by Howard Kohn
Recently on Allegheny Avenue a slogan showed up on those little traveling billboards, also known as special-order Maryland license plates. The slogan says, “Let DC Vote.” It is meant to convey an across-the-border solidarity with residents of the District who, in the third century of the Republic, have yet to be counted formally in the ayes and nays of Congress.
Carol Clayton may have been the first on the street to pay her $35 for the few-of-a-kind plates, but Carol was tipped off by Debra Katz, a neighbor and crusading attorney who, taking a short break from a headline-grabbing sexual harassment case, dashed off an e-mail to alert the Allegheny crowd.
Not that the idea originated with Debra. She was doing due diligence for a friend, Larry Ottinger, another crusading attorney and a former Takoma Soccer dad who lives in Chevy Chase.
“Actually the idea has been kicking around for a while,” Larry said at
his house the other day as he held up the new plate, which has a
classic, unadorned look. “But I guess I did get it off the ground,” he
added, allowing a grin.
For Larry it started when he purchased a vanity plate two years ago. He
had it customized to read “DC Vote” in honor of the lobbying group,
founded in 1998, that is trying to gain equal representation in Congress
for District voters.
A vanity plate in Maryland is without numerals and is unique to the
owner, but Larry discovered that Maryland offers another category of
plates with four numerals and a short text. These tags, to the extent
there is a sufficient demand, can be mass-produced.
“The catch is that you need an organizational sponsor, and you need a
minimum of 25 people before the MVA will create a supply of new special
plates,” he explained while applying a screwdriver, in vain, to the
rusted screws on the old standard plate at the rear of his 1997 Toyota
Carol Clayton and Larry Ottinger change the plates on Larry’s car. (photo by Howard Kohn)
“You should try some WD-40,” Carol suggested. She had stopped by to
collect more copies of the special-order application forms, which
require a signature by Larry, as the assigned representative of DC Vote,
the organizational sponsor.
Trying to round up a quorum of 25 for the first order of plates Larry
had turned to Takoma Park and such friends as Debra, who used to be his
boss at a civil rights firm specializing in whistleblower litigation.
Debra had only a few minutes to spare. She was in the midst of a trial
against Andre Chreky, a Washington hair stylist to the rich and famous
who had been accused of gropings and other sexual misconduct against his
Neighbors Linda Keely, Karen Paul-Stern, and Carol Clayton each ordered “Let DC Vote” license plates. (photo by Carol Clayton)
On the other hand, Carol, a professional photographer who lives down the
street from Debra but previously had lived for ten years in the
District, was ready to be a ball of fire, which is essentially the way
she operates, and thus she became Larry’s chief agent in Takoma Park.
“This is a cause I’ve always believed in,” she said. “It goes back to an
era when women and black Americans couldn’t vote. There’s no way to
justify it. None. Whenever I think about it, the madder I get.”
For his part, Larry, while feeling the passion, is a bit more lawyerly
and circumspect in how he wants to be quoted. “Think of it this way,” he
said. “The District is bigger than Wyoming, in terms of population, and
it pays more in taxes per capita than any of the 50 states, and yet it
is on the outside, looking in.”
He is nothing if not aspiring, though, and believes the license-plate
campaign can catch on in all 50 states. “Virginia should be next,” he
said. “That’s obvious.”
Meanwhile, he was ultimately able to attach his new plate to the Camry,
and Debra won a $2.3 million judgment in her lawsuit but was still
searching for time to fill out the paperwork for her plate.
“I plan to tease her about that,” Carol said.