John Lamar Ray was 10 years old when he entered politics riding horseback along the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in Echols County, Ga., hanging campaign posters for the local sheriff on the sides of pine trees. In those days, Ray wore blue jeans and a straw hat perched atop his short-haired head.
Now watch Ray, at age 39, hanging posters for himself, often a gold-plated pin pinching the tie knot and shirt collar around his neck, or riding from a wine-and-cheese party in Georgetown to a candidates' forum downtown in a chauffeur-driven car leased by his campaign organization.
This Man John Ray, as his radio jingles refer to him, has come a long way, an escapee from the turpentine town of Toms Creek, Ga., running for mayor of the nation's capital for the second time.
He ran in 1978, but in an 11th-hour switch threw his support to another who would be mayor, Marion Barry. "It became clear that I wasn't going to win and I didn't want to be a spoiler," Ray recalled in a recent interview. "Now I'm running against Marion because I don't think he deserves a second chance."
Ray is a hard-charging man, deceptively quiet. Betty Lee Berger, a resident of Ward 3 west of Rock Creek Park -- "the white ward," as she describes it -- gave a reception for him at her home Wednesday night. She flattered him with the kind of praise that appears to be keeping his faltering campaign afloat.
"Ray is low key, intelligent but smooth," Berger said. "He doesn't flaunt and push the way Marion does. This man Ray seems to have a quiet reserve of strength and knowledge that would make for a wonderful mayor, even if it doesn't make for such a great campaigner."
Ray is a creature of habit, a man whose unique and compelling background has profoundly shaped his style and character.
He rises each day at 6 a.m., something that he can't shake from his days growing up on a plantation where he worked the cotton and tobacco fields and honeybee hives, and tapped the pine trees for turpentine. He ends his day the next day, usually around 2 a.m. -- just like the old days.
Working the campaign trail has proved even tougher than working in the fields, where he would occasionally be attacked by a wild hog or a rattlesnake. Political animals are less predictable, he has learned, and they attack without warning.
His wife, Sarah Lash Ray, recalled the pressures.
"Once we were at a board of trade dinner and they sat us at a table with all Barry supporters," said Mrs. Ray, who is expecting the couple's first child in November. "When Barry came over, he started making jokes. You know the mayor is a funny man. He would say things like, 'Hi John Ray, City Councilman. I'd like to keep you there.' John was cool. He tries not to let things like that bother him. But I was glad to be there for support."
Just the same, Ray has developed an ulcer. More than once on the campaign he has lost his voice from strain. And although other candidates have demanded an encore of his l978 performance, Ray and his advisers say no way.
"If John dropped out and threw his support to Pat Harris [Barry's leading challenger who still is significantly behind in most polls], there is no question in my mind that she would win," said Joseph B. Carter, Ray's campaign strategist. "But what I see happening this time is the same thing that I saw happen with Marion last time when I chaired his strategy committee.
"Then, the word was out that Marion couldn't win. It was Walter Washington and Sterling Tucker, one and two. Marion couldn't get the money. But I say now what I said then: Money don't go to the polls. You can't count John Ray out."
Steven Goldberg, a real estate investor and Ray supporter, has questions about various polls that have uniformly shown Ray with a minuscule amount of the vote. "You've got to wonder about polls that say John has only three percent support when he's got 3,000 campaign volunteers," Goldberg said. "John doesn't do that well with big crowds whereas Marion loves a crowd. John is a little too quiet and this has hurt him with the media."
The same low-key but serious and driven style that his friends say Ray shows in the campaign got him out of Georgia, along with a lot of luck.
John was the youngest of l6 people of mixed relations who lived in a two-room house in Southern Georgia. Ray has said on occasion that he wouldn't recognize his father today if he walked into his office at the District Building. The two have never met.
When John was 10, the Ray clan, led by his grandfather, Jonath Ray, left Toms Creek and resettled in an even smaller town, Halo, Ga., about five miles down the road next to the Atlantic Coast Line tracks.
Ray's mother, Alberta, had to leave the family to find work and ended up in Daytona Beach, about 185 miles south, making $18 a week as a seamstress. She received free food but had to pay for her room. Still, she managed to send John
0 every two weeks until he finished high school.
The pressure was on John. He had to figure out something to do, something to be. One day, he says, he was out in the woods pretending to be a preacher, rehearsing for the day when he would realize his grandmother's dream, when up walked his grandfather.
"He listened for a while," Ray recalls, "and said, 'Boy,' (that was my nickname), he said, 'Boy, look. The most important thing in life is for you to determine what you are, and once you determine what you are, maybe you can do something. And I'll tell you, once you find out what you are, you'll realize you are not suited to be a preacher.'"
"I think my grandfather had the greatest influence on me," Ray said. "He thought I was different from the others in the family because I was the youngest. I talked different and I acted different. I was known to challenge authority. He respected that because that was the way he was."
Ray's household was intensely religious, like many others in the community of dirt-poor blacks surrounded by powerful white landowners. Ray's beliefs, however, were tempered by his grandfather, who, he recalls, was fond of prefacing statements with the phrase, "By God," to which Ray's grandmother would reply, "God is not for sale."
Then, he says, when it was his turn to say grace before the meal, Grandpa Jonath would wax totally irreverent: "Bless the meat and damn the skin, back your ears like a horse and cram it in." Boy Ray would crack up, subjecting himself to a backhand whack from Grandma, at whose left he was assigned to sit at mealtime.
Of the 35 students who entered first grade with Ray in 1949, he was the only one to graduate from high school on time, in 1961. Most of the rest dropped out to work tobacco, cotton and turpentine. Ray, as the youngest in his clan, was protected just long enough to make the break.
After graduating from Herctoma High School, where he was valedictorian and president of his senior class, Ray volunteered for the Air Force. He graduated at the head of his Air Force technical school class, and later enrolled in a night school at the University of Maryland extension program at Lakenheath Air Base in England, where he met Tom Gilhool, then a Yale Law School graduate and Fulbright scholar who was teaching part time.
"Ray had an unsual seriousness about him with a set of insights that a romantic will tell you had its roots in the soil of Georgia and the Southern experience," recalled Gilhool, now chief counsel for the public interest law center of Philadelphia.
"As a northern white liberal academic type, I was impressed by John as a person of unusual capabilities and very special seriousness -- I keep returning to that word because I think that is what distinguishes people in the world today."
Gilhool encouraged Ray to pursue a course in government and recomended a school with a strong Sino-Soviet program. Ray chose George Washington University.
Ray graduated from GW with a degree in political science in 1970 and enrolled in the school's Law Center. In 1971, Ray secured a job as clerk for former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas.
Fortas was so fond of Ray that when Ray was married in 1975, the ceremony was held in the Fortas' Georgetown home. Fortas even supplied the music, playing the violin himself in a chamber music ensemble. To Ray's total delight, Fortas even let him borrow his Rolls Royce.
It was a highlight in his life, and John Ray was on his way. In 1973, he gradudated with honors from the Law Center. Soon afterwards, he went to work as a clerk for U.S. Appeals Court Judge Spottswood Robinson III.
In 1974, Ray worked as legal counsel to then-Sen. Philip A. Hart (D-Mich.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly. Three years later, in 1977, he became an attorney adviser in the Office of Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice.
He began his career in elective politics here in late 1977 as a "John Who?" announcing in Lincoln Park in October 1977 that he was running for mayor in the 1978 Democratic primary. But he dropped out of the race.
The D.C. Democratic State Committee subsequently selected Ray to fill Barry's at-large seat on the City Council temporarily. He won in a special election later that year and was elected in 1980 to a full four-year term.
Ray's first marriage ended in divorce in October 1976. Five years later, he married a home girl of sorts, Sarah Lash from Savannah, and they bought a home in Michigan Park, right in the largest Democratic precinct in the city -- precinct 66 around Backus Jr. High School on South Dakota Avenue NE.
As in the days when he was a would-be preacher, practicing in the woods and waiting to hear the word that never came, John Ray again has to discover his calling. Most polls suggest that in next week's Democratic primary he will not be chosen.
Conventional political wisdom suggests that if he drops out again, his credibility is gone. His flow of campaign contributions long ago slowed to a trickle, and at times, Ray's actions and campaign literature suggest that he is thinking more about passage of a mandatory sentencing initiative he sponsored that also is on the ballot than about actually becoming the city's next mayor.
But John Ray insists that he is in the race to stay, and thinking about his grandmother, Eugenia -- Aunt Luvenia, as she was known to many in the steamy flatlands of South Georgia:
"I was at a funeral the other day," Ray says, "and my mind just started drifting back to my early church days when we'd go to the Statonville Baptist Church, the biggest in the county, for Easter Sunday and you'd have 150 beautiful black faces with all these colorful hats and there would be my grandmother.
"I knew each line in her face represented a year of struggle, because here was a woman who had buried her grandson, buried her cousin, buried her son, buried a daughter and buried her husband and at 92 she was still working every day trying to raise more grandchildren. Man, there is nothing like the look in that woman's eyes.
"She was born just a few years after the Civil War and people who lived that close to slavery still lived like slaves. Now this is what has had the biggest impact on me, has charted my whole life, my style, my thinking.
"And now I know who I am."