By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 1993; Page B01

And now, a word about that other topic confronting the District's voters when they go to the polls next week: nuclear war.

Already faced with the arduous task of choosing a new chairman for the D.C. Council, the city also will have the distinction of being the first place in the United States to have a formal vote on whether the government should abolish its nuclear weapons.

If voters think that's a good idea, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly will be obligated to write a letter to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Norton can then introduce a constitutional amendment calling for disarmament by 2000 and a "vigorous good-faith" effort to avoid war. Then, Congress can debate it.

And then, one couple, Ellen and William Thomas, finally will have won a first hint of victory in the peace vigil they have kept for more than a decade now on the sidewalk across the street from the White House.

The husband and wife team are almost solely responsible for landing the disarmament question, known as Initiative 37, on the District ballot for the Sept. 14 special election. The special election was called to fill the vacancy created by the death of John A. Wilson, who committed suicide in May.

Aided by a small band of volunteers, the Thomases spent months roaming the city to collect just more than the 16,000 citizen signatures needed to qualify their measure. It is the start, they hope, of something big.

"The world has a big problem on its hands, and we're just trying to do something about it," said William Thomas, 46. "The worst thing I hear about this is that we're too idealistic. I'll take that."

But some city leaders are scoffing at the initiative, saying it's a dreamy proposition that will do little more than waste the time of Kelly, Norton and the city bureaucrats who have to tally votes.

The initiative will impose strict requirements if it's approved: In 30 days, Kelly must send a letter telling Norton that a majority of District voters want her to introduce the amendment to abolish the warheads and divert money spent on them to social and environmental programs.

But even if Congress acted on it, the amendment would not become effective until a comparable one was ratified by the Commonwealth of Independent States, the former Soviet Union.

Vada Manager, Kelly's press secretary, said that the mayor had not taken a position on the initiative yet, but had time to read about it after peace activists ambushed her with fliers during a protest for D.C. statehood last month at which Kelly was arrested.

The initiative is the result of nearly five years' work by the Thomases, who married after meeting in Lafayette Square at peace vigils in the early 1980s. William had been traveling in the Middle East; Ellen had been an executive assistant at the National Wildlife Federation.

"We each realized we had to devote ourselves to getting out of this terrible nuclear rut," Ellen Thomas said.

They have been taking turns holding the vigil, almost around the clock, ever since.

First, they spent three futile years making annual visits to every member of Congress and urging an amendment on disarmament.

"We made at least 1,500 trips," Ellen Thomas said, "but only ever got three responses. And they were the standard, 'We need to hear it from our constituents first.' "

That sparked the idea for a public vote in the District. But just as they began the petition effort two years ago, the Persian Gulf War began and they turned their attention to protesting it.

"It was a total distraction," William Thomas said. But they did not give up.

They have plastered parts of the city with bright blue signs promoting the initiative, all handmade on recycled paper.

Mindful that their vigil is on a prime tourist path, they even have fliers promoting the initiative in Russian, German, Italian, French and Spanish, hoping to plant seeds in those countries as well.

"We're out to change a mind-set," William Thomas said. "Everything has to start somewhere."