On a rainy, blustery morning exactly 12 years ago, Sharon Pratt Dixon marched down 14th Street toward the District Building as the dutiful wife of a prominent politician who was about to take office as D.C. Council chairman.

Today another parade will move along the same route, but this time to greet Dixon, who will be sworn in as chief executive of the nation's capital.

Dixon, 46, arrives at the D.C. mayor's office via an unusual course. She raised a family, pursued a passion for national Democratic politics and built a successful corporate career before running for public office. And in her first bid, she grabbed the brass ring.

Today, Dixon joins the relatively short list of women who head state or local governments, the first black woman to have been elected to run such a large city. That victory required overcoming subtle barriers to women in politics that often are more pronounced among blacks than whites.

Unlike her two predecessors, she used a background in business and national Democratic politics as a springboard to elective office. And, perhaps more important to many residents, she is the first native Washingtonian to take the helm of this town.

Dixon, elected with 86 percent of the vote, takes office as the District's third mayor enjoying a wealth of public and political goodwill. For many D.C. residents, her no-nonsense style and pledge to sweep clean the city government radiates integrity and purpose.

She represents "ideas, ideals and goals, things we reach for," said Nora Drew Gregory, 77, a former elementary schoolteacher who is collecting the history of Washington families and whose son is astronaut Frederick C. Gregory. "It's sort of catching."

Dixon says that in the long run she would like to use her influence as mayor to achieve three main objectives: a progressive educational system that would serve as a model for the country; greater economic empowerment for blacks and Hispanics, using government as a catalyst rather than a crutch; and a better integration of the local, federal and international sectors of Washington.

"If there is a city in the world that takes pride in public service, it has been this city, and I want that to be alive for all of us," she said. "It was a city that, in spite of the fact that we are very cosmopolitan, still had a strong sense of neighborhood in our residential communities, and I want that revived."

Unlike her predecessors, Walter E. Washington and Marion Barry, Dixon has no practical government experience in this overwhelmingly government town. With few political debts, she is free to break with tradition.

She lays out her plans in corporate terms that reflect her background as a utility executive. And the Cabinet appointments she has made so far are heavily weighted with policy experts and lawyers who seem to some more qualified to design policy than to implement it.

Yet she captured the city by eloquently articulating a vision of government filled with fresh faces and fueled by technocratic efficiency.

The city was wounded and stalled by the scandal surrounding Barry's drug case when she came from behind to win the Democratic mayoral primary and then crushed her Republican opponent, former police chief Maurice T. Turner Jr., in the general election. She won over cynics and motivated young people by calling for a return to classic values.

Now Dixon acknowledges she must win a much different battle, and she must do it on a daily basis.

The most daunting problem requiring her immediate action is the city's mounting deficit, which her top financial adviser says could reach $300 million this year. Unless drastic steps are taken, Dixon has been warned, the city may run out of cash by spring, yet she pledged during the campaign that she would neither raise taxes nor cut critical services.

Her challenge now is to deliver the changes she promised and simultaneously address the harsh realities she inherited. She takes the reins today of a city whose neighborhoods are in crisis, where the wail of emergency vehicles has in some instances become commonplace, where the homicide rate is out of control and where illegal drugs are more accessible to some than health care.

"I think my responsibility, once we get past these serious financial problems, is to get everyone involved in some sort of active role to take control of our environment, to ameliorate that sense of crisis," Dixon said recently.

To her advantage, Dixon assumes office with the respect and support of a number of Democratic congressional leaders who can be of immense help to the cash-strapped city. She got to know them during the 13 years she served on the Democratic National Committee.

Persuading Congress and the White House to increase the federal payment to the District is crucial in her plan to balance the budget.

And although few of those who have been appointed to her administration so far have had direct experience with D.C. government, Dixon has recruited policy experts with bright minds and distinguished training who have been willing to take pay cuts to serve government.

"Those people are important in finding and stretching dollars, devising new ways of doing things, being effective about matching needs to resources," said Ronald W. Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University. "If you can do many of these things well, then you've got a substitute for new sources of revenue.

"We're on the edge of another era of hope," he added. "It's a regime hope, not a system hope. It's a hope that's undergirded by cynicism about the limitations of home rule, a hope that maybe this regime will do the best it can under the circumstances."

However, Walters said, Dixon has got to find a way to "marry" her policy experts and longtime city workers who know the system well.

"This is the house that Barry built," he said, "and unless you're going to dismantle it totally, you've got to have somebody take you through it. I don't see those persons in close proximity to her."

That's a tall order for Dixon, who has created some ill will in the District Building and in parts of the city by vowing to cut 2,000 mid-level managers from a city work force of 48,000 that some consider bloated and others see as a route to economic security. Balancing the budget and delivering services well are her top priorities, she said last week.

She also has pledged to take the boards off all abandoned housing owned by the city within eighteen months and to reduce the homicide rate within six months by getting private enterprise to finance programs for youths.

"There are young people who may appear to be lost, but I'm not ready to give up on any of them," she said. "I just don't think enough people reach out . . . and the notion of instilling values, setting examples of values that are enduring, timeless, just has not been the order of the day."

Dixon, a third-generation Washingtonian, was raised in an extended family that believed in striving for excellence. She grew up surrounded by the kind of community spirit that formed the backbone of the black middle class.

Her mother died young, so she and a sister were raised by their father, retired D.C. Superior Court judge Carlisle E. Pratt; aunts; a grandmother; and a stepmother.

Their marching orders were "excellence for the sake of excellence, as well as for the sake of improving the quality of life," Dixon said. "There was no greater achievement, no greater reward, and it was always far more important than money."

Gregory said: "Most families around here have instilled these values in their children . . . . They may slip for a while, but they'll come back to it."

Twelve years ago, Dixon stood by as Barry was sworn in as mayor and her husband, Arrington L. Dixon, took the oath to become chairman of the D.C. Council. Arrington Dixon's election was a goal that he and his wife had worked for as a team. As it turned out, however, the victory proved to be a mixed blessing for the Dixon family.

Some say Sharon Dixon bristled at the restraints she felt as a public figure's wife. Others say she always was ambitious and resented her secondary role -- factors that may have contributed to the couple's divorce in 1982, after Arrington Dixon lost a bid for reelection.

But Dixon insists she set her sights on the mayor's office long after she and her husband walked the 14th Street inaugural parade route more than a decade ago.

"I always wanted to be on the team that put the points on the board for the District of Columbia," she said, adding that she has been willing to play any of a number of positions -- the political equivalent of a running back, blocker or coach.

"If anything, I probably thought I would always be a coach," she said. "But as fate would have it, I am the one playing the role of quarterback. I think the ambition I had then was what I have now: to see this city live up to its potential . . . . And I'm willing to play whatever role to make that happen."