It used to be that political decisions affecting the black community in Prince George's County could be made at a table in Tommie Broadwater's barbecue restaurant in Fairmont Heights -- when Broadwater dined alone.

But this fall, setting a black political agenda for the county required a two-day retreat in Virginia. The Prince George's Alliance of Black Elected Officials was there. So were members of the Rainbow Coalition, the Black Republicans, the NAACP, the National Business League of Southern Maryland and the Black Democratic Council.

Black and white politicians speak with awe of the political skills possessed by Broadwater, the county's first black state senator and the central mover back then behind the black community's political power. But in the three years since Broadwater was stripped of his state Senate seat because of a food stamp fraud conviction, things have changed.

Prince George's has seen the emergence of a wide and diverse black political force, fueled by a growing middle class, which is beginning to wield the same power that blacks now have in cities such as the District, Baltimore and Atlanta.

The numbers are there -- demographers believe the county's population is now about 46 percent black -- and the roster of black elected officials has steadily increased. While blacks do not make up a majority in Prince George's, as they do in the District and Baltimore, election statistics show that in a county where three out of four voters are Democrats, blacks com- prise 55 percent of those who vote in the decisive primaries.

But Broadwater and others wonder whether the distribution of political power and the absence of a chief power broker have cost the black community what was once its most valuable asset: leadership.

"We as a group, we need one or two people to speak for the people," Broadwater said in a recent interview. "The lack of that means white folks take advantage. They are picking us off one by one. We are not gaining."

For example, the lack of a unified front has been blamed for the County Council's rejection of a proposal to set aside a portion of county contracts for bidding by minority businesses. Some black leaders, including 14-year council veteran Floyd E. Wilson Jr., lined up behind a mandatory quota, while others, such as former council chairwoman Hilda R. Pemberton, supported a strengthened voluntary program.

But those now sharing the political power say that Broadwater and those who agree with him do not fully recognize the maturation of the community. Success needs and breeds diversity, they argue. Although diversity makes setting a black agenda more difficult, in the long run the community will emerge stronger, they say.

"Anybody who suggests it is better to have one guy instead of a group of guys is crazy," said state Sen. Albert R. Wynn (D-Prince George's). "No one person can speak for the black community today."

Its elected representatives include longtime residents of the county and veterans of the struggle such as state Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, a Democrat who occupies Broadwater's former Senate seat, and young black professionals, such as Democratic Del. Juanita Miller, an educator and businesswoman. Its issues range from the drug and crime afflictions that are common in urban neighborhoods to the suburban concerns of traffic and economic development.

The black community has become as diverse and widespread as the white community, and its politics revolves around the same parochial concerns and individual rivalries.

"Prince George's County has become a national center for {a} black middle- and upper-middle class," said County Executive Parris Glendening, who has considerable support from the black community but whose office is seen as an eventual political prize for blacks.

"When I go to different civic association meetings, not surprisingly, their political goals are similar to those of north county whites: quality education, environmental protections," Glendening said. "It puts them at odds with the older black community who were concerned with subsidized housing, job programs."

Representative of that growing segment of the black community is State's Attorney Alex Williams, a Howard University professor who won an upset victory in 1986 over a 24-year-veteran white incumbent to become the first black elected countywide. "Power right now is diffused," Williams said. "It is diversified. It is broad-based. There is no unanimity. There is consensus."

The basic reason for the diversity is size. The black community now comprises nearly half of the county's residents, and some demographers and county leaders predict it will remain at that level as whites, attracted by real estate that is less expensive than that in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, return to the county.

But in the early 1970s, blacks made up only about 14 percent of the county's population, and power was vested in a tightly knit Democratic political machine controlled by lawyer Peter F. O'Malley and then-state senator Steny H. Hoyer, who is now a representative in Congress. Black politics, nurtured in inner-Capital Beltway communities such as Glenarden, was a matter of closing ranks to leverage each victory from the white political establishment: a seat on the powerful Democratic Central Committee, a black County Council district, a spot on the ticket.

The acknowledged master at negotiations was Broadwater, who grew up in the historically black area of Chapel Oaks and rose though the ranks of civic associations and Democratic Party clubs. Broadwater was "one of the best politicians in Prince George's County, forget black or white," Hoyer said.

Broadwater used his position on the Democratic Central Committee, then in the state Senate to secure public and political jobs for blacks. "I used to have a saying: Any three jobs that come up, we're going to have one of them," Broadwater recalled recently. Any political appointments that involved blacks had to be cleared with Broadwater.

But Broadwater's political base and personal business holdings began to crumble in 1983, when he was arrested for food stamp fraud. He was convicted and served 4 1/2 months in prison. The Maryland General Assembly closed a loophole in the law that Broadwater had hoped to use to run for office in the midst of his legal trouble, but it is clear that he is planning a political comeback when his probation ends in May.

Broadwater's demise as power broker was swift, but some say it would have been inevitable even without the criminal convictions. "Back in the old days, Tommie served a need," said Del. Gloria Lawlah, a veteran Democratic Party worker who won office last year. "We needed one person to get in the back room and get something for us," she said. "Today, you have two black senators. They work collaboratively with the whole group."

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, one of the most influential members of the county's white political establishment, said the different voices are a sign of political maturation. "What is happening in Prince George's County is that all segments of the black community are being heard from, and I'm not sure that has happened before."

Besides Williams and the two black state senators among eight state senators from the county, blacks account for six of 23 delegates, two of nine County Council members, two of nine school board members and three of 30 judges. But perhaps the first and strongest signal of the growing black vote came in 1984, when presidential contender Jesse Jackson carried the county in the Democratic primary.

The success of that campaign convinced black leaders that it is possible to capture one of the county's top elected positions. They united behind Williams and persuaded Hoyer and Glendening to abandon veteran prosecutor Arthur A. (Bud) Marshall. Williams won the Democratic primary by 2,000 votes.

Many say that this puts Williams in the position to fulfill a long-held dream of some in the county for a black county executive or member of Congress. But Williams declines to be identified as the leader of the black political community.

"Black and white citizens in general put me here to do the job as an elected state's attorney," Williams said. "I don't set the black agenda."

Broadwater countered: "We picked Alex because we needed a leader. If he was out there doing his job and leading, {other black officials and civic leaders} would be glad to fall in line and let him lead. Alex in time will come around."

It is not just the old-line politicians such as Broadwater who long for a chief power broker for the county's blacks. Wayne Curry, 36, a lawyer, is representative of the county's growing black professional population. He grew up in the same working-class neighborhood as Broadwater and ascended through the ranks of political insiders -- first as a senior aide to then-County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. Curry then worked as an assistant to a prominent county developer.

Now a partner in the well-connected firm of Meyers, Billingsley and Shipley, Curry was one of the chief architects of Williams' upset victory and now seems flattered and nervous when referred to as the "black Peter O'Malley."

Curry is critical of the current elected officials, who he says are "reactionary" and too worried about their own turfs to provide leadership.

"Leadership has got to have the leadership ingredient, not followship," Curry said.

Williams bristles at the suggestion that he, as the only black official elected countywide, should step forward to assume the key leadership role.

"I'm not going to allow one or two individuals to blame me for anything that goes wrong in the black community," Williams said. "I differ with those people who want me to go out and seize power and set up a machine."

Wynn agreed: "It's dead. Over. It ain't coming back." He disputes Curry's contention that black elected officials are not representative of the black population but agrees that there is a change in the constituency.

While "buppies {black upwardly mobile professionals} remain sympathetic to issues that are unresolved, such as poverty, crime and drugs," Wynn said, they want to know "where are the jobs for the mid level professionals?"

The best example of that is the fight in the County Council over an effort to set aside a certain percentage of county contracts for minority businesses.

Economic issues such as that are "a lot more appealing {to middle-class constituencies} than 200 new low-income town houses," Curry said.

Some black politicians agree with Glendening that the issues that interest the black middle class are no different from those that concern the white middle class.

"The average person, when I campaigned, wanted to know about roads, quality education, transportation," Del. Lawlah said.

The next big test is the Democratic presidential primary in March. Although Jackson has received widespread support from black politicians in the county, it is not clear what effect campaign infighting and the apparent lack of community enthusiasm, compared with 1984, will have on the effort.

In a display of unity, the Jackson campaign has four cochairmen in the 5th Congressional District, which includes most of Prince George's, in addition to a county coordinator and honorary county chairman. But campaign insiders acknowledge that the top-heavy structure was created to appease all political factions -- not an easy mission, considering the number of intense rivalries, such as that between Broadwater and Trotter.

Also, many are rethinking the conventional wisdom that the overriding goal is the county executive office or a seat in Congress. "I would not see it as major progress to have a black congressman and a 7-to-2 council," said Curry, referring to the current white majority on the County Council.

Glendening is generally viewed as having worked well with the black community, having appointed several blacks as top county administrators, and he probably will not be challenged if he runs for a third term in 1990. The same holds true for Hoyer, who faces reelection next year and who says he is tired of hearing that his position is endangered by the growing black electorate in his district.

"It is not inevitable that I will be replaced by a black congressman," said Hoyer, who represents the 5th Congressional District. "The black community is prepared to vote on what is perceived to be a person's performance and commitment in the past."

Some black strategists are turning their attention to making gains on more localized issues. They say that there is at least one additional state Senate seat they could win and perhaps two more delegate positions, most likely in the southern part of the county.

There are other goals that blacks will be shooting for next year and beyond: more blacks as judges, either through pressuring the appointment process or by defeating targeted white judges; pushing for creation of a inner-Beltway congressional district; stronger minority procurement agreements with the school board and the water and sewer authority, and more black staff at Prince George's Community College.

"At one time our interests were so narrow," Lawlah said. "Things are much more open today. We've come a long way."