Eleanor Holmes Norton has paid the District a total of $88,546 in back taxes and penalties, and she is hoping that this down payment on her new image as a taxpaying citizen will be enough to salvage her campaign as the Democratic nominee for nonvoting delegate to Congress.
The Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy has spent the better part of his 18-year tenure in that job showing that it can be held with little discernable impact. We are not talking about the presidency or vice presidency or the Senate, where particularly high standards of ethical conduct are significant to voters. But we are talking about a person who aspires to public office in a body that has huge influence on how taxes are allocated, and the question that ought to govern the discussion about Norton's candidacy seems to be fairly clear. And that is: Is someone who is so cavalier about her obligations as a taxpayer qualified to represent the nation's capital in Congress?
It is particularly sad to see a woman who had risen to almost heroic stature within the civil rights and women's movements felled by her own misdeeds. But there are standards of conduct that must be upheld by those who aspire to public office, and to bend these to fit the sentimental favorite is a disservice to all.
And one of those standards is you pay your taxes. Like the rest of us. It is the great leveler in this society. It's hard on poor people and it is hard on rich people. It been so painful to some rich people that they get arrogant about this matter and engage in a practice known as tax evasion. "Only the little people pay taxes," is the way Leona Helmsley put it, instantaneously turning the entire tide of public opinion against her.
Norton's explanation of her failure to pay taxes is that it was her husband's fault. She says that he handles the family's finances, that she signed the D.C. tax forms when they were blank, and that she was shocked when she discovered how much money she owed. Her campaign has said that accountants had discovered the tax forms Norton signed. But they refused to release them.
Norton is a lawyer, as is her husband. Her husband is a former head of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. She is a professor of law at Georgetown University. She was a high-level Carter appointee. She is frequently described as brilliant. We are talking about two extremely accomplished people who made a great deal of money. They failed to pay income taxes to the District for the last seven years. During that time, $32,499 in taxes was withheld. To fulfill their obligations, the Nortons have given the city checks for $28,555 and $33,638 as well as $26,353 in penalties and interest.
What is particularly damning is the difference between the Nortons' tax bill and what was withheld. Their outstanding bill was almost twice as much as what was taken out. That is significant money in any household.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Norton did sign blank forms and turned the entire matter over to her husband -- an act of blind faith that seems entirely out of character for someone of her independence. There are conversations that occur between married couples about taxes, no matter who is preparing the forms. One such conversation goes like this: "Well, how much did the District stick us for this year?" Another one is: "How much did the feds get us for this year?"
It takes another leap of faith to believe anyone would not have some interest in knowing how much they owed, when in fact they owed twice as much as what was deducted. This is not small change. In 1989, for example, $5,089 was withheld, but the Nortons had a $23,473 liability on a taxable income of $252,346. Eleanor Holmes Norton collected $328,000 that year in salary and honoraria. Her husband reported significant business losses. It is reasonable to expect that a couple in those financial circumstances would have had some discussion about the difference between the taxes withheld and what they owed. You don't have to be a certified public accountant to figure out that $5,089 won't cover it.
The Norton affair brings to mind the question that was raised when Gary Hart baited reporters to follow him and then took a woman to his town house for the night. The question was: How could anyone so smart do something so stupid? A lot of psychobabble followed, but in the end the verdict was sharp: Someone with that kind of sorry judgment wasn't fit to be president.
It is sad for the city that voters, barely over the nightmare of Mayor Marion Barry's trial, will have to render a verdict on another candidate whose character and judgment are so suspect.