About seven years ago, William Calomiris, one of Washington's wealthiest landlords, taught the game of racquetball to D.C. Council member John Ray. The two men have played nearly every Friday since, and their matches are by all accounts briskly fought. In sport as in politics, they play to win.

Today, buoyed in part by $900,000 in campaign contributions, including massive donations from real estate industry figures such as his close friend Calomiris, Ray is the leading player in a far more serious competition, the race for the Democratic Party's nomination for D.C. mayor.

For 12 years, the office has been Ray's elusive Grail, and now, running first in published polls and comfortably ahead in fund-raising, the man who grew up dirt-poor in segregated south Georgia believes he is within striking distance of the post held since 1979 by Mayor Marion Barry.

"I started really plotting this in 1978, as soon as I hit the city council," Ray said in a recent interview. "I was determined that after Barry's tenure, one way or another I wanted to be mayor of the District of Columbia."

However, despite the single-mindedness with which he has pursued the city's highest elective office and a public relations effort without precedent in a D.C. primary election, Ray, 47, remains an enigmatic, if not contradictory, figure to many District voters.

He is at once an affable, easygoing individual, but one who internalizes so much worry that he has nursed a peptic ulcer for 20 years.

Ray has gone to lengths this summer to cast himself as a champion of tenants, an important voting bloc, but as recently as 1985 he denounced the city's rent control law as a bad idea and unfair to landlords.

Ray also has sought to portray himself as a strong family man, describing himself as "a role model for our youth" and using pictures of himself, his wife, Sarah, and their three children throughout his campaign literature. But there has been scant publicity about his first marriage, which ended in divorce, or the son he fathered out of wedlock as a young airman stationed in England.

Ray, who never knew his own father, described not being able to raise that child as "one of my great failures."

Criticized by some Democrats as a politician with few strongly held convictions, Ray has nonetheless won grudging respect from even his harshest critics for his acumen and doggedness.

"I have great respect for the political skill he demonstrated against us," said Gottlieb C. Simon, a neighborhood activist from Ward 2 who was one of Ray's chief adversaries in the bruising 1985 fight over the District's rent control law.

By supporting a gradual phase-out of rent control in certain apartment buildings, Ray was "being pragmatic, because he knew you couldn't get rid of it overnight," Simon said.

Pragmatism is a hallmark of Ray's tenure on the council, where he authored few controversial proposals and often took a back seat to more outspoken colleagues such as Chairman David A. Clarke and John A. Wilson. He has used his equally unassuming personal style to political advantage, forging strong ties to white voters dissatisfied with more flamboyant black politicians such as Barry.

Ray, who has courted white voters and the city's white business establishment more actively than any of his primary rivals, said he reached out to those segments of the electorate to draw them into "the city family."

"The white community in our city sees itself as a minority that wants to be included," Ray said. "I would want them to see me as someone who they feel they can work with, someone who's going to make them part of our city."

For many whites, especially liberal voters, Ray has seemed to be, in the words of his longtime friend, lawyer Walter Pozen, "too good to be true."

"He's his own man, very much at ease with white people," said Pozen, who is white. "He is such a strong person -- when you think of John, you don't think of his color."

Joel B. Odum, a neighborhood activist in predominantly white Ward 3, said voters in the Northwest Washington ward "feel sort of excluded, and John Ray has been able to capitalize on that feeling."

"There is a certain comfort level with him," Odum added. "He doesn't wave the bloody banner and use racism, which people in Ward 3 are sensitive about."

John Lamar Ray was not always so outwardly mild-mannered. Growing up in Echols County, Ga., just north of the Florida line, he used to get into four or five fights a day, most often with Bobby Wallace, a cousin. Ray's grandmother, Eugenia Ray, the strict disciplinarian who raised young John with her husband, used to make the two hellions beat on each other with switches; Ray hated to back down from those fights.

"I was determined never to give up," he said.

Ray talks about his grandparents constantly, their small character-building lessons as fresh today as they were in the 1950s. To make a point about how families, especially black families in Washington, need to inculcate values in their children, Ray tells a story about sneaking cigarettes from an uncle's bedroom -- and getting caught by his grandfather, Jonah Ray.

Rather than spank the boy or preach against the evils of smoking, the tobacco-chewing grandfather waited until that evening and ordered Ray to crawl underneath the dinner table on his hands and knees, because thieves in that household were not good enough to walk upright.

Ray has a thousand stories like that, of leading a life so tough on farms in the turpentine-and-tobacco country of south Georgia that military life seemed "like a vacation" when he joined the Air Force right out of high school.

While stationed at Lakenheath Air Base near London, Ray fathered a son by an English woman, he said. The child was born in early 1967, and Ray said he promptly offered to marry the woman. She declined and initially did not want to keep their child, so Ray made arrangements for the infant to return with him to the United States to be raised by his own mother, he said.

The English woman later changed her mind, eventually marrying another U.S. airman, who adopted the boy, said Ray, adding that before she married, he sent the woman money to pay for their son's support.

"I list this as one of my great failures," said Ray, who has had no contact with the woman or their son in more than 20 years. "I always felt very strongly that my children would have a mother and father . . . . I wish he had been part of my life."

In 1981, Ray married Sarah Lash, an Amtrak personnel specialist. Their two oldest children, Jonah, 7, and Lauren, 6, attend Bunker Hill Elementary in Northeast Washington; their youngest child is Kimberly, 4. The family lives in the Michigan Park community in Ward 5 and belong to New Samaritan Baptist Church.

After his honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1967, Ray began college studies in Washington, graduating from George Washington University in 1970 and its law school three years later. He won a clerkship at the U.S. Court of Appeals here, spent three years on Capitol Hill as counsel to a Senate subcommittee, later working as an attorney-adviser with an office of the Justice Department.

In 1978, Ray ran for mayor, although he admits now it was "not to win," but to become better known by voters. In sharp contrast to the well-funded campaign he now runs from a suite of downtown offices, Ray in that first race set up shop in Anacostia, where he could barely pay the telephone bill, let alone afford the kinds of glossy fliers he is mailing now to voters by the thousands.

Ray's strategy worked. He withdrew from the Democratic field before the all-important primary election, and threw his support to Barry, the D.C. Council member who would narrowly win the party contest. Ray took the consolation prize: an appointment to Barry's old council seat and access to the mayor's political organization that helped him retain the seat in his first election a year later.

Although Ray says it was from that moment that he began laying the groundwork for the 1990 campaign, his effort did not begin in earnest until after 1982, when he ran for mayor a second time, only to be eclipsed in the primary by Barry -- by then an entrenched incumbent -- and Patricia Roberts Harris, a former federal official.

Nancy M. "Bitsey" Folger, Ray's 1982 finance chairman and his leading ambassador in Ward 3, said that while Ray had the advantage of an at-large seat from which to run citywide, he methodically sought to "broaden his support, not only in Ward 3, but across the city."

"He really believed he was going to be able to do something for the city," Folger said of the early Ray campaigns. "I see him more wanting to put the city right, rather than personally ambitious."

As a member of the council and chairman of its Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Ray charted a moderate, and occasionally politically conservative, course. He was a leader in the fight for mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes, an architect of the city's "lemon law" and the author of the landmark divestiture bill banning the District government from investing its money or pension funds in businesses and banks doing business with South Africa.

Ray said he is perhaps most proud of the divestment bill, which at first encountered strong opposition on the council.

To the city's business community, Ray was an often unpredictable figure, supporting landlords in the rent control fight but willing to challenge the District's politically powerful bar and restaurant owners on the issue of community oversight in alcoholic beverage control cases.

Stuart J. Long, a politically active owner of several restaurant-bars and a longtime Barry ally, said Ray's ABC law severely damaged relations between business and neighborhoods. "We're right back to the point where it's 'us against them' and 'businessmen are dirty,' and at the core of it is this onerous regulation," Long said.

Because of the many large contributions he has received from developers, landlords and other real estate industry leaders, Ray has been dogged throughout the campaign by complaints that he would be a captive of big industry if he wins the mayor's race.

His friends, including such business people as Calomiris -- who at 70 heads a family with nationwide real estate holdings -- dispute that view, as do some who remain troubled by the amount and sources of money in Ray's campaign treasury.

Calomiris, who has disagreed with Ray on such issues as workers' compensation, senior citizen tenant rights and condominium conversions, said Ray would not be unduly influenced by his major contributors, but would give them fair hearings on issues that concern them.

Similarly, Terry Lynch, a housing advocate who has battled city developers for years, described Ray as "approachable. John can be worked with, and he's good on neighborhood-scale issues."

At the same time, Lynch said he was concerned about Ray's stand on rent control and his willingness to accept the support of several businessmen strongly allied with the Barry administration. Earlier this month some of the city's prominent black business leaders, some of them longtime D.C. government contractors, appeared at a luncheon for Ray, who pledged to sponsor programs for black economic empowerment if elected.

Neighborhood activists such as Valerie Costelloe, president of the Tenant Organization Political Action Committee, and Simon said they will never forgive Ray for taking a lead role in 1985 to weaken rent control, an issue that has resurfaced as a litmus test issue in the Democratic primary.

Ray, who has said repeatedly during the campaign that he supports rent control, condemned the concept when the council considered changing the local law. "Rent control can be an effective tool for a short period, but in the long run, its negatives will outweigh its positives," Ray wrote in a seven-page report dated March 28, 1985.

Though he said rent control would be continued for the short run, Ray wrote that he was "convinced that it must be modified to make it possible for landlords to earn a fair rate of return . . . . "

Ray, one of the leaders in the council majority that voted to weaken the law, was overturned on some key provisions in a referendum later that year that Simon and others organized. "He was leading the charge against us," Simon said. "It was not some neutral or ambiguous position. "You can't take any more extreme position than saying, 'It's failed and I want to get rid of it.' "

Another important voting bloc, Washington's gay community, has also been angered by some of Ray's actions on the council and his views on homosexuality, which Ray's closest friends say are colored largely by his somewhat conservative religious views.

"He does not care about our community," said Mauro Montoya, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, a leading political organization for District gays.

Ray, who generally has maintained a studied calm throughout the campaign, said he tries to shrug off criticism, though some of it has angered him.

"As a leader, you can't let your internal anger with someone overshadow what you're doing, because if you allow that to happen, then you get sidetracked, and I'm not going to allow anything to sidetrack me from my purpose," Ray said.

In running for the nomination, Ray said he hoped to give a voice to Washington's dispossessed, people like the mentors and extended family who sheltered him long ago in Georgia. "A lot of people have this view of me that I sort of came up on the shiny side of the street, which is not true -- I came up on the rough side," he added.

"I can't wait to become mayor, where I can have a better platform to speak from," Ray said. "I'm cherishing the moment."

Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Nathan McCall contributed to this report.

JOHN L. RAY (D)

Age: 47

Birthplace: Toms Creek, Ga.

Education: Bachelor of Arts, George Washington University, 1970. Juris Doctor, George Washington National Law Center, 1973.

Work Experience: Enlisted in Air Force, 1962, honorable discharge, airman 1st class, 1967; clerk to Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III, U.S. Court of Appeals; three years as counsel to Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee; of-counsel to the law firm of Baker & Hostetler; appointed to D.C. Council in 1978; elected to first full term in 1979. Reelected in 1982 and 1986.

Civic and Professional Associations: Board of Directors, Washington Ballet, Concerned Citizens on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Inc. and Stoddard Baptist Home for senior citizens; member, advisory board of Unfoldment, a group working to prevent drug abuse.

Religious Affiliation: Baptist.

Marital status: Married.

Children: Four.

Favorite book: "They Came in Chains" by J. Saunders Redding. STAND ON KEY ISSUES:

Rent control: Favors current law, but voted in 1985 for legislation designed to phase out rent control in certain buildings.

Taxes: Opposes increasing local income or property taxes. Will not rule out seeking increases in other taxes.

Work force: Favors cuts through attrition, which he says can reduce city payroll by 1,200 to 1,400 employees annually.

Drug crisis: Would put priority on treatment, coupled with an aggressive employment program for those who complete treatment.

Worker's compensation: Sponsor of bill pending before the D.C. Council. Describes the measure as "fair and equitable."

Education: Stresses additional uses for school buildings, including before- and after-school care, as well as early learning centers for 3- and 4-year-olds in "high-risk" neighborhoods. Favors mandatory education beginning at age 5.