Mayor Marion Barry asked the D.C. City Council yesterday to approve a three-year contract recently negotiated with the union representing 1,200 city firefighters.

The contract, similar to one negotiated for police officers and ratified by the council, would provide a 6 percent wage increase retroactive to Dec. 1, a 7 percent increase next Oct. 1 and a 7 to 9 percent increase Oct. 1, 1983, based upon the consumer price index at that time.

The contract also provides a new optical and dental plan and selective pay increases for some technicians in the fire department. It applies to all personnel through the rank of captain, who are represented by Local 36 of the International Association of Firefighters.

In announcing that he had sent the pay package to the council, Barry said the city's personnel office had completed wage negotiations involving all union-represented city employes. He also said he was concerned with what he viewed as a lack of progress in negotiations between the school board and the teachers' union.

Council Chairman Arrington Dixon said the council would act on the firefighters' contract next Tuesday, foregoing the 30-day layover period permitted for considering such agreements.

In announcing his candidacy for reelection as county executive of Maryland's Howard County, J. Hugh Nichols came up yesterday with one of the most fearsome political metaphors of the year. The biggest job in his second term, he said, would be "coping with the impact of the withdrawal of the tentacles of . . . federal government activities."

Dealing with federal withdrawal rather than expansion "is a new experience," observed Nichols, a Democrat who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1970 to 1977. He's the only announced candidate for the job.

Another Maryland political note: Matt Wirgau, who was political director of J. Marshall Coleman's failed campaign for governor of Virginia last year, has been hired to manage the campaign of V. Dallas Merrell, a Montgomery County conservative who plans to seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate this year. Two years ago he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent GOP Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr.

A few weeks ago, this newspaper reported renewed efforts by impoverished Scott and Lee counties in southwestern Virginia to levy a 3-cent-a-package tax on cigarettes to pay for needed schools.

"We need desperately to broaden our tax base," Del. Ford Quillen (D-Scott) told fellow legislators.

The effort lost again in the House Finance Committee, the victim of opposition from Virginia's powerful tobacco lobby, which argued that the tax would hurt the state's most valuable cash crop.

Under Virginia law, cities may tax tobacco but counties cannot without legislative approval. The only two counties now empowered to tax tobacco are Fairfax and Arlington.

In a related development, Del. Harry Parrish (R-Manassas) lost in an attempt to permit Prince William County to tax cigarettes. AA petition seeking to be recognized as the union bargaining agent A for 40 teachers at American University has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board by AU's English Language Institute Faculty Association.

The faculty members, who do not have job tenure, teach English to foreign students and to Washington's international community. Myra (Mickey) Shulman, president of the association, said the request to NLRB for a representation election came after university officials failed to respond to requests for better wages, benefits and working conditions. She said most of the 40 teachers support the unionization plan.

The AU faculty is not currently unionized. Milton Greenberg, AU provost, was out of the city yesterday and unavailable for comment.

On a similar subject, the Montgomery County Council of Supporting Services Employes, representing 5,000 nonteaching school employes, ratified a two-year contract recommended by a mediator. The school board followed suit.

The agreement provides a 6 1/2 percent wage increase next July and 5 percent in 1983. Teachers still have not reached a wage agreement.

Garrett County and Cumberland, in western Maryland, are having hard times, as recent news reports have indicated. But the city's largest industry, the Kelly-Springfield Tire Co., said its economic contribution to the region last year reached a record: $87 million, including $70 million in wages.