As a wide-eyed student at the segregated Hertoma High School in Statenville, Ga., John Ray recalled yesterday, he once read a book that mentioned 134th street in New York City."Just closing my eyes and trying to visualize what kind of town could have 134 streets was impossible," Ray said.
The district of Columbia is not quite New York City. But it is a great deal larger than the handful of seasoned turpentine and honey bee hamlets of south central Georgia where Ray, elected Tuesday to an atlarge term on the D.C. City Council, spent half his life.
Ray, a boyish-looking, 35-year-old lawyer with a round, jack-o-lantern face, is still very much a "Joy-ja boy," as Ray supporters DeLores Foster light-heartedly labeled him during a recent fundraiser at Foster's home in the Brightwood section of upper north-west Washington.
But in the minds of many, Ray is among the first of a new breed of Washington Politicians, who blend downhome Southern roots with northern sophictication, youth, professionalism and a less strident-though still noticeable-outcry about racial and economic discrimination.
"I think there is a new generation of political leadership in Washington, truly of the 70s, not activists from the 60s," said Ivanhoe Donaldson, Mayor Marion Barry's general assistant and chief political sage.
"He's stable and steady. He's got a reputation for dealing with black issues, yet he's progressive and interested in integration," Donaldson said of Ray. "He's interested in gambling but he's with the ministers. And he's aggressive on the big issue, housing, that interests liberal groups like the Citywide Housing Coalition."
Ray, who defeated former council member Douglas E. Moore and nine others in Tuesday's special Election, walked nearly a mile between his campaign office at 13th and G Streets NW and a Chinatown restaurant yesterday before anyone recognized him. Never mind that several large "John Ray Works" campaign picture-posters were prominently displayed along the route.
Throughout the campaign, Ray's strategists acknowledged that their candidate was an unknown quantity in District politics. And yesterday, fumbling with his glass as he talked with a reporter, Ray confessed that a political indentity crisis faces him as he awaits inauguration into the office he will hold for the next 19 months.
He is viewed by some in this over-whelmingly black city as the white community's candidate, Ray said, partially because a large portion of his winning vote margin came from white neighborhoods.
"I'd be less than honest if I didn't recognize that as one of my problems," Ray said, "notwithstanding the fact that I may have spent more time in Anacostia than Doug Moore.
"It's important that I show that John Ray really wants to help the less fortunate-that's black, white and Latino. But you know as well as I do that in this city, that means primarily black and Latino."
As a child, John Lamar Ray was among those persons whom some would consider the "less fortunate." Born the out-of-wedlock son of Alberta Ray in rural Tom Creek, Ga., Ray lived with relatives while his mother took a job as an $18-a-week cook in Daytona Beach, Fla., to help put her son through high school. Every two weeks, Ray recalls, she would send him $10.
By the time he graudated from high school in 1961, Ray had become a seasoned politician and a ward heeler of sorts in Echols County, Ga. He was too young-and too black-to vote. But for years, he rode around the county on horseback hanging up campaign signs on pine trees for local politicians and running errands on election day. "The sheriff would always need information." Ray recalled.
Later, whenever moonshiners got in trouble, when people needed jobs, or when hunters got caught illegally killing and skinning alligators, they came to Ray to help. "They always came to John Ray, and I could get things done," he said, smiling as he savored the feel of power. "I had a nickname-it was St. Peter."
But Ray grew tired of being a middleman between good ole boy politicians and their constituents. "When I looked at all of that, it occurred to me, " he said, "that I was a helluva lot brighter than all of those people and I wanted to be a helluva lot more."
Ray came to Washington after a stint in the Air Force. He graduated from George Washington University with a degree in political science and went on to its law school, graduating from there in 1973.
Impressed by Ray's bold approach of simply walking into his office and asking for a job, former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas hired Ray while Ray was still in law school. After graduation, Ray clerked for U.S. Appeals Court Judge Spottswood Robinson and later was a staff lawyer on Capitol Hill and in the Justice Department.
It was Fortas who took Ray under his wing-Ray regularly drove the Fortas's sivler Rolls Royce on trips with friends. "He was sort of like my adopted parent," Ray said. When Ray was married in 1975, the wedding was held in the Fortas home, with Fortas playing the cello. Two years later Ray was divorced. The breakup was due more to differences in upbringing, he said yesterday, than to the fact that he is black and his former wife is white.
While Ray was never a street militant like Barry, who enthusiastically endorsed Ray's candidacy, the new council member shares with Barry the belief that the future of black leader-ship is on the line in the District. That's why he is in politics, Ray said.
"While blacks have a great history, they still have a long way to go in proving what they can do to other sectors of the community," Ray said.
"And there's no better place to do that than here." CAPTION: Picture, JOHN RAY . . . wants to help the less fortunate