Late last fall, the Greater Washington Cultural Alliance was near the brink of financial disaster. There was a serious cash-flow problem, said director Leila Smith, and "the logical thing to do was raise some funds."
Her first call was to Delano E. Lewis, who founded the organization seven years ago. In less than a month, the group had received more than $30,000 from corporations and foundations, and its problems were on the way to being solved.
Lewis -- executive vice president of the C&P Telephone Co., Mayor Marion Barry's close friend and former campaign official, and a member or chairman of a laundry list of area boards, committees, and organizations -- is a familiar presence in corporate Washington's board rooms, as well as the District Building's corridors of power.
Generally described as bright, articulate and personable, Lewis has developed a reputation as a prime mover, the consummate go-between for public and private Washington.
In the past week, however, controversy has surrounded that role.
In recent days, Lewis has been accused of exerting political pressure on the Barry administration to award C&P lucrative telephone contracts, including one for the new municipal office building and another for emergency 911 phone service.
Barry aide Jose Gutierrez, who was removed as the city's chief purchasing officer, has said his demotion was linked to his complaints that he was being pressured to favor C&P for political reasons. Barry further demoted Gutierrez Monday after he publicly stood by his allegations, backed by a city-hired consultant and a top communications union official.
Barry and City Administrator Thomas Downs have denied pressuring Gutierrez or anyone else to favor C&P.
Lewis has denied using his friendship with Barry in seeking the contracts.
When approached this week for an interview, he said, "I don't think it's a good time, with all the publicity going around C&P . . . . I don't think I want to be in the paper."
Lowell Hamric, a C&P vice president who works with Lewis, said he was uncomfortable talking about Lewis and the current contract dispute with the city. Instead, he talked about how "involved" and "respected" Lewis is in the public and private sectors.
Lewis, at 46, is responsible for C&P's regulatory matters, public affairs, public relations and financial operations. His supporters say he is an important man in one of the city's most important companies. And as a member of the mayor's circle of close advisers, Lewis has steadily become a hot commodity.
When the City Council voted last month to award the city's $130 million cable television franchise to istrict Cablevision Inc., over two other competitors, Lewis had played a major role as C&P's spokesman, standing by the company's promise to build and maintain the cable transport lines. Lewis also is chairman of the legislative bureau of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
"Everybody recognizes now that he has influence and is a major factor in the community," said Luther Hodges Jr., chairman of the National Bank of Washington's board of directors, of which Lewis is a member.
Hodges said Lewis has been one of the most "constructive and positive" directors in the bank's history. He attributes much of Lewis' success to his willingness to translate his influence into those things he believes in.
"All things being equal, I think there is no doubt that all good relationships are going to help," Hodges said. "That's part of the political world, as long as you do it above board and out in the open and at a fair cost to the public . . . . You do business with those who have helped you."
Lewis lives in Potomac with his wife and four children on property assessed at more than $300,000. A Kansas native, Lewis received a law degree from the Washburn School of Law and came to Washington in 1961. After a stint with the Justice Department when Robert F. Kennedy ran it, Lewis moved to the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1964.
After several career moves, including five years as the Nigeria-based associate director of the Peace Corps, Lewis found himself on Capitol Hill. Serving first as a legislative assistant for then-Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, he later became D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy's first administrative assistant.
Howard Lee, Fauntroy's chief of staff, said Fauntroy's office still operates on the same basic administrative system Lewis set up more than a decade ago. "He's very knowledgeable, yet he still takes the time to listen," Lee said, adding to a chorus of praise for Lewis' charm and intelligence.
Lewis was with Fauntroy less than two years, a time in his life in which he met two men that would eventually play very important roles in his life: Marion Barry and Charles Weikel.
In 1974, Lewis ran for an at-large City Council seat and was defeated by Barry and the Rev. Douglas Moore. Four years later, Lewis was part of Barry's successful mayoral campaign and organized his transition into office. In Barry's 1982 campaign, Lewis served as finance director.
To Weikel, an assistant vice president at C&P, Lewis seemed like a solid prospect for an administrative slot at C&P in the early '70s. Shortly after his failed race for a council seat, Lewis took over Weikel's position at C&P.
In an article in the October 1984 issue of the Greater Washington Board of Trade News, Lewis explained C&P's interest in him by saying, "Weikel and C&P recognized that, because of home rule, regulatory powers were shifting from the Hill to the District government.
"They were looking for someone who could work with the District."
But Brian Lederer, a former D.C. peoples' counsel who has opposed Lewis on several C&P rate hike proposals, said that has been the pattern with local telephone companies around the country, in the wake of the breakup of the Bell system. The companies find themselves uncompetitive, Lederer said, and seek to use political muscle to compensate.
But former D.C. city administrator Elijah B. Rogers said that while Lewis and Barry enjoy a special friendship, it ends there. Lewis would not try to exploit the relationship, Rogers said, "and the mayor is not the kind of person to let Del, or anyone else, take advantage of him."