Mayoral candidate David A. Clarke said yesterday he would use the District's highest office to focus on housing, education and public safety, adding that his nearly 16 years on the D.C. Council had given him "far more experience" than his political rivals to manage city government.

Clarke, 46, who is relinquishing the council chairmanship to run for mayor, said that while he had "brought people together" during his political career, he also angered some with an "intense" personal style. The only white mayoral candidate this year, Clarke also said he believes the city is polarized racially, but played down the importance of race in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary.

"I know that I have been treated fairly by this city in the past, and I am willing to trust my career to the people of this city in terms of their dealing with that," Clarke said during a luncheon interview with reporters and editors of The Washington Post. "It's their decision."

Clarke, who represented the racially diverse Ward 1 for eight years on the council before becoming chairman, faces four opponents in the primary: lawyer Sharon Pratt Dixon, Del. Walter E. Fauntroy and council members John Ray (At Large) and Charlene Drew Jarvis (Ward 4).

On Tuesday, during a Post interview, Jarvis attacked Clarke as "temperamentally unsuited" to be mayor, saying he "has a temper" and "is often illogical under stress and not often rational."

Clarke dismissed Jarvis's criticism yesterday, saying he had helped develop the 13-member council into a potent political institution by uniting its often competing factions.

"I have brought people together, and my record stands for that," Clarke said.

However, Clarke acknowledged he sometimes is brusque toward others. "I think I'm intense, in terms of my approaching issues, and sometimes it does rub some people that way. I wouldn't call it a bad temper; I would just call it intensity."

"Occasionally," he added, "I might say something to somebody, and be rather straightforward about it, but the next day I'm able to deal with those people."

On other issues, Clarke said if he won election, he would retain Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., and said he hoped to avoid the "horrendous" discord that marked relations between trustees of the University of the District of Columbia and the school's former president by appointing a board that would not meddle in the day-to-day administration of UDC.

"I would appoint people to it who would be focused on education there and who would do the best they could to select a president of the university and then allow that president to operate," Clarke said.

Clarke was sharply critical of the way the D.C. Board of Education handles its annual operating budget, saying there was "no accountability" for school spending, and calling for a D.C. charter change to give the mayor and council new authority to oversee the school department's budget line by line.

"Some people in the educational community have thought me to be very critical, but I think my criticism was warranted," Clarke said. "Constructive tension is still necessary in terms of calling upon the school board to use the resources that it is provided wisely."

Clarke said he opposed wholesale reductions in the size of the D.C. government payroll, which some critics contend became bloated during the administration of Mayor Marion Barry. Instead, Clarke would make cuts in targeted departments, particularly in "front offices" of agency directors that have what he described as unnecessarily large staffs.

Departments targeted for scrutiny included Human Services, with 725 executive and supporting positions; Public and Assisted Housing, with 51 positions in the director's office and 15 in the information office; Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, with 35 similar positions; and Public Works, with 21 positions in the director's office, including two assistant directors, two public affairs specialists and three special assistants, Clarke said.

Clarke also said that positions could be trimmed from the staffs of government lawyers attached to different agencies, such as some of the 42 in the general counsel's office of the D.C. police department.

"We're going to have to go through our government and identify what is essential and non-essential, both program and positions."

Clarke said his mastery of city budget issues is an important qualification in his mayoral bid, and repeated his campaign pledge not to close the door on possible new taxes to strengthen the District's financial position. He said later that if he did seek a tax increase, it would be on utilities and vacant properties, rather than real property and personal income.

Ray also has said that new taxes may be needed to offset a projected $90 million city government deficit. Dixon and Jarvis ruled out a tax increase; Fauntroy has proposed a commuter tax on the incomes of nonresidents who work in Washington.

Clarke, long an ally of major tenant organizations, said he would make the development of low- and moderate-income housing a top priority of his administration, adding that he wants to foster a community spirit in the war against drugs.

"Leadership has to do more than just write laws and more than just enforce the laws in this city when it comes to this problem," Clarke said. "There's got to be a way for the people of the city to speak out" on their basic values.

A lawyer trained at predominantly black Howard University, Clarke said his messages to white and black voters this election year are identical.

"I talk to them about making this place a better place for families to grow up in, and they can relate to that -- white people can relate to that, black people can relate to that," Clarke said. "I talk about making the streets safer; white people and black people can both relate to that. I talk about the schools; both groups can relate to that.

"If I'm asked, I have to talk to anybody who asks me about the racial question," Clarke added. "But there's not much more to say other than that I am who I am."