If you're involved in politics in a city like Philadelphia, you know a lot about almost everyone else you run across. You know where a particular councilman went to high school, and you know who his best friends in law school were. You know what his wife's father did for a living, and you know how strongly he supported Richardson Dilworth in the 1959 election for mayor. You know who his major law clients are, and which judge he will wake up in the middle of the night if he needs an injunction.

Almost everyone involved in local politics in Philadelphia -- or Boston or Detroit or San Francisco or any other big American city -- is from the city, and enters politics with a dense web of relationships, personal and political, that anyone who seeks to understand or affect local politics must understand. And almost everyone in local politics has a sense of history: in New York, they know where you stood when Bob Wagner ran for a third term in 1961 against his own record; in Detroit, they know which side you were on when Walter Reuther beat the left-leaning R. J. Thomas for president of the UAW in 1947.

Not so in Washington. The District of Columbia is just reaching political adulthood: it held its first elections for public office since the 1870s just 21 years ago, in 1961. In that year, it started voting for the school board; in 1964, for president; in 1971, for congressional delegate, and only in 1974 for mayor and council. And while most people involved in the District's electoral politics today know many others, they do not have roots as deep in the communities and relationships as complexly interlocked as you find in other large cities. Marion Barry, who grew up in Memphis, defeated Patricia Roberts Harris, who grew up in Chicago. They had before the election only a nodding acquaintance; in their campaign they did not show either the bitterness or the toleration toward each other that you see in candidates who have known each other well for years.

Washington surely has the lowest percentage of citizens actively involved in local electoral politics of any major city in the nation -- a direct legacy of nearly 100 years of congressional control of District government. There is a tradition of civic involvement here; it was in Washington's civic clubs that Robert's Rules of Order were developed in the 19th century. But neighborhood associations were not in the business of winning votes, and Washington never developed the political machines whose colorful remnants still dominate the politics of Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago.

For many years, Washington would probably have been a Republican town, or at least a city with a strong Republican Party, because blacks were mostly Republicans until the 1930s and Washington's white population included relatively few of the ethnics and blue-collar workers who provided the bulk of Democratic votes in big cities for years. Now, of course, Washington is so heavily Democratic that there is no need for any party to develop an organization to turn out voters in a general election; the outcome is clear. George McGovern won 82 percent of the vote here in 1972.

Yet if Washington hasn't developed the kind of politics traditionally found in big cities, it does seem to be developing -- faster than some other cities you could name -- what may turn out to be the urban politics of the future. This is a politics where organizations are candidate-based; where campaigns are fought primarily in the media, in television advertisements and in newspaper stories; and where the ability to raise money is what determines who is a serious candidate. Let's look at each of these characteristics.

Candidate-based organizations. Washington politics has not developed the kind of stable factions that function almost like parties in some one-party states and big cities. There have been attempts to create a dominant faction. Sterling Tucker -- who, when he ran for mayor in 1978, had the support of Del. Walter Fauntroy, former council chairman John Hechinger, and District Democratic chairman Robert Washington -- might have led such a quasi- party had he won. But he lost, and his supporters have gone their various ways.

This year, Marion Barry's campaign organization evidently gave some support to council member David Clarke in his successful bid to oust incumbent Arrington Dixon. But Clarke won by such a large margin that any Barry support could not have been decisive, and, in any case, the mayor declined to support Clarke publicly. His very reluctance to create a slate at a time when he knew he had a large lead shows how unlikely it is that city will have stable political factions.

The result is a politics, to paraphrase political scientist V. O. Key, of every man (or woman) for himself (or herself). And that means a politics in which different issues will be resolved by different coalitions. Does Mayor Barry have majority support on the council? It will depend on the issue.

Media campaigns. How does a candidate communicate with voters? Candidates for city council or school board, running in districts with populations around 80,000, can communicate personally and directly with a fairly high percentage of their voters. Citywide candidates, especially for mayor, can't. At least they can't if what they want to communicate is a fairly sophisticated message about specific issues or about their character and personal qualifications. Print media are the best means to communicate issue stands; television advertisments are the best means of communicating character traits. To communicate effectively with voters, a mayoral candidate must be covered in newspapers and must raise enough money to buy television advertising.

Raising money. That means that raising money is a kind of preliminary hurdle a candidate for mayor must pass. There is, in this city as in others, a group of people who are the natural sources of campaign money for any serious candidate for mayor: builders, developers, contractors, heads of large and small companies, people who must do business with the city government and who also have a large stake in the long-range health of the city. They scrutinize candidates and make judgments about who is capable of winning and who is likely to follow what they consider desirable policies, and they contribute and raise money accordingly. Additional money may come from those with a purely idealistic or intellectual stake in the outcome.

Washington has developed, in the years since its first mayoral race, a sizable community of political money-givers. As an incumbent, Barry was able to raise a million dollars -- far more than is needed to get one's message across in a city that is, after all, in only one television market. But challengers were able to raise money, too. Harris raised enough money to communicate what she wanted to communicate. And John Ray, a first-term council member, was able to raise more than $100,000 and pay for a series of early television ads; if these had evoked a stronger response, he undoubtedly could have raised more.

So if Washington doesn't have old-time political organizations to promote people to run city government, it does seem to have developed a system that has produced serious competition from candidates with diverse backgrounds -- Marion Barry with his roots in the civil rights movements of the 1960s, Patricia Harris with her experience in the Cabinet in the Carter administration as well as much earlier governmental, civic and civil rights experience. In the future, it seems likely that more mayoral candidates will come from the ranks of local officeholders, members of the council and school board; there will, after all, be more people with such experience.

Washington politics is still not as colorful as the politics of other big cities, and it is not likely to become so. But it has produced two mayoral contests now between highly competent candidates with intelligent ideas about the future of the city and its government. And it has produced campaigns that are essentially positive--not the kind of mudslinging and personal attacks that make the politics of some cities so amusing to outsiders. There is a tendency among some to scoff at District politics and to ridicule its practitioners. It is surely not perfect, and has not produced a mayor who has won the kind of near-universal approval of a Don Schaefer in Baltimore or a Tom Bradley in Los Angeles. And though the game is open to newcomers, there are still too few players. But in many respects, Washington has developed a city politics that some other big cities are -- if they are lucky -- moving toward.