On the last day of 1985, Harry M. Singleton bade farewell to the Reagan administration, "disillusioned," he says.

He had spent more than three years as assistant secretary of education for civil rights, much of the time fighting to temper Republican rightists: "I clearly was never going to be a part of any retrenchment on civil rights."

On the penultimate day of 1985, however, Singleton did one final official thing. He issued guidelines that limited how the government would pursue bias at schools that get federal block grants, a change that civil rights activists called "devastating" and "ludicrous." He did so, he says, because of a Supreme Court ruling and because "I took the job seriously, and that job was done to the very last day."

He then faded into private consulting.

Now comes the 1990 race for D.C. delegate to Congress. Now come the tax problems of Eleanor Holmes Norton, bedeviling what is ordinarily a Democratic nominee's easy march to acclaim.

Now comes Harry M. Singleton.

He is the unknown Republican alternative to a woman of national stature. He is suddenly viable in a city with nine times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. And he is, at least by his own brush, a candidate of moderate hues who shuns ideology, sounds nearly as Democratic as Norton and argues that the election will turn solely on her integrity and his experience.

"Folks," says Singleton, "it ain't issues that separate us."

Yet, Singleton, 41, carries a sometimes controversial past and spawns wildly clashing views among friends and colleagues.

He is both praised as a pleasant and professional man of intriguing talents who cares deeply about civil rights, and scorned as a Reagan devotee who undermined anti-discrimination efforts and whose moderate positions of today are merely a campaign necessity in a liberal city.

Ralph Winter, a federal judge who taught Singleton at Yale Law School, recalls "a very open, affable, friendly guy" who took "a very courageous stand" when other students objected to a campus appearance by William Shockley, the physicist who argued that blacks are genetically inferior. Singleton, who is black, told the others that "minorities were the last people who should be suppressing free speech," Winter said.

Likewise, Frank Washington remembers how tough it was for his old Yale classmate to be a black Republican serving Reagan and how Singleton tried "to keep some semblance of responsible policies in place" in an administration reviled by many civil rights activists for failing to aggressively pursue discrimination.

"He felt keenly about" civil rights, said T.H. Bell, the secretary of education during most of Singleton's tenure, who added that administration officials often complained about Singleton's views and "that made me more proud of Harry."

But Antonio J. Califa, who worked for Singleton when he headed the Office of Civil Rights in the Education Department, said he "did nothing for civil rights," a view shared by several other Singleton colleagues.

"The only thing this {office} meant to him was to be an assistant secretary of something," Califa said.

That wasn't all, said Califa: "His entire style is extremely irritating. He walked around like he was Napoleon."

Singleton dismissed Califa as a disgruntled former employee, but conceded that some officials in the office did dislike him.

"That's probably true," Singleton said. "The office had a lot of problems and it needed a tough manager. People knew I was no-nonsense . . . . These were Carter people. These were holdovers. They were {civil rights} advocates, and here was the Reagan administration in place . . . . They were doing everything they could to sabotage us."

Those 3 1/2 years of civil rights work for Reagan are the most controversial entry on the resume of a Republican running in a Democratic city that is 70 percent black.

A lawyer, Singleton wound up loathing the practice of law. A divorced father, he has custody of his two children, Harry Jr., 14, and Leah, 11. A handyman, there is almost nothing he can't do around the house, friends say: wiring, plumbing, deck-building and, above all, restoring cars -- always antiques, always Cadillacs. A cook, his friends say, salivating.

"We're talking about a guy who can bake one of the best apple pies I have had," Washington said. Actually, said Singleton, "I don't like to do pies that much." But he does do spaghetti. With sauce, "from scratch, of course."

What Singleton has never done is run for office, though he professes that politics has always been his passion -- and Republican politics at that. He was drawn, he said, to the party's emphasis on people helping themselves, rather than government helping them.

After all, he had grown up in Meadville, Pa., one of 10 children born to a janitor and his wife. Yet Singleton made it to Johns Hopkins University, then to Yale Law School.

At Yale, he became -- and remains -- a close friend of Clarence Thomas, also black and also Republican, who went on to be chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Reagan administration and is now a U.S. Appeals Court judge.

"I think with both Clarence and Harry there's a strong notion of manifest destiny," Washington said. "You are responsible for your own being and nobody else can be."

"The Democrats," Singleton said, "were always talking about, as far as minorities were concerned, 'Let government do it for you. You're a victim and you need government handouts.' "

The goal at Yale, however, was to become a lawyer because his father had inculcated a respect for the law, he says. After graduation in 1974, he went to a small Washington law firm and promptly hated it. He switched to a larger firm, hoping the problem was his old firm and not him. It was him.

"My neurons weren't standing on end reading those cases," he said over tea one morning at a downtown hotel. "I found it boring."

He eventually gave it up and never went back, beginning a trek through government: deputy counsel to the House District of Columbia Committee for two years, chief counsel for two more and then deputy assistant secretary for congressional affairs in the Department of Commerce.

John Gnorksi, a Republican staff member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who worked with Singleton on D.C. issues, recalls a formal man who kept close tabs on his staff and "insisted on a kind of a strong work ethic." He called Singleton a moderate, but a committed Republican who was "a fiscal conservative before anyone knew what that was."

The director of the majority staff of the House District Committee, Edward C. Sylvester Jr., said Singleton was adept at the ways of the Hill: "He knew the game. He knew the rules. If there was a piece of legislation, he knew what it said. He's just a very competent individual."

Sylvester said Singleton could be "rather direct at times. He says what he thinks, and he doesn't try to gloss it over." But confrontations were rare, Sylvester said: "It was usually pretty easy to get understandings with him."

That was not how some colleagues saw it after Singleton reached the Office of Civil Rights in 1982, recommended for the assistant secretary's position by Clarence Thomas, who was by then rising in the Reagan administration.

The job of the Office of Civil Rights was to ensure that school systems and colleges receiving federal money did not discriminate against minorities, women or the disabled. What he found, Singleton said, was an agency "frozen in the '60s," committed to an adversarial approach with problem schools. "It wasn't necessary," he said, "to be confrontational in many of these situations."

"He did lessen the head-butting," said Ken Ashworth, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which negotiated with the agency over how to desegregate the state's college system. "Singleton was more in favor of state flexibility. He was less dictatorial in terms of specifics."

At the same time, according to former education secretary Bell, Singleton tried to curb others in the Reagan administration, particularly William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights. "Their views were so contrasting that they were constantly clashing with each other," Bell said.

In a 1985 report, however, a House subcommittee blamed Singleton for weakening proposed settlements in some cases and stalling in others. Its report was issued after contentious hearings during which the committee chairman, Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), reminded Singleton at one point that he was under oath and Singleton objected vehemently to characterizations of his performance.

In one case cited by the committee, the agency found that an Ohio school system had denied a promotion to a teacher because of her sex, and sent the case to the Justice Department. But when Justice declined to prosecute and sent the Dayton case back to the agency, it did nothing, although it had the power to begin its own proceedings leading to a cutoff of federal funds, the report said.

In another case, involving a California school district, Singleton rejected portions of a discrimination settlement, saying they called for too much agency oversight of the school district. But the district itself had proposed the terms Singleton rejected, the subcommittee said.

Further, the agency's quality assurance team sent Singleton numerous memos about problems in enforcement, but Singleton told the subcommittee that in each case he could not recall getting the memos. He called the quality assurance team "more of a nuisance than a help" and disbanded it in 1985, saying he needed its staff for "other services."

To some of his employees, Singleton seemed enamored of the trappings of power, delighting in big cigars, fancy cuff links and open chastisements of underlings. Califa said he seemed preoccupied with rank.

"Under Singleton," Gary Orfield, of the Joint Center for Political Analysis, wrote in a draft about Reagan rights enforcement, "the professional staff was distrusted, power was centralized to an extraordinary degree, and an atmosphere of secrecy and intimidation became pervasive."

Singleton said, however, he was the target, both professionally and personally, of Democrats seeking to smear the Reagan administration. "Weiss was on some sort of crusade," he said. "They want to beat up on Republicans, and the Republicans were very vulnerable on civil rights."

Bell said Singleton faced an "almost Catch-22" problem, defending what he often disagreed with. "I don't think it's fair to go back and lay all that at Harry's feet," said Bell, adding that he never considered Singleton someone who was difficult to work with or pompous.

Eventually, Singleton said, he grew weary of the ideological spin his own administration was putting on government operations and felt "it was time for me to move on."

He opened his own consulting firm, taking as one of his first clients the Education Department.

Also, shortly after leaving, he sent a letter to some of the school systems he had previously regulated, offering his services with desegregation problems, though he noted federal law barred him from lobbying his old employer on their behalf. He subsequently withdrew the letter, however, after learning it might violate Bar Association prohibitions.

He decided to run for office this fall, he said, because of the city's mounting fiscal and crime problems. He initially wanted to be the GOP mayoral nominee, he said, but the party had former police chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. in mind. So, it was the delegate's race.

On the campaign trail, Singleton is for abortion rights and statehood. He has said he opposed President Bush's veto of the 1990 civil rights bill and would be unhappy if Bush vetoed the D.C. appropriation bill over abortion funding. But he has not disowned his Reagan service, he said.

"I think it's an asset," he said.