The last time I had visited the Ebony Inn had been in the spring of 1978. Steny Hoyer was on his way to becoming governor then, or thought he was; and the Democratic officials of Prince George's had been summoned for a gathering in the dance hall of Tommie Broadwater's ribs-and-whiskey joint on Sheriff Road. They stood in rows on the disco stage like the oddest sort of glee club, 30 smiling faces and 60 glad-hands greased by a night's worth of barbecue sauce. The room was quite dark and smoky, with just a few streaks of red-filtered light. The audience, known collectively as Tommie's People, was black. Except for Tommie and Little Nat Exum, state senator and delegate respectively for the county's black district, the pols were white.

One by one, members of the glee club did solo variations on the same theme. They said their political system was under attack. They said various know-nothings in the county were throwing around recklass charges that Hoyer was a machine candidate and that his supporters were nothing more than boss-fearing hacks. The last voice was that of Gladys Spellman, the gentle congresswoman, who said she was tired of people calling her party a machine when all it really was was a junkyard full of old parts.

My, how things have changed.

Come with me now back to the Ebony Inn in the early spring of 1981. Steny Hoyer is on his way to becoming a congressman, or thinks he is, anad the call has gone out for a political reunion at Tommie's place. Steny is up on the disco stage again, surrounded by Democratic officials. But listen to them!

Listen to Debbie Marshall say there are some turncoat colleagues on the county council who are not supporting Steny this year. Listen to Baby Face Wilson name the names of those unloyal finks and conclude his roll-call of disgrace with a vow that "we always remember who our friends are." And listen to Roy Dabney announce with such fervor that the machine is back and, in effect, ready to kick some butts. Steny turns as red as The Stroker's Let's Go Disco emblem upon hearing this last bit of arrogance, and attempts to clear up the matter by declaring the Democratic Party of Prince George's County the party of "inclusion."

Right you are, Steny.

So inclusive is the party these days that Hoyer, who once had dibs on anything he wanted in the county, is now but one of 19 -- count 'em, 19 -- Democratic candidates in the April 7 congressional primary. And the challenges to Hoyer are coming from all over the place; Sue V. Mills from the deep south, Reuben Spellman (husband of the stricken Gladys) from the north, and Ed Conroy and Thomas O'Reilly from, of all places, the Maryland Senate that Steny used to control so deftly.

One need only take a look at this long list of candidates to realize that those who speak of a return to the days of machine politics are deluding themselves. For Hoyer's everfaithful, the Broadwaters and Wilsons and Dabneys, such talk is just wishful thinking. For his opponents it is merely a convenient piece of campaign rhetoric. Reuben Spellman apparently thinks he can capture a few more votes by claiming that Hoyer's candidacy harkens a "new round of bossism and machine politics." Come on, Reuben, what is this? Your wife spent a decade denying the existence of the very machine you claim is up to its old tricks of "backroom deal-making and arm-twisting."

It is true that Hoyer and his long-time brain trust -- composed of Peter O'Malley, Peter O'Malley and Peter O'Malley -- attempted to convince Reuben to drop out of the race. But they failed, obviously. It was one of 18 times they failed, in fact.

There is another curious aspect to the renewed talk of machine politics in Prince George's. Everyone readily concedes that if ever there was a county boss, it was Pistol Pete O'Malley, not Hoyer. It was O'Malley who put the organization together and gathered chits from everyone. Now that O'Malley's back, after three years of self-imposed exile, some of the leaders of the maverick faction of the party say they actually like the guy. Tim Maloney, the whiz-kid legislator who was born bald and 40, says he considers O'Malley to be among the most honest and trustworthy men he's met. "If Pete were running, I'd go for him in a minute," Maloney confided recently. "It's Steny I can't go for."

Who can go for Steny is the essential question of this campaign. Labor likes him, but organized labor in Prince George's has never meant anything but a few extra bucks, and this election will not be won with a few extra bucks. Tommie Broadwater likes him, and that means Tommie's People like him, but Tommie's People vote in record low numbers. Broadwater claims he can deliver 8,000 votes for Hoyer on April 7, a pretty imposing figure, considering the election might be won with between 12,000 and 14,000 votes. But a pretty ridiculous figure, considering that Boradwater himself has never pulled more than 4,000 votes out of his own district.

Perhaps the most pure and simple endorsement of Hoyer came that night at the Ebony Inn, not from another pol or special interest, but from Petey Green, the Washington area's one and only Fast-Talking-Excon-Multimedia-Celebrity. Petey bounded to the disco stage after all the pols had said their due and explained, in his inimitable way, how it was that he came to know and like Steny Hoyer. One never knows, does one, about Petey Green's stories, but there seemed to be some deep truths somewhere in this one.

The way Petey Greene tells it, he was driving through Pee Gee one night a while back and, on his way from here to there, managed to hit five cars, leaving the scene of the crime after all five hits. He knew of no better person to call that bail bondsman and state Senator Tommie Broadwater, so call Tommie is what he did. Tommie told him to head on over to the Ebony Inn and not to worry. Once there, Tommie took him into his backroom and placed a call to the best lawyer in the county, Steny Hoyer, who took the case.

"Now," said Petey Greene, "Steny's my friend, my lawyer, and I owe him $5,000 in cash. Maybe if I keep talking, I can get it down to zero."