Santa Monica, Calif. — To all appearances, he could be just another hard-working freshman assemblyman - thrashing out issues and playing earnest politics from his third-story district office above the low-budget storefronts of downtown Santa Monica.
But that is a status Tom Hayden will never achieve.
Mr. Hayden: founding member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society in the early 1960s; early protester for civil rights for blacks in the South; Vietnam war protester; ''Chicago Seven'' defendant; husband of Jane Fonda.
His name has been a lightning rod for the political fury of a good chunk of middle-class America for nearly two decades.
But he has gradually been working his way in from the cold.
This liberal community overlooking the Pacific is the heart of a one-of-a-kind State Assembly district - probably the only district in the state, according to one leading Democratic campaign professional, that could have brought Hayden into the political mainstream.
For the past nine months, he has earned the respect of most his colleagues as a hard-working, low-key, gracious, and effective legislator who does his homework on issues.
''Except from H.L. Richardson (a very conservative state senator),'' Hayden says.
''He has an economic interest in me,'' he explains, claiming that Senator Richardson uses Hayden's name negatively to raise funds.
Perhaps the strongest reaction to Hayden has come from veterans' groups that tried to get him impeached from the Assembly, accusing him of disloyalty based on radio broadcasts he made from Hanoi during the Vietnam war. Democrats thwarted the effort.
A colleague of Hayden's, Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hannigan, saw some reluctance among Republicans, not only to vote for Hayden-sponsored bills, but even to vote the same way as Hayden.
''I don't think that exists anymore,'' he adds.
Hayden has not considered himself a radical now for some 12 years.
''You need to decide not to be a lone wolf to run for public office,'' he says. In Sacramento his aim is to be a team player.
Slightly impatient with what is for him a tired subject, he sums up his political history simply:
Twenty years ago, his intent was to devote himself to politics, beginning with civil rights in the South and working through the political system.
But around 1967, ''the doors to progress seemed shut.'' Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered, and 18-year-olds were being sent to Vietnam but had no right to vote.
Yet by 1971, political channels were open again. There was election reform, public opinion was turning against Vietnam, and 18-year-olds achieved voting status.
''So I became actively involved in the political system again,'' he says.
The Assembly seat he won last year is his first elected public office. His Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), with roughly 12,000 members, has been working for mainstream Democratic Party goals lately, such as defeating a GOP-drafted state redistricting plan.
CED is now considering a get-out-the-vote drive for the 1984 election.
''I think there's a perception,'' Hayden says, ''that the greatest available reform is to expand the electorate.''
How can he overcome the political burden of his past?
''Primarily by trying to do a good job in the Legislature, rather than trying to reconstruct the history of the last 20 years. . . .
''Some people like what I did. Some people dislike what I did. I think most people don't know where the truth lies.''