Mayoral nominee Sharon Pratt Dixon expressed dismay yesterday that Eleanor Holmes Norton had owed the District $88,546 in back taxes and penalties, saying that Norton's failure to file D.C. income tax returns for the past seven years was "very distressing and disappointing."
But Dixon and other Democratic leaders said that Norton had started to repair any political damage on Friday with her public apology and announcement that she paid the debt. They said they still plan to back her as the party's nominee for D.C. delegate to Congress.
"Unless there is something more compelling that I haven't seen thus far, I'm prepared to respect the will of the Democrats in supporting the total ticket," Dixon said in an interview.
Dixon said she is concerned about the way information about Norton's delinquent taxes has trickled out in the past two weeks. Dixon also called on Norton to release her federal and newly filed D.C. tax returns to clear up any lingering questions -- which Norton has thus far declined to do.
"Probably the right thing to do is to release everything," Dixon said. "I wish this could have been handled more quickly than it was, but maybe she had to reconstruct a lot of facts from the past."
Norton declined to release her joint federal and local tax returns because, she said, her husband thought that would be an invasion of his privacy.
Republican delegate nominee Harry M. Singleton, a lobbyist and Norton's chief opponent in the November general election, also called on the Norton campaign to release the tax returns. Norton has said she signed the local returns that were unfiled for seven years, and her campaign manager announced on Friday that those seven returns had been discovered during a search of the family's financial records. The campaign has so far declined to release copies of the seven tax returns.
"Why not produce them if you have them?" Singleton said.
Singleton also said Norton should consider withdrawing from the race. "With all the controversy swirling around her, she has to be asking herself whether this is the best thing for the city she professes to love so much," he said.
Norton left Washington around midday yesterday for Dallas, where she was scheduled to address a gay-rights group.
Her campaign manager, Donna Brazile, said Norton believes that her most recent disclosures close the door on the tax controversy, which has disrupted her campaign for the nonvoting delegate's seat being vacated by Walter E. Fauntroy, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic mayoral nomination. She said Norton has no plans to withdraw from the race.
"I think the voters got over it on September 11, when they overwhelmingly elected Eleanor Holmes Norton," Brazile said.
Norton won the Democratic primary with about 40 percent of the vote, compared with 33 percent for her nearest rival, Betty Ann Kane. But Norton had been damaged politically by the disclosure that she and her husband failed to file their D.C. tax returns.
Norton has said that her husband, Edward, a local lawyer, handles the family finances and that she was unaware of the lapse. In the days leading up to the primary election, she also asserted that a preliminary review by her accountant revealed that withholding taxes between 1983 and 1989 should more than cover her tax liability, and that the city might even owe her money.
But Norton said late Friday that in addition to penalties and interest, she and her husband owed the city $33,638 in back taxes for the past seven years, on top of the $32,499 that was withheld from their paychecks. The extent of the back taxes owed was not detailed in the tax summaries initially released late Friday by the campaign, which provided a fuller accounting only after being questioned about it.
The extent of the Nortons' tax liability took many top Democrats by surprise, and they said that the tax revelations are likely to hinder Norton's effectiveness in Congress, at least in the early stages, if she defeats Singleton.
"I didn't realize that there was this much money involved," said D.C. Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), the party's nominee for council chairman.
"That's pretty bad, any way you look at it," Wilson said. "Win, lose or draw, it is going to hurt her for some time. It is not going to go away."
"This is going to hurt, at least at the beginning," said Bruce Lehman, a politically active lawyer who supported Kane in the primary but is now supporting Norton. "Many sitting members have scrapes -- it affects their relations with their colleagues for one or two terms -- and then they go on. I think this will happen with Eleanor."
Wilson, Lehman and other Democrats interviewed yesterday said they believed the overwhelming Democratic advantage in voter registration should propel her to victory in November.
In predominantly white Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park -- probably Norton's weakest section of the city -- Democratic Chairman Norm Linsky acknowledged that some party members may not support Norton. But he added, "the Republicans have never gone anywhere here."
But Singleton said he felt there is a "very fertile field to till for votes" among Democrats. "Six out of 10 Democrats rejected her candidacy in the primary," Singleton said. "There are just too many people out there that don't like her . . . who are troubled by these questions about her honesty and integrity."
Also on the ballot is George X Cure, a member of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, running as an independent.