Though critics called the effort futile and symbolic, a campaign by the D.C. Council and local activists to get President Barack Obama to adopt the city’s standard license plates with the “Taxation Without Representation” motto has succeeded.
On the heels of a WhiteHouse.gov petition, a council resolution and a White House meeting Friday, all presidential vehicles will be fitted with the new plates this coming weekend, just in time for the start of Obama’s second term in office.
The slogan, while symbolic, calls attention to the city’s lack of voting rights in Congress. When the plates were created in 2000, President Bill Clinton adopted them for the remainder of his term in office, but when President George W. Bush took over, he removed them. Obama followed Bush’s example and stayed silent on the issue, until now.
“President Obama has lived in the District now for four years, and has seen first-hand how patently unfair it is for working families in D.C. to work hard, raise children and pay taxes, without having a vote in Congress,” White House spokesman Keith Maley said in a statement. “Attaching these plates to the presidential vehicles demonstrates the President’s commitment to the principle of full representation for the people of the District of Columbia and his willingness to fight for voting rights, Home Rule and budget autonomy for the District.”
Councilmember Mary Cheh, who along with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was one of the leading figures in the effort to get Obama to use the plates, told CQ Roll Call tat she received the good news on her cellphone Tuesday afternoon.
“They called and then they said they were going to call the chairman, but I think I beat them because in my zeal I raced up and told him,” Cheh laughed.
Cheh said that she wasn’t surprised but that it was enormously validating given the many stops and starts that come with being an elected official for the city that sits in the shadow of the federal government.
“Sometimes in all this ... I feel like Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football,” Cheh said. “You think you’re close, and then the ball gets pulled away from you at the end.
“I was really hopeful and felt positive, but I kept trying to repress it,” she continued. “There have been a lot of disappointments along the way.”
Cheh and Mendelson said they were hopeful last Friday at a small press conference convened after their visit to the White House, where they made their case before White House Intergovernmental Affairs Director David Agnew.
They did not elaborate much on what was discussed or just how confident they were, perhaps leaving the impression that the White House would never follow up and the issue would fall to the wayside of other more pressing business.
Cheh suggested this was partly strategic.
“They had asked us to just say this was an opportunity to present the case,” Cheh said of White House officials. “We wanted in every way possible to be cooperative and not get ahead of them. We wanted to be careful and diplomatic.”
It worked, and Cheh hopes this will be just the tip of the iceberg in future collaborations with the White House and the Wilson Building to advance greater autonomy for the District.
There are already a number of areas where the White House could lend crucial support, particularly regarding the proposed D.C. budget autonomy referendum that will appear on the April special election ballot and which could be subject to a court challenge.