Agnes was Mrs. Hoover's personal maid and seamstress. The couple also worked at the Alibi Club for generations of white movers and shakers, as did Thompson's maternal grandparents. Alexander Thompson, Thompson's father, grew up around Park Road, graduated from Dunbar High School and worked for a succession of prominent Washington families, including the Glovers of Riggs National Bank. He was a butler for the Eisenhowers, a chauffeur for former Smithsonian secretary Leonard Carmichael. He continued his father's catering business for a time and nine years ago started an insurance company. The Thompson family "received a great deal of exposure from people like the Glovers," remembers Alexander Thompson. "We learned about business."

Thompson herself grew up on a quiet residential street off Georgia Avenue in the Petworth neighborhood. She went to the family's church, Asbury United Methodist, attended Barnard Elementary, Backus Junior High and Roosevelt Senior High (her counselor was former school superintendent Floretta McKenzie), and for years took classes at Jones-Haywood School of Ballet. "I learned a lot about self-discipline through that experience," says Thompson.

As a youngster she organized the family's holiday entertainment, assigned her five siblings poems to read and songs to sing. "In the summertime we played school down in our basement and Carol was always the teacher, keeping us in line," says her sister Deborah Turner, a music teacher. Her ability to get things done extends to making Easter baskets for her 5-year-old goddaughter, arranging family outings and cooking meals for her staff. When Turner was battling myasthenia gravis, a neurological disease, Thompson would take her to the hospital, shop for her groceries and drive her to listen to her school's band concerts. "She was always there when I needed her," says Turner, who describes herself as Thompson's link to the family, the one who can pull Thompson mentally and physically from the obsessive demands of her public life. Recently the women in the family got together to celebrate the birthday of a 4-year-old niece. "We did our nails, had a pillow fight and talked about the soaps," says Turner.

Thompson's first career goal was to join the foreign service. "I always believed in the ideals of American society. It sounds kind of hokey, but I've always done that. I saw myself wanting to espouse the ideals of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence -- beyond America," she says.

But at Smith College in 1969 she found herself patronized over and over again, as "one of the best black students." The contradictions within American society "forced me to deal with who I was, what I believed in and what I wanted my future to be. {I asked} why should I be going to a foreign country, talking about America, when I need to be dealing with it locally and trying to {realize} the opportunities I thought were natural for me" and other blacks.

Even though she had been prepared with what the best of black Washington had to offer, she realized some painful shortcomings at Smith. In her first class in French -- her favorite subject since elementary school -- the teacher asked how many students had visited France. Thompson, the only black student, was the only one who didn't raise her hand. She worked hard that semester, but only got a C.

Other experiences helped awaken her to the world outside her protected home environment. At the University of Massachusetts near Smith, she heard civil rights activists talk about their experiences in the South, and in the summer of 1971 she helped organize students to work on voter registration in Mississippi. Her family was apprehensive.

"They used our house as a midpoint and they slept on the floor and we fed about 70 people," remembers Alexander Thompson. "But we were nervous about their safety. There they were with their license tags from New York, Washington, Massachusetts and Connecticut and I knew good and well it was like waving a red flag down there." When they did have some trouble in Madison County, Mississippi, her mother recalls, Thompson organized shifts of people to sit at the jail and monitor what was happening to the residents and students. She also kept a promise to return to the county on Election Day. "One of the things people would say to me," Thompson remembers, "is, 'Well, I believe what you believe but you are going back North and I've got to live here. If you don't come back and take us to the polls, then we aren't going to go.' "

That experience also strengthened her commitment to local politics. The next summer she worked as an intern for then Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.), then for two summers for Lacy Streeter at the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency. When Thompson joined the agency, it was working to build a bond between the city government and the neighborhood in the 14th Street riot corridor. Streeter, who later worked for Thompson, remembers, "My initial impression was she was quite young ... {and} might seem out of place in an area that was fairly rough. After interviewing her for two hours I changed my mind. It was very clear she had some thoughts herself about what she wanted to do, and she didn't hesitate to express them."

After Smith, Thompson earned her master's in public administration at New York University, finishing four months early to get a jump on the tight job market. She ended up working for then Rep. Gilbert Gude (R-Md.), then moved to a six-month stint at the Urban Institute before landing at the city's housing department.

One word Thompson uses a lot is pride. One of her goals, she says, is to instill genuine pride in government employees. But she uses the word most strongly when she talks about how she worked to get her family church preserved as a historic landmark. "Looking at the pressures downtown, I thought it was important to maintain that church downtown," she says. "We celebrated the 150th anniversary in 1986 on that site." Her father was an altar boy there; she is a lay minister, active in the women's club and a director of Asbury Dwellings, a senior citizens complex run by the church. When she tried to resign from the church's board last year, the other members wouldn't let her.

At a church program last fall Thompson talked to her "fellow Asburyans" about "Living as Disciples in Our Work Places," and how her career was linked to the Gospel she had learned as a child. When she was appointed to the old Department of Licenses, Investigations and Inspections, "I was all of 29 years of age, female, brave, brassy, but with minimal management experience and scared," Thompson told the congregation. She found her strength, she said, in Psalm 26: "Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart."

Public Service

Her telephone console keeps lighting up. There's a District of Columbia flag in a cup, a thick message pad, a fistful of pencils and pens and an ever-ready coffee cup with "Carol" written in a potter's scrawl.

Thompson is saying public service is a blend of tasks and philosophy. And she made sure everyone in Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which she ran for five years, learned what she meant.

When she finished the agency's reorganization, Thompson made copies of Thomas J. Peters' book "In Search of Excellence" available to the 1,000 employees of the agency and had employees watch the film based on that study of American corporations.

"Then we sat down to develop a strategy" of excellence, remembers Valerie Lemmie, now deputy director of the agency. "She wanted to know how we felt individually, how we felt as a component of the government ... And people got excited because it was the first time line staff people had been asked to be involved in the department's decision."

To institutionalize the philosophy, the employees started wearing name tags that read "Excellence starts with ..." and chose a motto, "People Working With People for People." They adopted one of the employees' suggestions for a "value system" based on sincerity, efficiency, responsiveness, vision, integrity, concern, execution and sensitivity. Thompson "pushed to have the standards percolate from the troops upward," says Michael Fonseca, an attorney who is now chief of the department's alcohol and beverage control division.

Now, Thompson says, stressing that crisis cannot overshadow process, one of her goals as city administrator is to take some of the efforts of corporations such as Xerox in the area of behavioral management and adapt them to the city government.

In 1981, as the city's historic preservation officer, Thompson got into a highly publicized squabble with the Georgetown preservation groups. The Citizens Association of Georgetown had sued the city to stop any development of the K Street waterfront. "She ran a long hearing. Our criticism was that she had no background in historic preservation. She was a political appointee shoved into a job to take the flak for the mayor," says Donald Shannon, a past president of the Georgetown group. She said the Georgetown waterfront could be developed with commercial and residential buildings.

However, even when she was disagreeing with them, the preservationists gave her good reviews. During the long, heated and frequently boisterous hearings on the fate of Rhodes Tavern, Lelia Smith, executive director of the Cultural Alliance and a president of the old Don't Tear It Down preservation group, recalls, "she was impassive, noncommittal. She ran the meetings in a very straightforward manner. She has the gift of seeming to listen to people who are rambling."

Generally praised was the department's creation of the One-Stop Business Center, where business people could get permits and licenses without going from building to building. It reduced the processing time for permits by as much as six months.

For Thompson, the center served two purposes. For the administration, she says, it showed "we were probusiness." For Thompson, it was an example of one of her public service goals: "It ties process to themes."

Women and the Government

Despite her philosophical approach to government and her reputation as a fixer, Thompson has had to fight her share of mistaken expectations and assumptions. The people across the table at times didn't know what to expect from this soft-looking, red-headed young woman.

"She is a very hard-nosed, nuts-and-bolts person. She will disarm people because they will go in and have one set of perceptions and then she zings them with her knowledge and strong personality," says Audrey Rowe, the city's commissioner of social services.

She and the other female appointees of the Barry administration occasionally get together to strategize over brunch. Maudine Cooper, the director of the Office of Human Rights, calls these sessions "warm fuzzies." Thompson, the highest-ranking female official in the D.C. government, is the youngest member of the group and has the group's respect "because of the way she carries herself," says Cooper.

However, it took Thompson some time to equate personal image with public image. Lucenia Dunn, the public information officer at the consumer agency, says she had to push Thompson to pay attention to her personal appearance. "There are women who shop every day, look into the mirror all the time. Not Carol. But once she saw the connection between image and power, she corrected it."

In a speech last fall to celebrate Women in D.C. Government Week, Thompson told her audience: "You know how they say behind every success story there is plenty of dues-paying? I am here to attest to this. Always try to avoid the traps that make women vulnerable to failure. I try to remember that anger is useless. Humor moves mountains. Listening is giving. Speaking is learning. Honesty is magic. "

She didn't avoid the explosive issue of sexual harassment. "Outside of being prepared through education and experience, competence and attitude, one's behavior relative to men continues to be a very important key to a woman's success or nonsuccess. Even by today's standards, a woman, no matter how much she thinks she can handle it, is very vulnerable to judgment based upon who she sleeps with as opposed to her ability to do the job," said Thompson. "... In our naivete', we become prime targets for unscrupulous manipulators interested not in our minds, but in our behinds."

When she finished, the applause was electrifying, according to men and women present. The mayor, who was scheduled to follow Thompson, marveled at how quickly she prepared the speech. "I had talked to her the night before and she hadn't written it. She told me she finished it at 4 or 5 a.m.," says Barry. He was so impressed he wrote her a note later praising her for being "bold and bad."

Thompson says being a single woman professionally has meant principally that people thought "I was available to do more work." She told her staff dating had even become a public issue. "In the environment of today in the D.C. government, I spend most of my time at work. If I find a husband, I will find him at a meeting. Now I would be scared I will be charged with conflict of interest for having met someone on my job," she says. The genuine complexities of male-female tensions in today's work place have not stopped ribbing from her family and her staff. After one of her job promotions, according to Thompson, "My father says, 'Do I have to write your re'sume' to get you a husband?' I was so mad." Her legendary independence, however, has given her unique credibility. The mayor listens to her, say people who have been in meetings with them both. "She is very direct with him. She tends to say what is on her mind whether it is what he wants to hear or not," says Kwasi Holman, a former city official who is now a vice president at the National Bank of Washington.

In turn, Thompson wants to change the widely held view that the District government is inefficient: "The mayor clearly is competent, committed and he has compassion ... You see the response of this government in the delivery of services and development of programs. I don't think the overall public senses that about us. If there is a challenge, it's that ..."

At one public meeting, says attorney Dana Stebbins, "The mayor got a lot of criticism and people said, 'Don't take offense, but the District government stinks.' She never got mad, but took notes and at the end she answered questions. She could have gone bananas but she was very forceful."

To get through crises and hard decisions, Thompson says, she remembers the old bromide "a quitter never wins and a winner never quits," and takes comfort in the words of her mother. "She always says, 'Have you thought about what you did? Have you thought about what you are going to do? Do you feel comfortable with it and are you going to be fair to people in doing it?' " says Thompson. "Sometimes I tell my parents, 'Maybe I'm crazy to want to be the city administrator, but you never told me I couldn't do anything. So why should I believe now I can't be a good city administrator?' "