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Taxation Without Representation
With Amy Whitcomb Slemmer,
Executive Director, DC Vote

Monday, Nov. 6, 2000; 1 p.m. EST

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer is well known for her concern about the lack of congressional representation for the citizens of the District of Columbia. She is executive director of DC Vote, a group dedicated to educating the public about the need for D.C. voting rights. That campaign has resulted in the District adopting new license plates that read "Taxation Without Representation."

For more information, see Sunday's article, District Puts Political Message on the Road, by Sewell Chan.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Amy, and thanks for joining us. To start, can you tell us a little about the origins and goals of DC Vote?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Good Afternoon. It is a pleasure to be with you and to have an opportunity to discuss DC Vote, the Coalition for DC Representation in Congress.
DC Vote was born approximately two years ago, as the grassroots component of the Alexander v. Daley (eventually Alexander v. Mineta) law suite. The purpose of my organization is to raise awareness about the fact that residents of the District of Columbia pay the second highest tax rate in the country, yet have no voice in Congress as to how that money is spent. Our primary goal is to rectify this situation and have voting rights extend to the half million residents of D.C.

Arlington, but used to be Adams Morgan: Hi Amy,

I have to say that I love the new slogan on the licensed plate. I lived in DC for 5 years and the only thing that irked me more than the lack of parking in my old neighborhood was the fact that I paid federal taxes and didn't have a voting voice in Congress.

Now that the issue is more in the foreground, do you think anything will actually be done about it?

Also, do you need people to volunteer? I may have moved but it's still something I feel strongly about.


Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear Arlington resident,
Thank you so much for your question and for your support for your former neighbors in D.C. I feel confident that we will be able to use this current momentum to get something done in Congress. The Taxation Without Representation has sparked interest across the country, and people understand that our situation in D.C. is patently unfair!
DC Vote can always use more volunteers. Please call our office or go to our Web site to see what our current programs are: www.dcvote.org. Thanks again!

Kensington, MD: Hey, it's nice to see a St. Albanite making waves!

Why doesn't D.C. mail out "Taxation Without Representation" stickers to existing plate holders with the next registration renewal? This would result in a much quicker transition to these plates.

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Mailing stickers out is a good idea, except that it is either a local or federal offense to change or cover up information on your license plates. In any event, DC Vote is committed to raising awareness, and allowing as many people as possible to drive around with the "Taxation Without Representation" slogan on their car. To that end, DC Vote is selling license plate holders for residents of other states. Your friends who are supportive can buy these holders for $10, place them on their cars and drive in solidarity with their friends from D.C.

Glover Park: I really really want one of these plates but I'll be damned if I go wait in line. Is there ANY way to get these by phone or on the Internet?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear Glover Park Resident:
One of the things that the Mayor said is that sometime next year D.C. residents will be able to accomplish a whole host of activities on the web. For now, you do have to go down to the DMV to trade in your current tags. If it is any help, the DMV has evening hours on Wednesday, and the line wait time is currently down to 22 minutes. Still too long perhaps, but the rewards are pretty good. You get to remind friends and tourists about our "Taxation Without Representation" circumstances.

Arlington, VA: Although voting rights for D.C. makes sense and I support it, it seems that a license plate campaign makes the cause look like the work of political gadflies who are more interested in spurious attention than in laying the foundation necessary for achieving voting rights. After all, this isn't the Boston Tea Party -- you are going to have to work within the system to attain your goal. What makes you think that provocative license plates will have the slightest positive impact on the process?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: I am interested in your characterization of the license plates as being provocative. You are the first person who has called them that, and I expected you to have much more company. Having been one of the 750 people who showed up at the DMV this past Saturday, I can assure you that the drivers felt that they were doing something substantive in our efforts to drive (you'll have to forgive me that) for Democracy.
The second fact is the one to which you allude. My job, and the job of DC Vote is to work tirelessly until "Taxation Without Representation" can be removed from our license plates because it is no longer true.
D.C. will have to work within the system to accomplish our goal of full voting representation, but in my estimation, it is now time to move people outside of their comfort zones. Politely asking Congress to give us a full vote hasn't worked. There are now people willing to be arrested for this cause. DC Vote is grateful for help from every quadrant and we know that to accomplish our mission will take more than license plates, but we feel good about this start.

NW: Do you see a problem with allowing political messages to be on license plates? Should we allow abortion messages to be put on there next?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: My position is that "Taxation Without Representation" is not a political statement, because it is neither advocating nor promoting any particular political agenda. It is simply the unfortunate fact of life for the residents of the District of Columbia.

Washington DC: I can't wait to get those new plates! Are they going to be in a limited run, or now permanently part of the choices for DC plates?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: The "Taxation Without Representation" plates are now the permanent plates for the District of Columbia. Early next spring there will be another choice, and I believe that the DMV has arranged for folks to be able to opt out of having any particular phrase on their plate. Check with the DMV for more information. If you weren't able to get to the Saturday rally, you can also check DC Vote's Web site to get more information on the new plates. www.dcvote.org

DC: I just renewed my registration in September. if I want to get one of the new plates, how do I do that? Is there a fee for the plate?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Again, for information on the new plates, go to www.dcvote.org
We have posted a checklist of what you need to get your new "Taxation Without Representation" plates.

Georgetown: I love the idea behind the new license plates, but I don't want to get new plates -- I've got low-numbered 6-digit plates, which denotes the fact that I've been living in D.C. for ten years, and I don't want to trade them in for some Johnny-come-lately two-letter plus numbers plates (i.e., the new format).

Is there any way I can get a "Taxation without Representation" sticker to paste over the "A Capital City" line on my current plates?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Beginning in February or March, my understanding is that you can order your current plate as a vanity plate, or as a special order. Thus, you will preserve your low number but you will also have the "Taxation Without Representation" phrase at the bottom of the plate.

b'more md: here's a thought - don't mean to be facetious, but it might stir up the pot a bit . . . when you moved to DC, didn't you KNOW the situation re: no vote in congress? Puerto Rico doesn't have representation either, correct? They are citizens as well - should we make THAT a state too?

just curious

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear Baltimore,
Puerto Rico not only lacks representation, but those American citizens aren't allowed to vote in the Presidential races either. Here is where D.C. is different. Puerto Rico doesn't pay federal taxes. District residents not only pay federal income taxes, but we pay at the second highest rate in the country. For our $2+ billion annual tax bill, we have no voting voice in Congress. Not fair!

dc: What are my options for getting the new plates? Only in person at C St NW, or is there a mail-in option?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Again, by this afternoon the DC Vote staff will have put up extensive information on the details of getting your new tags. If you need more information quickly, please call the DMV central number at: (202) 727-5000. DC Vote Web site is www.dcvote.org

Washington, D.C.: I'm a D.C. resident and love the new plates, but I don't own a car. Is there any way to get a souvenir plate, or T-shirt with the plate design, or some other commemorative item?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: The question of souvenir license plates has come up so often that DC Vote is considering selling them. In the meantime, I highly recommend a DC Vote key chain which has a copy of the license plate and is only $4.00. Also, not to sound like a commercial, but DC Vote is selling T-shirts. They are $15 each. You can see them at the web site, or stop by our fabulous campaign headquarters at 15th & U Streets, NW and someone will help you out.

DC Ward 4: Isn't there still a lawsuit pending - part of the Adams v. Clinton or something? Also what about a lawsuit in the International arena? I think there was something going through the OAS (Organization of American States)??

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear Ward 4 Resident:
There have been two lawsuits about which much has been written. Part of Alexander v. Mineta has not been heard (that is the part of the suit claiming that District residents have the right to two Senators) and the other suit, Adams v. Clinton, is still pending. My organization did not have anything to do with the latter, but was involved in the former.
Thank you for mentioning the international arena, because in denying voting rights to the residents of D.C., the US is in violation of at least one international charter. DC Vote is beginning the process of organizing a subcommittee to pursue our case in front of the UN and other international deliberative forums.

Washington, DC: Does DCVote support any of the following: Withhold the Presidential election results Nov. 7th.? Have DC's 3 electoral college votes be cast blank? Have the DC Govt. withhold Federal Taxes from the Federal Govt. in protest?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: My Board of Directors has not taken a position of withholding the electoral votes, or voting blank. My personal opinion is that this would be a terrific tactic to raise awareness, particularly as the popular vote is expected to be so incredibly close. DC Vote will be out working some of the polls tomorrow because we want to remind voters that their ballots are significantly different from our neighbors to the North and South.
You should also know that Delegate Norton has announced that she will introduce a bill in the 107th Congress that will alleviate the federal tax burden on D.C. until we get full voting representation in Congress. Please know that it is currently a federal offense to withhold your taxes!

Logans Circle DC: Any word on how the presidential candidates stack up on the "DC Question"?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: DC Vote worked very hard to have the major presidential candidates address this question during the campaign. Vice President Gore sent us a letter saying that he is in favor of full voting rights for the residents of D.C. Governor Bush was opposed to the idea. As you may know, Ralph Nader has championed this cause, and apparently spent 10 minutes talking about it at his rally yesterday.

Columbia Heights, DC: When I bring this up with out-of-state friends, particularly those who have never lived in DC, they seem at the least ignorant of it, or at most, against it. What is your perception of national public opinion on this issue?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear Columbia Heights,
As I have traveled around the country to discuss the fact that residents of D.C. have no voting rights in Congress, I my experience has been incredibly positive. First, as you say, people are completely unaware of it. Then, when I make the case about our tax rate, and having no voice in how the money is spent, people get upset and pledge to help us! In my 15 years of Washington based advocacy, I have never had the pleasure of working on an issue that engenders such strong support. The challenge is to ask people to do things that are helpful for our cause!

Adams Morgan: Hi! Thanks for taking the time to answer questions. What is support in Congress like for DC voting rights? If a vote were held today, what would the breakdown be in the House and Senate?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear Adams Morgan,
Good question. The truth is that DC Vote does not know exactly who is with us and who is against us. We can guess about some of our supporters and detractors, based on their work on the D.C. Appropriations bill, but it would be merely guessing because we have never asked the members of Congress to declare themselves on one side or the other.
I was incredibly pleased at the response that I received from the members to whom I wrote after meeting them at both the Republican and the Democratic conventions this summer. So I am encouraged, and my hope is that the members of the 107th will take up our cause early in their tenure.

Arlington, VA: Two of the methods for D.C. to obtain voting rights, retrocession and statehood, seem highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. Maryland does not seem inclined to take D.C. back, and statehood is dead in the water. Given the recent court decision, doesn't this leave a constitutional amendment as the only means of acquiring voting rights? How is this any different from the constitutional amendment that was required before D.C. got the right to vote in presidential elections?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: You are right about the two options for achieving voting rights that you mentioned. There are other options, however including a highbred of the two, which would require changing the boundaries of the federal part of D.C. and declaring the surrounding areas another type of political entity.
I submit that D.C. has never had the opportunity that we currently enjoy to get full voting rights in Congress. Fiscally we are on track, our city leadership is strong, professional and committed to winning the vote, and the District is seen as a highly desirable place to live.
I am fortunate to assume the Executive Directorship of DC Vote at this time in the District's history, and I am quite clear that I enjoy the fruits of the work that went before me. The constitutional amendment died because there was not enough strong national support behind it. If we have to go the route of anther amendment, DC Vote is committed to working on passage 7 days a week, until it is passed. Our hope is that there is an easier solution, like an act of Congress.

20008: I have an old license plate now but it doesn't need to be renewed until June. How do I get a new one?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Hello Neighbor. Take your plates off you car, gather proof of current insurance, a copy of your registration and $10 in check, money order or credit card and go to 301 C Street, NW
For more information about replating your car, go to DC Vote's Web site at www.dcvote.org

DC: Does one have to go and get that new plate? I just bought one a few months ago and don't want to have to pay for a second one if I don't have to. It may not seem like a lot to some, but even $10 is a lot to this single parent of three - it's another day of groceries.

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: There is no requirement that you buy a new plate.

SPringfield, VA: Is there a particular solution for DC voting in Congress that your group advocates?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: This is a great question, because DC Vote has not chosen a particular solution that we seek for this problem. We consider ourselves the Big Tent under which lots of local and national organizations can play. We have room for those who want our federal tax burden rescinded, those who call for retrocession, those who advocate statehood and all groups in between. Our strategy requires that we will call for a particular solution sometime in the future, but for now, our efforts are focused on raising awareness and turning up the heat on the national debate.

VW Girl: Hi Amy! You're a great motivator!

Since so many questions in this discussion seem to be related to how to -deal- with the DMV in DC, here's a useful and funny site. It's called the Unofficial Guide to Registering Your Car in DC. I'm not affiliated with it at all, just a disgruntled citizen. Here's the URL if anyone is interested:


Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear VW Girl,
Thanks for the humorous link, and the kind comment. As I said on Saturday, I have never, ever seen people excited to be at the DMV, and yet, they gave Sheryl Hobbs Newman a standing O at the DMV on Saturday.
I hope that people realize that those DMV employees gave up their Saturday. That office is usually closed on the weekends. You should also know that there will be Saturday hours for replating next week as well.

Memphis, TN: If Washington DC is ever granted representation, what do you think will happen to other U.S. Territories, such as Puerto Rico, and Guam? What about Commonwealths, such as Siapan and the Virgin Islands?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Good question about the other United States citizens who lack representation in Congress. I do not know what will happen with their struggles. I have had the good fortune to meet with some of the people involved in the Puerto Rican fight and they are very motivated to get the right to vote in Presidential elections. As I said earlier, their situation is slightly different because they do not pay federal taxes, and residents of D.C. do.

Washington: Why wait until the 107th. Why not attach a bill giving dc full representation to an Omnibus bill. The 106th will be back after the elections.

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: The 106th is NEVER going home, are they? I'm sorry for my friends who work up on the Hill. I briefly considered calling for a sense of Congress resolution that would decry "Taxation Without Representation" as being wrong, but there was not alot of support for it.

WDC: I can't help but feel, as you have mentioned, that once people in other states know of the situation they will speak up. Has there been nationwide publicity? In other words, did anyone call Tom Brokaw, et al with a story about the plates? It seems like a perfect news tidbit that they would jump on. I think you need to hire a PR person who knows how to scream a bit!

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: How funny that you would mention hiring a PR firm. I had a discussion about just that, this morning! If you know anyone fabulous who would like to take the cause on pro bono give me a call. In the meantime, my office did TONS of outreach to national press, and were sadly surprised that no one picked it up. CNN was there, and those of you who own cable should let me know if they ran our information.

MH in MD: Thank you for the information about the plate frames; I will have to check it out.

However, the plates and plate frames will for the most part only be seen by area residents.
I recently modified my e-mail signature to include "Taxation WITHOUT Representation -- http://www.dcvote.org", and I know it has been seen by people in New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, and probably a few others I can't think of right now. Is there anything else we can do to raise awareness in other more distant states?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear MH,
What a great idea, and thank you for your support and for making your friends aware of our circumstances. There are a number of other things that folks can do. They can write to their representatives (and send a copy to DC Vote so that we can echo what is said). People who are strongly motivated to do something can also hold a house party for DC Vote in their own home. The how-tos of house party planning is on our Web site. Thanks for your question.

VA: Actually people have won cases regarding changing license plates (in fact coving up slogans). I don't remember what the plate actually says, but a New Hampshire resident covered up the slogan that was on the plate because it went against his beliefs. The case went to court and the resident won. What if someone does not want to put a political slogan on their car? Will they be forced to?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: No one is forced to use the "Taxation Without Representation" plates on his/her car. As I said in my first answer at the top of the hour, I don't consider the new tags to be political speech, but I sympathize with people who disagree.

Crestwood: Are there any plans to enlist the help of celebrities, sports figures to use their fame to bring attention to our plight? Why don't the African-American groups (NAACP) seem to have this on the top of their list?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: One of my first priorities when I took over the Executive Directorship of DC Vote was to try to enlist high profile folks to jump into our suffrage movement. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is represented on my Board of Directors, and I would love to have the NAACP there as well.

If you are in touch with celebrities or high profile people with District connections, please call my office. (202) 462-6000!

The Hill: Where does your group get it's funding? Grants? Donations? Membership dues(like AARP). Are you a 501(c)3? Do you have a PAC?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Funding Information: DC Vote is a 501 (c) (3) organization. We are supported with grant funding, through merchandise sales, and through the kindness of individual donors. Our budget is modest currently, and I am proud to say that the percentage of funding that we spend on overhead and administrative is very small compared to what we spend on outreach and programs. That being said, I am also very realistic that it will take millions of dollars to wage this battle for full voting rights for the residents of D.C. as a national campaign, so I am always interested in attracting more donations and increasing our streams of revenue!

Adams Morgan/U Street: Thank you for championing this cause! It's insane that there are so many forces against DC voting rights.

My question: Do you support Eleanor Holmes Norton in the coming election? I have wondered if voting for her is a plus for DC voting rights, since she's been around a long time and knows people, or a minus, since obviously she hasn't been able to influence Congress' thinking. Is she just trapped in an impossible situation?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Hmmmm. DC Vote does not endorse any candidates, as we are a non-partisan, non-profit organization. I will say that Delegate Norton knows this issue, and has worked tirelessly to rectify the situation. My office enjoys a close working relationship with her and we know that we will work very hard together during the 107th Congress.

Arlington, VA: When you say that D.C. pays the second-highest rate of taxes, what exactly do you mean by that? As a former D.C. resident, I know that I filled out the exact same federal tax form as the rest of the nation, so my tax rate was exactly the same. Do you mean that D.C. pays the highest federal taxes per capita except for one state? This would be a function of the higher average income of District residents, not a difference in the tax rate. Or are you including D.C. taxes in your calculation? Either way, it would seem that the federal tax rate is the same.

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear Arlington, Thank you for the clarification. When we speak about the second highest tax in the country, we are talking about per capita. While it is a function of income, it also highlights the magnitude of our disenfranchisement. We are doing our part to support the federal government and the services and programs that it provides, however 515,000 people do not have a voice in which programs are renewed or ended. In addition, as you know, as a former D.C. resident, we don't have autonomy for our own budget. It is subject to Congressional oversight.

Washington DC: Is DC Vote endorsing any of the "Shadow" candidates in tomorrow's election? Also, are those positions actually effective?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: DC Vote does not endorse any particular candidates, but we do vociferously encourage all District residents to get out of their houses and VOTE tomorrow! We need an energized electorate, and tomorrow is an opportunity to show that the DC citizenry cares about these elections.

Bethesda, Md: Thanks for taking my question. What if DC gets a vote in congress and all is forgiven. Do you see license plate slogans as a way to get the message out or is this a one shot deal?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Dear Bethesda,
If the District of Columbia gets full representation in Congress, you will not be able to stop me from yelling from the rafters that our new license plate slogan should be something like "The Cradle of Democracy" or "One Person One Vote" or "Democracy for All" or something else celebratory, but not political!

washingtonpost.com: Thanks, Amy, for joining us today. Any final thoughts for our readers?

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer: Thank you all for your great questions and for your interest in DC Vote. Getting full voting right in Congress for the residents of the District of Columbia will take hard work within the District and outside the beltway. Those of you who are going to the polls tomorrow, please remember as you vote that you are exercising a privilege that is not shared by your friends in the District of Columbia. Tomorrow night when the election results are made public, please think about doing something on behalf of the residents of D.C. Either write a letter to your members of Congress, call DC Vote to volunteer or make a contribution. Whatever you choose, please get involved. I see this as the last suffrage movement in America, and I know that it will take a great deal of work to succeed. Again, thank you very much, this has been a pleasure. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Executive Director, DC Vote.org (202) 462-6000.

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