WASHINGTON -- Ever since copies of a District of Columbia notice about her income tax delinquency slid anonymously out of fax machines in some media offices last month, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic candidate to become the district's non-voting delegate in Congress, has been trying to take the political sting out of the ensuing controversy over her tax debts.
She hasn't fully succeeded, but in Democrat-dominated Washington she is still regarded as heavily favored to defeat her principal opponent, Republican candidate Harry M. Singleton, in next month's election.
The delinquency notice -- mysteriously circulated among the press four days before Washington's primary vote -- indicated that Mrs. Norton and her husband, Edward, had failed to pay the district government $10,755 in income taxes due in 1982 and that with interest and penalties, they owed the district $25,381.80 for that year.
Publication of the notice sent Mrs. Norton scrambling to control damage to her primary campaign -- but her explanations spread the damage.
She said that in "extensive conversations" with her husband, she found that he had not filed joint income tax returns to the district in
any year from 1982 through 1989, although she had signed the forms.
And in subsequent weeks, Mrs. Norton announced payment of $88,546 in back taxes to the district.
Despite these revelations, Mrs. Norton won the Democratic nomination for District of Columbia delegate, garnering 40 percent of the primary vote in a five-candidate field -- although she lost the support of voters in Washington's affluent and predominantly white Ward 3.
Since then, Mrs. Norton has had to spend considerable campaign time trying to convince voters -- and her Democratic Party colleagues -- that her tax delinquency has been a family problem and not, as Mr. Singleton and Washington newspaper editorials have contended, a scandal that should disqualify her as a candidate for public office.
"All I ask is that voters measure me against what they knew of my life," said Mrs. Norton, a Georgetown University law professor, in an interview. "If they do, I think they'll say, 'This woman probably wouldn't have been so dumb as to get out here and run for office if she knew she had taxes outstanding.' "
Last week, however, Mr. Singleton released his federal and district tax returns for the last five years and dared Mrs. Norton to do the same. He wanted, he said, "to see if there is not some other thing lurking there."
A similar request came recently from Mrs. Norton's running mate on the Democratic ticket: Sharon Pratt Dixon, who is favored to become the next mayor of Washington. Mrs. Dixon, interviewed on a radio talk show, said she was "very troubled" by Mrs. Norton's tax problems and added:
"I've asked her to get everything out . . . so that the public has a chance to scrutinize it and be comfortable with whatever occurred. She has a responsibility to get the facts before the community."
But Mrs. Norton, who has made public what she has described as summaries of her district and federal tax records, has said she has gone as far in that direction as she intends to go -- mainly, she said, because her husband would consider release of their joint federal tax returns an invasion of his privacy.
"I've had to deal with the collision of my private and my public life," Mrs. Norton said.
Immediately after the delinquency notice surfaced, Mr. Norton -- VTC who, like his wife, is a lawyer -- acknowledged that he handled "all of the family finances, including taxes." He issued a statement saying he took "full responsibility" for all of his family's tax delinquency.
His failure to file joint tax returns to the district over an eight-year period was the result of his own "procrastination," he said, and he asserted that the failure had occurred "without the knowledge of my wife."
Said Mrs. Norton: "I wonder how my husband could let me get out here without clearing up the tax thing. There are things that happen that you can't undo and you can't altogether understand. So I just have to move on."