IT HAS NOW been 7 1/2 weeks since the news of Eleanor Holmes Norton's tax defaults first broke, and try as we have over this period to understand and accept the gradual attempts to explain this failure and provide assurance that it has no larger ramifications than those she admits to, we come up short. It is a conclusion reached reluctantly and in sadness, but also in the belief that whatever is the source of Mrs. Norton's trouble and of her evident difficulty in comprehending and explaining it, the District of Columbia should not be asked to assume that trouble. This city is in no position to do so at such a critical point in its history. For this reason, we conclude that in a choice between the two, Mrs. Norton's opponent, Harry Singleton, is the better prospect for D.C. delegate at this time.

With a new mayor we all have a chance for redeeming the terrible moral disadvantage from which District residents had to argue for support in the last Barry years. Given that central and all-important fact, this city should be spared the consequences of congressional representation by anyone who has failed -- repeatedly and for the better part of a decade -- to meet the terms of D.C. tax laws; and though the precise shares of responsibility are clouded in the personal relationship of Mrs. Norton and her husband, the fact remains that for that entire period she did not fulfill her most fundamental obligation of citizenship in the District. The job for which she asks the voters' support now is essentially one of representation and promotion of this city's interests -- in particular and, relentlessly, persuading a recalcitrant Congress to enlarge the funds it makes available to the District. To us, Mrs. Norton's situation, along with her inability to confront directly and effectively the doubts it has created over the past many weeks, seems a fatal disability in trying to fulfill such a role.

We started, way last spring, as enthusiastic admirers of Mrs. Norton, whose accomplishments over the years are well known. We continue to admire those accomplishments. Mr. Singleton certainly does not come into the race with anything like a comparable reputation. But he does offer voters a reasonable alternative, an opportunity to place the office of delegate in the custody of someone knowledgeable in the ways of Congress and pledged to work for the full democratic rights enjoyed by Americans in all 50 states. That he is a Republican in a city with an overwhelmingly Democratic registration should in itself be no automatic disqualification. On the contrary, when it comes to matters of important local interest -- statehood, support of the civil rights bill that President Bush vetoed, abortion rights, cooperation with and support on the Hill for actions taken by the city government -- Mr. Singleton's positions are basically the same as Mrs. Norton's.

In terms of knowing the process and the players, he is also well qualified, having worked for a great Republican friend of the District in Congress, the late Stewart McKinney of Connecticut, as minority chief counsel and minority staff director for the House District Committee. Members and staffers from both parties have said Mr. Singleton worked the House with competence and with strong knowledge of the legislation and of D.C. issues. There is an issue over his role as assistant secretary of education for civil rights in the Reagan administration, the degree to which he stood up against some of that administration's retrograde policies. Terrel Bell, secretary of education during most of Mr. Singleton's tenure (who was himself castigated by the Reagan regulars for an excess of liberalism, as they saw it) recalls that Mr. Singleton "felt keenly about" civil rights, and says that the fact that administration officials often complained about Mr. Singleton's views "made me more proud of Harry." Other Democratic opponents point to a letter Mr. Singleton wrote The Wall Street Journal in 1985 in which he questioned the wisdom of disinvestment moves, arguing that such actions could wind up hurting black South Africans, making them the real losers. This position -- especially at that time -- was shared by many black and white Americans who were no friends of apartheid.

Mr. Singleton -- lawyer, single parent of children in the D.C. public schools -- has pledged to support a bipartisan appeal to Congress on behalf of a larger federal payment to the city and a better understanding of District of Columbia issues. Certainly someone working the Republican side of the aisle and the White House could be of real assistance to the next mayor.

Mrs. Norton's problems are not resolved. Mr. Singleton deserves a chance to show what he can do for the city.