PERHAPS YOU READ about the birthday party for the mayor last weekend - another in a series of occasions he has used to suggest that, yes, he just might be persuaded to run for reelection, "The message I get is, carry on, brother," he confided, urging his audience to be "steadfast, hold what you've got, I'll be there. The voices I hear are shortening the period. . . . I've been to the mountaintop, too, and the messages say, 'Don't listen to that mess out there. We need you.' . . . I don't think there is anybody else around that can run the city as well as I have. . . ."

Perhaps. But at last count, there were six announced challengers - Marion Barry, Sterling Tucker, John L. Ray, Dorothy Maultsby, Charles S. (Trummie) Cain and Richard A. Jackson - who presumably think they can run the city better than Walter Washington. And they will doubtless wish to press the point as the campaign develops, which brings us to something else the mayor said at his birthday party - something that rises a serious question about how free and open he thinks the challenge to his leadership ought to be. "Some people say that I am a soft and nice man," the mayor observed, "but I am getting mean." By way of proving the latter point, according to one account, he then had this to say in an apparent reference to frequent criticism that his government is inefficient: "They use waste and inefficiency sometimes as terms that describe black folks." Another report had it as: "There are a lot of people out there using terms like 'waste' and 'inefficiency.' These are someone's terms used to describe blacks."

Now the mayor may have intended that as some sort of effort to discourage racial innuendo in the campaign. But it sounds to us, as we suspect its sounds to most citizens, both black and white, much more like a not very subtle effort to discourage criticism of his administration in the campaign. The mayor must know that he's going to be hearing a lot from his critics about inefficiency and waste - those questions are as valid with respect to the District as they are with respect to the administration of governments at all levels in all parts of the country. Already, in their campaigning, Mr. Barry and Mr. Tucker have raised the issue of adminstrative inefficiency in city hall and promised to do better. Their promise, of course, will be challeged during the campaign. We hope the debate is lively, sharp and illuminating. We also hope that it is uninhibited by the inference that to question the competence of the incumbent administration is to invite insinuations of racial prejudice.