Walter Orlinsky, a candidate for governor in a state pock-marked by political corruption, refuses to say that he has been an impeccably honest public servant. He is convinced the voters would not believe him - or anyone else making such a claim.

In Maryland this year - as Blair Lee, Ted Venetoulis, Steny Hoyer, Francis Burch and Harry Hughes campaign to replace convicted Gov. Marvin Mandel by pledging honesty, cleanliness and reform - Baltimore City Council President Orlinsky is saying things that go against the trend.

"As a group, I'm impressed with their ability to be born-again virgins," Orlinsky says of his opponents for the Democratic nomination. "We've all been in this business for a long time, we've done our share, we're not without blemishes."

For his own part, this 39-year-old son of a biblical scholar admits that he fixed parking tickets for his friends and constituents in the 1960s. He concedes, without shame, that every election day he doles out $25 or $30 to dozens of friends and precinct workers who stand outside the polls and hand out sample ballots.

Orlinsky even says that "this year, technically, I've already broken the campaign finance laws" - because he has not, and will not, list on his expenditure reports the "in-kind" contributions of friendly graphic artists caterers, printers, production studio engineers and envelope stuffers.

These concessions come from a man who has always associated himself with the "reform" elements of his party and who says he has been "looked at, checked out, examined by every conceivable source and not found in conflict with my money."

The blemishes, according to Orlinsky, are part of the "real world" of politics. He thinks his opponents operate in that world just as he does.

"They should cut the crap, the posturing," he says. "Given the choice between a record of being good to people and a promise of never lying, most voters would prefer the good to the honest."

From Orlinsky's persective, it is not clubhouse politics and election day "walking-around" money that the public should be concerned about, but rather special interest contributions and massive public relations campaigns.

"Why is it," he asks, "that these guys can raise a half-million or million dollars from business and labor, give it to professional campaign firms to spend on television advertising, and all this is called honorable - but if you hand out money to old ladies on election day, it's considered dirty?"

Such uncommon comments have been an Orlinsky trademark. When urban specialists were redeveloping his and other cities with new housing complexes. Orlinsky argued for the rehabilitation of old houses. When the Maryland House of Delegates was dominated by supporters of the Vietnam war in 1968, Orlinsky infuriated then-House speaker Marvin Mandel and his legislative troops by opposing the war.When Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer and the business and labor leaders of the community pushed the city's subway, Orlinsky said it would be a monumental waste of money.

And now, as campaign financing and ethics become issues of the day, Orlinsky is out there, using his full complement of practical and philosophical knowledge, defying the conventional wisdom.

As a youngster in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, he passed out campaign literature for Harry Truman. From there, he majored in politics in Johns Hopkins University, became an activist in the Northern Student Movement, campaigned for Hubert Humphrey in 1960 and returned to live in Baltimore's old second ward.

There - with the blacks, Jews, Czechs, Poles and Italians: with the Old Men's Bohemian Club and the Young Men's Bohemian Club: the Old Charcoal Club and the Mount Royal Democratic Club: the Kleckas, Hermans, Weisses and Lapideses: the marble-staired row houses and corner taverns - Walter S. Orlinsky developed "a clear sense of place."

He became known as a skilled organiser and facile campaigner - equally adept at the language of the bureaucrats and the language of the streets. He was an ideological liberal who thrived on the style of old-fashioned politics.

Orlinsky displayed this flexibility throughout his political career, which began in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1966.

In Annapolis he was the reformer, pushing tighter air quality standards and a generic drug bill and attempting to break up the highway trust fund.

In Baltimore, he was a guy to go to if your nephew needed a job, your business needed a zoning variance.

Orlinsky says he performed such services without deceiving anyone or breaking the law, except for a brief spell when he fixed parking tickets. "I stopped doing that after a few months and began paying the tickets myself," he recalls. "That nearly broke me, so I stopped doing it at all."

As council president for the last seven years, the burly, mustachioed Orlinsky has won praise for his breadth of knowledge of urban affairs. He has been damned for his ego (It's big enough for five or six people, he admits) and for his opposition to the subway.

"I support mass transit, but I can't support a subway that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. It is a profligate waste." The trade unions, once so supportive, have never forgiven Orlinsky for opposing a project that would put their people to work. "Life-long friends turned away from me," he says. "I got hate mail."

He did not get mail from Schaefer, but it intensified what had become a long and celebrated feud between the two.

Orlinsky, undeterred by the opposition from his one-time friends, started running for governor on Memorial Day 1976 at the annual parade in Sharpsburg in rural western Maryland.

"I was marching in it like I do every year," Orlinsky recalled in a recent interview. "It's a wonderful parade, but at the end there's a very steep hill and it was raining like hell that day. When I got to the top I stopped and said to myself: "Orlinsky, you must be running for governor because there's no other reason you'd be sopping wet in Sharpsburg on Memorial Day."

The steep incline in Sharpsburg was the first of many hills Orlinsky must climb in his race for governor. With the filing deadline nearly three months away, many of his Baltimore colleagues are giving odds that he won't make it that far. They say that one of two things will knock him out of the race - a lack of money or the entrance into the contest of Mayor Schaefer.

Whatever post Orlinsky really is after, he is pursuing it in irrepressible fashion. Over the last two years, often chauffered by his city-paid driver, Leonard Nowicki, Orlinsky has visited almost every cornfield, port, steel plant and radio station in the state. His encyclopedia mind and quick wit have served him well in these ventures.

There was, for instance, the day Orlinsky encountered a proud and provincial newspaper editor on the Eastern Shore.

"Sonny boy, you from Baltimore?" the conversation began.

"Yup."

"Well, we don't like Baltimoreans around here. You know H. L. Mencken?"

"He was a little before my time."

"Whatcha think of the Sunpapers [Baltimore's major newspapers]?"

"As little as possible."

"All right. Come on in and sit for a while."

Orlinsky told the editor what he has been telling all the people who listen to him outside Baltimore City. He narrows his world view down to the state level and says that everything in the state is inter-connected. The hub of Baltimore is the port, he says. And for the port to function the roads in Cecil and Carroll and Dorchester and Allegany counties have to be good enough to carry the vegetables, produce and tobacco to it.

He also tells them that Maryland is going about attracting industries to the state in the right way. "When an industry writes the state and indicates an interest," he says, "we send them a four-page Xerox of the Maryland manual. When that industry writes Virginia, they get a letter from the governor and a packet of every properly-zoned parcel in the state."

"In Maryland," he concludes, "when they talk about new jobs they think of adding a new member of the liquor board."

Orlinsky smiles when he says that and makes another slight confession. He says phrases like that are a planned part of his conversation, intended to bring reporters to life. "The sharp phrase is how I get in the big newspapers or at least about how those newspapers treat his candidacy.

"The press is like a glacier. Once it sets its mind on a course it gives you a place and it's difficult to break out of it no matter what you do."

His place?

"Oblivion."