Sixteen years ago, a 25-year-old black activist from Atlanta stood on the grounds of Lafayette Square across from the White House and led Mississippi cotton plantation workers in a demonstration against federal housing policies.

A few weeks from now, that same man, Frank Smith, 41, will take a seat on the District's City Council, having parlayed years of prodding government from the outside as a neighborhood housing activist into a niche within government.

Like several of the city's top officials, including Mayor Marion Barry, Smith, the newly elected Ward 1 City Council member, comes from a 1960s civil rights background in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And, like Barry and the others, he has traded in his bullhorn and dungarees for a press spokesman and a business suit.

With such changes come questions about how much of the activist has remained in Smith, whether the suit and tie represent a shift in views or simply a tactical maneuver.

On that score, those who have known Smith over the years disagree. To many he remains an enigma, to others a turncoat. Those who applaud him say they aren't sure what he will do when he is sworn in as a council member on Jan. 3.

On the campaign stump this year, Smith criticized city officials for what he said was an overabundance of trash and litter in the ward. He said he will propose increasing the number of street sweepers patrolling the area.

He decried the number of vacant buildings in the ward, which stretches east from Connecticut Avenue to First Street, north from S Street to Spring Road and includes Howard University and the 14th Street crime corridor as well as affluent neighborhoods along Connecticut Avenue.

As a council member, he said, he will ask the city to study ways of involving city housing agencies in reducing the number of vacant buildings, will seek to enforce residency requirements for city employes, and will push for renovation of empty apartments that could be sold to city workers.

Smith said he also will support measures that would put a ceiling on property taxes for senior citizens who live on fixed incomes below $20,000. And he favors tax incentives that would encourage businesses to open in the blighted areas along Georgia Avenue and 14th and U streets NW.

For 10 years after moving to Washington in 1968, Smith, who has a college degree in political science, held a fellowship as an urban planner at the Institute for Policy Studies. A part-time consultant in housing matters, he left the institute in 1978 to form his own think tank, the Public Resource Center.

Today he lives with his wife, Jean, a resident psychiatrist at George Washington University Hospital, and two of his three children in a row house near Rock Creek Park. Their 11-year-old daughter, Malaika, attends the bilingual Oyster School. Their 9-year-old son, Tarik, is afflicted with a degenerative eye disease and is enrolled in Georgetown Day School because, Smith said, he and Jean "weren't satisfied" with programs for visually impaired students in the public schools.

In a recent interview, Smith, Ward 1's school board representative before his election to the council this fall, said he considers himself an activist still, one who has learned, however, that getting things done means "getting along" with the power brokers in the city's political big leagues.

"There are two levels of politics," Smith said. "What you have to do to be elected and being effective in a group. . . . I think it's important for people to struggle. It's also important for them to win."

Smith's relationship with Barry, who supported him in his successful race for the school board in 1979, is a close one, Smith says. Barry officially did not endorse a Ward 1 candidate in this year's Democratic primary. But despite his previous ties to Barry, Smith said he will be "my own man."

"If a person comes in the council cooperative, they're usually able to do quite well," said David A. Clarke, Smith's immediate predecessor, who was elected council chairman. "I think Frank will be cooperative."

The first test for Smith is likely to come almost immediately after he takes office in January, when the city's condominium conversion law expires and must be reexamined. Smith, once known as a staunch supporter of tenants' rights, lobbied for initial passage of the law.

The law currently gives tenants first option to buy their apartments before buildings can be sold for condominium conversion. The issue has been largely dormant during the recession. But with sinking interest rates promising increased activity in the real estate industry, the law is almost certain to stir intense feelings among developers, who consistently have argued for relaxing city laws protecting tenants, and housing activists, who just as adamantly have held out for tenants' rights.

"The majority of tenants ought to have first choice," said Smith. "I think the real estate industry is pretty much convinced that's going to be the law in this town."

Smith has gained a reputation as one of the ward's most visible tenant activists. But he also has detractors among the city's tenant activist community. Six years ago, he led the progressive Adams-Morgan Organization when it took up the cause of tenants on Seaton Street NW, whose homes had been sold to developers. The houses had not been offered to the tenants, as required under a city law that had just been enacted.

After a yearlong battle, AMO won a precedent-setting agreement from the developers, just before the case was scheduled to go to court. Rather than evicting the tenants, the developers offered to sell them the houses.

"Frank would never have been on top of Seaton Street if there hadn't been other people involved," said Marie Nahikian, another prominent AMO veteran who lost to Smith this year in a bitterly fought Democratic primary election for the council seat.

Others, too, think Smith was better at taking credit than taking the initiative. Many were angered and dismayed when he went to Atlanta to testify against the then-Perpetual Federal Savings and Loan Association before the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, just as co-workers were negotiating with the bank for an agreement to finance the Seaton Street project.

"His view was that they would not live up to their agreements, no matter what they said," said Carol Davis, Democratic State Committee member and a former member of the AMO executive council.

Smith maintains that his testimony before the board was instrumental in persuading Perpetual to strike an agreement.

"Sometimes you have to make command decisions," said Johnny Barnes, staff counsel of the House District Committee and another who worked on the Perpetual negotiations. "Frank is the type who adjusts to the situation. He's a pragmatist."

In 1978, Smith ran unsuccessfully for the council against Clarke. The next year, he was elected to represent the ward on the school board.

There, detractors saw him as a fence-sitter who takes only safe positions. Admirers say he has been a moderating influence on a board marked by acrimony and disharmony, that he works quietly and diplomatically.

"Anybody in public life has to make decisions, and he has made some," said William Vazquez, executive director of the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs and a leader of the Hispanic community in Ward 1. "But he's not fire and brimstone, he doesn't jump up and down, and I think that's what confuses people."

How effective Smith will be, said Clarke, depends on how well he can mend bridges burned during the primary and rally support among community leaders and party workers over the coming months.

In some cases, that may be difficult. According to Democratic sources, Smith's campaign tactics were racially tinged in the fight against Nahikian, who is white. Smith does not deny threatening to oust the ward's party chairman, Anwar Saleem, a black, for remaining neutral in the contest, although he says race will not be a consideration in policy decisions he makes on the council.

"It's hard enough to represent that ward with all its many voices," said Clarke. "There will always be somebody in that ward to call him to task."