Emily Y. Washington, the self-proclaimed "people's candidate" for City Council in Ward 7, was enthusiastically applauded recently when she told the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club: "If it's going to take money to get me elected, then maybe I won't win. But I don't want to go to the council with an albatross around my neck."

The way things are going, she has little money and she probably won't go to the council, in the view of many Ward 7 political watchers who expect her to finish a distant third in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary.

Populist campaigns such as Washington's have fallen on hard times in the District's short history of elective politics, as the self-styled "people's candidates" -- all running under the "unbought and unbossed" label -- have lost to mainline establishment candidates.

Like Washington, all of the city's populist politicians generally have been plagued by an inability to develop large organizations, a lack of money to mount a formidable campaign and the absence of any visible groundswell of support from the "people" they say they want to "save."

Council member John Ray, who began as a poor man's politician and had to join the establishment before being elected, said, "You can run a populist campaign if you have the right kind of personality and some money. You need a personality that doesn't turn off a lot of people. Emily seems to have the right personality, but she doesn't have any money."

But Washington, a 36-year-old former English teacher at Ballou High School says she is undeterred.

"All of our leaders have been bought off," she said, "So consequently there is no spokesperson for the downtrodden. People say you have to be aligned with an organization to win.

"There are two kinds of power -- people power and money power. Chiang Kai-shek had the money and Mao Tse-tung had the people, and Mao won, didn't he?"

Unlike Mao, she does not have the people. Washington has so far been unable to catch up with the two persons considered front-runners in the race to succeed retiring council member Willie J. Hardy -- realtor H.R. Crawford and Capitol Hill aide Johnny Barnes. But, in her view, the cause endures.

"If I don't win," Washington told a reporter the other day, "I'll probably end up leading the recall fight."

Successful District politicians the past six years have generally developed along the same, middle-of-the road lines. Most enjoy significant support from at least one of the major constituencies of the city's political establishment -- business, labor, churches or professionals.

Only one of the five council incumbents up for renomination in the Sept. 9 primaries faces serious opposition, and there are virtually no major ward or citywide issues dividing the candidates in most contests.

Among the handful of populist candidates who have tried to follow the example of the late Julius W. Hobson Sr., who was elected to the council in 1974, former School Superintendent Barbara A. Sizemore came closest to success.

She narrowly lost a 1977 special election to succeed Hobson when he died to Hilda Mason of the Statehood Party. Douglas E. Moore, who was elected to an at-large seat on the council in 1974, ran against the establishment for the chairmanship in 1978 and was soundly defeated. Moore also lost a comeback bid a year later.

Ray's nonconformist campaign for the 1978 Democratic mayor nomination never made it to election day.

Like her predecessors, Washington is finding many who welcome her voice but will not give her their vote because they believe she has little chance of winning.

For instance, despite her emotional and well-received pitch to the Stein Club, the city's major gay rights organization, the group voted to endorse Crawford, because they thought he could win, club president Steven Brown said.

And when the Greater Washington Central Labor Council was interviewing candidates for its endorsements, Washington was not invited. They did not consider her a serious candidate, spokesman Joslyn Williams said.

"That's my plight -- that's my stigma -- nobody thinks I can win," Washington said. "But I'm not going to cater to any so-called ward bosses or power brokers."

So Emily Washington has campaigned virtually alone, surrounded by a handful of loyal supporters, all unpaid and some unemployed. She has styled her candidacy as a crusade for the ward's poor and downtrodden -- her slogan on buttons and leaflets reads: "Save Ward 7" -- and she accuses both her Democratic primary opponents of having "sold out" to special interests.

"A vote for Emily Y. Washington is a vote for honesty, sincerity and integrity," she recently told a forum in Southeast. "And a vote for me is a vote against sinister organized political effort. A vote for me is a vote against narrow, selfish business interests."

At bus stops in the early morning, at public forums and walking through public housing complexes in the ward's northeast end, Washington also attempts to capitalize on widespread misgivings about Crawford and Barnes. She portrays herself as an alternative third candidate.

Washington said she must also shake the impression that she is playing out of her league. "There are those who feel that my knowledge of government is limited," she said. "But I am not politically naive."

She said she took enough political science courses at Howard University to qualify for a bachelor's degree in it. She learned her practical politics in the streets, she said, marching with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and lying down in the street to block traffic as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE).

At Ballou High School in Anacostia, where she taught English and organized a humanities curriculum, Washington said she learned something about bucking the established structures. She said she took on the school administration when she fought for the appointment of a reformist principal and when she organized a group of teachers to protest alleged C.I.A. recruiting at Ballou.

Washington ran unsuccessfully for the school board seat from Ward 7 last year, but won 35 percent of the vote.