Nothing much happened during Burtell M. Jefferson's three-year tenure as chief of police. No 1968-style riot, no Resurrection City encampment, no massive May Day antiwar protest, no Hanafi Muslim takeover. The best the city could muster in the way of widespread disruption was the farmers' tractorcade, which had more effect on traffic patterns and landscaping than on the social fabric.
But to many Washingtonians, and especially to the large number of police officers in and around the city, Jefferson's reign itself was an event. He was the city's first black police chief and as such became a symbol to black police officers, even the many who scoffed at Jefferson's high-handed manner and his rigid insistence on the formal way of doing things.
So at Jefferson's retirement dinner last Friday night, it seemed to be with genuine warmth that members of the property division of the department presented the honored guest with one of his ceremonial innovations -- an officer's cap laden with the gold-braid "scrambled eggs" that Jefferson loved to wear.
As the long evening wore on, what seemed like half the department trooped to the microphone in the aptly chosen Jefferson Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel to deliver accolades and going-away gifts: citations, poetry, works of art and enough plaques to shingle a good-sized roof. It was Deputy Chief Isaac Fulwood, one of Jefferson's best friends in the department and the organizer of the banquet, who presented Jefferson with the final gift -- a silver service revolver.
Jefferson is remembered as the chief who brought other black officers along in the department, a native Washingtonian who maintained his ties to the community and never embarrassed anybody. These are the strengths he is likely to lean on if he is serious about the hint he dropped near the end of the banquet that he is thinking about running for mayor.
Without naming anyone, Jefferson said he has been approached by a number of local businessmen and politicians about seeking the mayor's office in 1982. Afterward he declined to comment further, leaving even some close friends dumbfounded.
"He told me once before that some people had approached him about going into politics," said one. "At that time he was just thinking about it. It was kind of surprised. I thought at first that maybe he was just trying to pull the mayor's leg a little."
But Mayor Marion Barry already had left the banquet when Jefferson dropped the big hint. A few minutes earlier, Barry had delivered a good-natured appreciation of the outgoing chief, trying to debunk reports of friction between the two men. "I can't think of any major disagreements we had," Barry said, adding that he knew Jefferson would remain an active member of the community. Presumably, he didn't know how active.
If he is serious, Jefferson's logical constituency would be the city's settled, churchgoing, middle-class residents who could feel kinship with a man who always kept an open Bible on his desk, who belongs to a Masonic order and whose bearing suggests tradition and order, as opposed to Barry's flashier image. These voters, concentrated in Northeast Washington, went for former mayor Walter E. Washington last time and are widely believed to be the key to the 1982 race.
One of Washington's old ward chairmen said Monday that a number of Washington's former supporters held meetings over the weekend to discuss the notion of a Jefferson candidacy, and came away encouraged.
"I think he's an attractive candidate to a lot of Walter Washington's people," said the supporter of the former mayor. "And he can keep a lot of support from the business community."
The main drawback to a Jefferson-for-Mayor effort would be the same as the main attribute: Jefferson himself. With his 1950s looks -- tiny moustache, hair disciplined with pomade, cuffs that often end at the ankle -- he hardly exudes the Madison Avenue polish that candidates seek these days. And it is difficult to imagine Jefferson, who has always had as little to do with the press as possible, making the necessary public relations effort.
But meanwhile, the prospect of a Jefferson candidacy suddenly has become a major topic of conversation -- especially at events like the wedding last Saturday of City Council Member John L. Ray (D-At Large), another prospective candidate for Barry's job.
"You'd better believe people were talking about it," said wedding gust Joseph Carter, alternate Democratic national committeeman and a longtime local political activist. "I talked to a couple of people and they said they couldn't even get out of their seats after that bombshell."