Weary and disillusioned, Martha Black packed her bags as Dumfries mayor and walked away from politics this year. The pain of two slipped discs troubled her, but not nearly as much as a council "fond of wearing white hats" and a mayorial job that seemed tailor-made for a "whipping person."

Discouraged Purcellville Mayor Edward Nestor, tired of citizens who never showed up at town council meetings except to complain, also called it quits in politics this year. Nowadays the people "just sit back and let things go after they elect you," Nestor said.

Out in the heartland of Northern Virginia, hardly anybody wants to be mayor this election year. Of 16 small towns and cities with mayoral races, 11 will see no contest in the May 4 municipal elections.

Even in communities such as Fairfax City, Leesburg and Herndon, where an array of mayoral candidates is running, this election seems more a contest among personalities than a clash over issues. No reform-minded mayor-council tickets have emerged, few campaign posters have gone up along roadsides and meet-the-candidates nights have been about as exciting as a U.N. debate.

"With today's economy, people have higher priorities on their minds--like just keeping their heads above water," said Round Hill's two-term incumbent Mayor Jeffrey Wolford, 40, a private surveyor who is unopposed in this election. "It's not that people don't care about elections, they just don't have time. I think people say to themselves, 'If everything is going along with the current administration, why change?' "

The job of a small-town mayor demands a handyman type of politician. A mayor must be ready to chase a runaway cow, unclog a kitchen sink, replace a fallen cake, douse an illegal trash fire or referee a neighborhood spat without a second thought. A rare few find pleasure in such chores, but to others the job is simply a pain in the neck.

"God knows that being mayor is one job a perfectionist doesn't belong in," said Dumfries Mayor Black, 51, a former office manager. "Ours is a town of 3,000 without a town manager, so the mayor of Dumfries is also the town manager. That means working eight hours a day down there, checking all the correspondence and even being in charge of the police department. All for $200 a month."

When Black decided to step down, councilman Olney A. (Butch) Brawner tossed his hat in the ring. Said Brawner, 36, a car wash owner and the only mayoral candidate, "The work might take 20 hours a week or it might take 50 hours a week. I'll just have to wait and see how time-consuming it is, once I get in. I want to do it for the town, not the pay."

Any hour of any day the mayor is on call, but that hasn't seemed to bother Manassas' unopposed incumbent Edgar E. Rohr, 65, who served on the council 24 years before becoming mayor last October. When electrical power went out in Manassas recently and a woman called Rohr to say, "Mayor, you owe me half a cake," the good-humored Rohr bought a cake and gave her half of it.

An old-time politician and collector of antique automobiles, Rohr spends most days tending his 5-cent to $1 Store in Manassas, where he makes it a point to stock penny candy and Blue Waltz perfume.

Shortly after Byron Farwell moved to Hillsboro eight years ago, a pipe broke in his kitchen sink. "Where can we find a plumber?" he asked his next-door neighbor. "Get the mayor. . . . What are mayors for, anyway?" the neighbor said. Sure enough, then-Mayor Alfred Fleming soon appeared with a wrench in hand.

"People elect you not to represent them so much as to be there when they need help," said Farwell, 60, who is now mayor of Hillsboro and unopposed for reelection. "When one of the neighbors' cows gets out on the road, I am out there playing cowboy on Route 9. I jumped one guy's cables last winter and he leaned out of the car window and said, 'Glad to see you doing your job.' "

"This is the kind of direct democracy where, if you want help or want to complain, you are not dealing with a faceless bureaucrat," said Farwell, a respected history writer who has doubled as Hillsboro mayor for five years. "If you accept public office, you accept responsibility for all this. You get a lot of harassment from bureaucrats, but in a way it is fun being mayor."

What makes this one-to-one democracy possible in Hillsboro is the town's size: 115 men, women and children call Hillsboro home. The streets are unnamed and the houses unnumbered. Hillsboro residents pay no taxes to the town, just $2 a month for water and $1 a month for trash collection.

In smaller towns such as Hillsboro, where one or two votes can swing an election, the threat of a write-in campaign is always present, even for unopposed incumbents. That's how Muriel Gilbertson, now mayor of Haymarket, landed on the City Council eight years ago.

"I didn't even know there was an election that day back in '74, and someone called and said, 'Muriel, you hit the jackpot.' I thought I got elected to the women's club," Gilbertson, 77, recalled. " 'No,' she says, 'You got on the council.' I was a write-in for council and I wasn't even registered to vote. Somebody called the attorney general and he said all I had to do was register before the first town meeting."

By the next election, Gilbertson was running for mayor--even though, she says, "I never had any intention of getting into politics" in Haymarket, population 288.

"I came in here a total stranger and didn't fear pressure from anyone," said Gilbertson, who's been mayor for seven years and is running unopposed this year. "I discovered there were an awful lot of things that needed to be done once I got in office. I found people were drinking polluted water, and I got a survey of the town because nobody knew where it began and ended. I want to finish up the job so I'm running again, but there are a lot of things I would like to do before I turn up my toes."

In the political theater of contested local elections, there is a recurring cast of characters--such as former Fairfax City mayor John Russell and former Occoquan mayor Charles E. Pugh, who reappeared on the stage this year. They have added a touch of drama to otherwise dull campaigns in Fairfax City and Occoquan, by directly attacking the leadership abilities of their opponents, incumbents Frederick Silverthorne in Fairfax City and Donald C. Lynn in Occoquan. Silverthorne and Lynn counter that their opponents are throwing empty punches.

"Every week there are headlines about how fouled up Fairfax City has become. . . . The treasurer's office was a mess; the city manager was forced out," said Russell, 58, a retired Defense Intelligence Agency planner who was Fairfax City mayor for two terms until he chose not to seek reelection in 1974. "It's downright embarrassing. Real sad. I want to restore efficiency and stop all this confusion under the Silverthorne regime."

But two-term Mayor Silverthorne, 63, a committee executive for the National Security Industrial Association, countered, "Mr. Russell is attacking my leadership and avoiding the issues. The big issues are keeping the taxes down and solving the traffic problem. We have brought city taxes down to among the lowest in the area, and we are working on solving the traffic problem so we won't have trouble in the late 1980s and 1990s."

In Occoquan, two old political rivals, Mayor Lynn and former mayor Pugh, are squaring off this election. The sometimes-bitter campaign has divided the town, convincing some observers that there will be a good turnout at the polls May 4.

"There is so much turmoil this election," said one-term incumbent Lynn, 49, a self-employed electrician. "There is just a lot of plain old bitterness in the campaign. It is just a difference of personalities, not issues, as far as Mr. Pugh and I are concerned. And a couple of council members are angry 'cause they want to run the town their own way instead of following the rules and regulations."

Pugh sees the race as a clash of leadership styles, however. He defeated Lynn once before, in 1978, and temporarily dropped out of politics two years ago.

"I generally just don't like the way he is running this town," said Pugh, 50, who is assistant manager of a Giant grocery. "He is spending money the town can't afford on things like tractors to mow the grass. He keeps the council in the dark all the time. He hasn't made any effort to unify the council, the merchants' association and Historic Occoquan. Everything is drifting."

In some towns the strained relationship is between the mayor and the council--a situation especially intense in Quantico, where Mayor T. A. Giannopoulos has gained a reputation as a political whirlwind stirring up resentment among some council members.

"All the council wants me to do is carry out its orders--but what if they are illegal?" said Giannopoulos, 50, who owns an appliance store and is bowing out of politics after three years as mayor. "I am controversial because I always point out when the council is doing something wrong against the citizens of Quantico. I can't work with the council so I am not running. But I understand there will be a write-in effort by some citizens to get my name on the ballot."

The tension between Giannopoulos and some council members started two years ago when he charged that it would be conflict of interest for the council to appoint a councilman's wife town clerk. Giannopoulos said he refused to "carry out illegal orders" and appealed to the state attorney general, who ruled that the woman could not serve as town clerk.

"Then it really got bad," Giannopoulos said. "I asked for an audit of town records in 1979 because we had never been audited since the beginning of the town in 1934." The councilman whose wife had been barred from the town clerk's job was serving as treasurer at the time, he said, "and that created a lot of hard feelings. Now his wife is the treasurer."

In this election the only declared candidate for mayor of Quantico is Lively C. Abel, 57, retired manager of the Quantico base post office. He opposed Giannopoulos in the last election and lost by one vote.

"There has been a lot of friction between the mayor and the council," Abel said. "The council passes the laws and the mayor is supposed to see them through. He (the mayor) doesn't have the authority to push things forward because the council votes the money. All I want is a little harmony between the mayor and the council."

In Leesburg, the mayoral race is so gentlemanly that it's unusual. Three candidates--incumbent G. Dewey Hill Jr., Charles A. Bos and Robert E. Sevila--are vying for the post.

All three agree that Leesburg's recent move to annex 15.4 acres of Loudoun County has sparked interest in the political management of the town, yet all three also support the annexation effort, an issue that might have been the focal point of the campaign.

"I've been too doggone busy taking care of town business to do much campaigning so far," said incumbent Mayor Hill, 61, an insurance agency owner who has been mayor for two unconsecutive terms. "Possibly the other folks running felt they could bring a fresh face on the scene, but so far there are no issues."

Said Bos, 41, owner of a foreign car repair shop and a one-term Leesburg Town Council member: "Mr. Hill and I served together and have many similar attitudes. I am running mostly because I feel that as mayor, some of the things I believe strongly in would be easier to press forward than as a council member."

In this race, Leesburg lawyer Sevila, 38, a former Justice Department attorney, is considered the underdog against two established politicians. But, said Sevila, "I know my opponents and I like them personally and respect both of them. I want to be mayor because the town is going to feel a lot of pressure to grow in a lot of different ways with this annexation project. I just want to make sure downtown Leesburg's character is preserved and taxes are held down when our services are strained by the annexation ."

For the first time in 11 years, Herndon has a contest for mayor. Three candidates are after the job: three-term incumbent Mayor Thomas D. Rust, 11-year council member Haley M. Smith and businessman Jack E. Guth.

"All this competition for the office indicates a maturing of the community," said Rust, 40, a civil engineer. "The biggest issue is who can provide the best leadership for the town, and I think I'm that person. I want to ensure the completion of projects I have started and ensure that we continue to get our share of federal, state and county funds."

Councilman Smith, 65, a semi-retired carpenter, said he's "the old type who will fight for anybody, and I am not afraid to say what I think.

"Being mayor is the ultimate; it's as far as I want to go before the end of my life."

Some observers are calling Guth the spoiler in the three-way race. But Guth, 54, a retired Navy captain who owns a surveying and engineering company, said he wants "to change the philosophy of government in Herndon to one of action, not reaction. I want to promote Dulles Airport and provide housing for the elderly. . . . I honestly believe the town needs me."

In Clifton, it's a two-way race for mayor this time around. After three terms, Mynor McIntyre, 68, decided to step down this year because, he said, he "didn't want to start a dynasty or something." That cleared the way for two councilmen, Robert F. Lindholm and Wayne H. Nickum, to go after the seat.

"As far as I am concerned, this race is a personality type of thing," said third-term councilman Nickum, 38, an IRS agent. "Lindholm has the style and I have the experience. He is smoother and I am a nuts-and-bolts man. I want to continue helping the community and working for the historic concerns of Clifton."

But Lindholm, 54, regional vice president of the National Marketing Co. in Falls Church and a second-term councilman, has another view of the race. "I would say Wayne and I agree on almost everything, but he doesn't have the experience that I do in dealing with people. It is a difference in styles of leadership. I've got the experience in dealing with not only people in town, but in the county as well."

Vienna Mayor Charles A. Robinson Jr. probably wouldn't have to ring a single doorbell campaigning this spring if he didn't want to. But the veteran four-term mayor, unopposed in his bid for reelection, said he wants to make the rounds because "folks are in the mood to talk, and they expect candidates out in the neighborhood, ferreting out solutions."

"People feel they have a right to talk with elected officials," said Robinson, 61, deputy general manager of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. "Two years ago I rang 80 to 90 percent of the doorbells in town--always enjoyed the personal-contact aspect of campaigning."

In Middleburg it's difficult even to tell that there's an election coming up. Unopposed Mayor Loyal D. McMullin, a retired Boy Scout executive, has been in Germany, and only three candidates are running for four council vacancies.

"I'm running because nobody else is running and somebody has got to do the job," said Councilman Trowbridge Littleton, 38, a real estate developer. "Most people are just scared of the extra work involved in getting an elected job done. They are more worried about what is going on in their personal lives."

In many towns like Purcellville, a Loudoun County community of 1,556 people, folks are feeling increasingly apathetic, said Mayor Edward Nestor, 54, an American Airlines operations employe. He decided not to run for reelection after four years as mayor because, he said, he'd "had enough of politics."

"Nobody is getting involved in the town anymore," Nestor said. "It's a great little town, but it is not going to be if people don't start getting involved. I wanted to preserve the small-town character of the town, but I think many people around here favor more development. Is there no 'Small Town USA' anymore?"

After six years on the Purcellville Town Council, Ronald Masters, 48, is the only candidate for mayor this election. But even with no other declared candidates, Masters is campaigning "as if there is somebody else running," he said.

"Why isn't anyone else running for mayor? I don't know," said Masters, who is principal mechanical engineer at Fairchild Industries. "I guess people don't have as much time as they used to."

Ken Harrington, mayor of nearby Lovettsville, probably would agree. "The job of mayor is very time-consuming and few people want to take the time to get involved," Harrington said. "The majority of people are still paying on their homes, and the way the economy is now, just coming up with mortgage money is more than the average person can take. Add to that giving up your evenings for these meetings, and it narrows down the number of candidates."

Harrington, 60, owns a decorating store in Leesburg. He is stepping down after eight years as mayor to "relax a bit and do some traveling."

The only candidate for Harrington's job is J. R. Hummer, 56, who isn't particularly surprised he's unopposed. "There aren't that many people to draw from in a town like this who are willing to run for office," said Hummer, who owns an electrical controls manufacturing firm. So he and his wife Grace, an appraiser, have teamed up: She's one of three candidates running for three vacant council seats.

So why is the field of candidates so sparse this year?

"It takes a special kind of person to carry the town's burdens 24 hours a day," said armchair philosopher Jeffry H. Wolford, unopposed mayor of Round Hill. "Some people might think 'mayor' looks good on their obituary, but it is a lot of work. If you are in it for a pat on the back, it never happens. You've just got to love the town--think of it like a family--to run for mayor."