RICHMOND -- What is believed to be the first recall election of a public official in the history of Virginia takes place Tuesday in Portsmouth, where Mayor James W. Holley III is suspected of sending hate letters to other city officials.

The hate mail campaign began last year, when seven black leaders and a white newspaper editor who had unsuccessfully opposed the closing of a traditionally black high school received anonymously written letters that were obscene, racist and threatening.

After an investigation of the mail campaign, Commonwealth's Attorney Johnny E. Morrison announced in May that Portsmouth police had found fingerprints on three of the hate letters that belonged to Holley, the city's black mayor. Morrison said no state law had been broken.

A federal grand jury began an investigation into the hate mail incident last month.

Holley, who had agreed with the closing of the school, has denied sending the letters.

Later, Holley's secretary reportedly told federal investigators that the mayor had asked her to prepare envelopes for some of those who got the hate mail.

Holley lost a series of legal attempts to stop the special election, which was authorized after more than 9,000 registered voters signed petitions calling for his removal. While Portsmouth's charter allows for a recall election, most Virginia jurisdictions must rely on a cumbersome court procedure to remove elected officials.

Initially, the campaign to remove Holley did not unfold along racial lines in the port city of 111,000, which is 55 percent white. But in the closing days, a group of black community activists and ministers who are organizing a get-out-the-vote campaign to support Holley say that the recall vote is racially motivated.

Holley, an energetic 61-year-old dentist who served 16 years as a council member before being elected mayor in 1984, is the first black to serve as mayor of any city in the Hampton Roads area. He declined to predict the outcome of the recall vote, saying, "You never know. You always hope that it will go well."

Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth), who received about 20 pieces of the hate mail, said "time and distance" since the original disclosures have "dissipated the visceral animosity" against the mayor.

Melvin predicted a light turnout by blacks, saying Holley's supporters will turn out and those who "feel let down" will stay home "and let the chips fall."

Melvin declined to say whether, or how, he would vote, but said he feels that "the person who sent that hate mail is obviously sick."

He added, "The evidence is overwhelming that it was the mayor, and I feel sorry for him."

A Holley supporter, the Rev. D. A. Peace, said the vote "looks nip and tuck. We're afraid he might get slaughtered in the white sector."

While urging a "no" vote on the recall, Peace also is planning for the possibility that Holley would be removed.

If that happens, Peace said, "it would be improper that anyone involved in the recall profit politically."

The six other council members, three whites and three blacks, all urged Holley to resign rather than face a recall.

If Holley is removed, they would face the question of whom to select as the interim mayor to serve until May, when the regular municipal election is scheduled.

At that time, several members of the council are expected to seek the full term as mayor.

Even before the letters became an issue, Holley was being criticized for trips and spending that were, by blue-collar Portsmouth's standards, lavish. His expense vouchers included a $300-a-night hospitality suite at a convention and frequent telephone calls to fraternity and dental school friends from his days at Howard University.

Nonetheless, Holley has won praise from both blacks and whites for generating $100 million in residential and commercial investments in the industrial city, and promoting a waterfront park and ferry boat to the Waterside mall across the harbor in Norfolk.