That phrase debuted in 1765 as a protest against the Stamp Act, the British law that taxed American colonists.
Back then the expression was “No taxation without representation.” Sarah Shapiro wanted something a little simpler, just “Taxation Without Representation.” Sarah is the District resident credited with suggesting in 2000 that the capital’s status as a city whose residents pay federal taxes but have no voice in Congress should be set in stone, so to speak. (As we’ll see, there’s an even earlier chapter to this story.)
“It started with an email I wrote to ‘The Politics Hour,’ ” Sarah told Answer Man.
That’s the long-running public affairs show on WAMU-FM. Sarah’s suggestion was to put “Taxation Without Representation” on District license plates.
Sarah, 70, was born in the District, grew up in Bethesda, went to Connecticut for college, then moved to Foggy Bottom. She was surprised that her Yale University classmates had no idea that D.C. residents had no voice in national politics.
“These are well-educated adults in America,” she said.
It’s hard to rectify an injustice if no one knows about it. That’s why Sarah thought a “Taxation Without Representation” license plate would help spread the word.
“Politics Hour” host Kojo Nnamdi did not read Sarah’s email on the show, but his staff saw it. “They showed it to Mark Plotkin,” Sarah said. “If you show something to Mark Plotkin, then things happen.”
Plotkin, who died in 2019, was a radio commentator and home rule agitator. Sarah said Plotkin ran with her idea, bringing it to the members of the D.C. Council.
Said Sarah: “A buzz grew about the thing. It was like a ball that started rolling and getting bigger and bigger.”
Predictably, there was some pushback from Republicans in Congress. Rep. Ernest J. Istook (R-Okla.) claimed that many non-Washingtonians would “read the slogan as an insulting boast that the nation’s capital benefits from taxes at the expense of the rest of the country.”
But it all came together in a matter of months. By August 2000, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) had signed an executive order authorizing the plates, and the first 13,000 were made by inmates at Lorton prison. The slogan replaced “Celebrate & Discover.”
Sarah was invited to a big launch event and interviewed on television. She received a vanity tag that read “MY IDEA.”
“It was really, truly a blast to be intensely famous for like a week,” Sarah said.
Meanwhile, in Fairfax County, Va., Tina Bacas Gibson wondered why she wasn’t famous. Nineteen years earlier, the graphic designer had the exact same idea.
In 1981, my predecessor in this space, Bob Levey, pointed out that the city was still distributing bicentennial license plates. Jeff Hoffman, an editor who worked for the District government, organized a contest to pick a new slogan. Mayor Marion Barry (D) promised to give the winner free auto registration for a year.
In Bob’s Nov. 9, 1981, column, he included a few of the entries, including a “political” suggestion from Tina. Wrote Bob: “Her design has DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA across the top and TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION across the bottom.”
There was never another mention of the contest in the paper, or who the eventual winner was, or if there even was one.
Tina said when she saw her first “Taxation Without Representation” tag in 2000, she said, “Oh my god, that’s my license plate! I’ll never ever get credit for that.”
Like Sarah, Tina was born in the District. Her family moved to Virginia when she was 3. Like Sarah, Tina was incensed by Washington’s second-class status.
“It always [ticked] me off,” Tina said.
“That’s amazing,” said Sarah upon hearing of Tina’s 1981 suggestion. “It could have happened years earlier. Not a single person had remembered it.”
Consider it a case of great minds thinking alike.
The edgy plates have occasionally caused controversy, such as when George W. Bush said he would not put them on his presidential limo.
The current plates read “End Taxation Without Representation,” the result of a resolution introduced in 2016 by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
Sarah doesn’t consider that an improvement, preferring the purity of her (and Tina’s) suggestion over the stridency of the new slogan.
“Our license plates are not bumper stickers,” Sarah said. “They’re not bulletin boards. This is a slogan, like ‘The Mountain State,’ ‘The Sunshine State,’ ‘The Peach State.’ It’s what’s true about us.”
For just as West Virginia has mountains, so the District of Columbia has taxation without representation. For now, at least.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.