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Taxation Without Representation Field? Unlikely

Democracy and baseball seem to go hand-in-hand these days as local groups take on multiple efforts to use the Washington Nationals to highlight the District of Columbia’s lack of voting rights in Congress.

The proposal with the greatest potential impact — but is far from coming to fruition — is a plan to buy the naming rights to the field at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and recast it as Taxation Without Representation Field.

The coalition backing that effort has established a Web site, for “a grassroots effort to buy the rights to name the grass.” The site includes a letter addressed to the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission offering a bid: “We understand the naming rights are up for auction at RFK Stadium. … Accordingly, we hereby submit the first written proposal, for the following name: ‘Taxation Without Representation Field at RFK Stadium.’”

However, the commission has received three formal offers for the field naming rights at RFK, none of them from the Taxation Without Representation Field at RFK Stadium Coalition.

“We did not get a formal letter [from the coalition] that was addressed to the sports commission directly,” said Tony Robinson, director of public affairs for the commission. “We think it’s a meaningful effort, but it’s not something we’re going to be able to accommodate.”

John Hlinko and Mike Panetta, two founding members of the coalition, offered $51.08 in the letter “to get it on the books and get a proposal in front of them to have the Web site based around,” Hlinko said.

The site has been accepting pledges, through which supporters of the cause may choose an amount ranging from “nothing right now” to $1,000 that they would be willing to pay if the commission were to accept the coalition’s offer. The average pledge is $25, and Panetta said very few have pledged $1,000, which “leads us to believe that this isn’t just people running up the numbers thinking they won’t have to pay.”

To start, the group posted a goal of $10,000 in pledges on the site and exceeded that within one day. The current goal is $51,000 by April 14, the Nationals’ opening day. The amount was chosen for its “nice implications” in reference to the 50 states plus the District. As of press time, pledges amounted to more than $30,000.

“We frankly wanted to get some attention, make a splash, but people are taking it seriously and we’re taking it seriously,” Hlinko said. “We’re not talking about 51 bucks anymore, we’re talking about more money. We think it should be entertained.”

But, even with the larger goal of $51,000, the offer still falls far short of the commission’s hopes of finding a sponsor willing to pay up to $2 million per season the Nationals play at RFK. Robinson said the commission intends to pick a sponsor early this week.

“I don’t think people expect that [the coalition] will be able to raise $2 million to name the field, but from what I gather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek effort and it catches people’s attention,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, a 501(c)(3) organization that is also using baseball to shed light on the District’s lack of full voting representation.

Zherka said the Nationals “give us a chance to reach out to people,” and one thing DC Vote has been vocal about lately is the fact that the team is named the Nationals and not the Senators, as it was 30 some years ago.

“They’re not called the Senators because Mayor [Anthony] Williams [D] objected to that name — he said when [D.C. has] Senators, they can call the team Senators,” Zherka said. “That story needs to be told. It’s a way to educate people about D.C. status.”

And apparently people need to be educated. A poll recently done for DC Vote by KRC Research found that 78 percent of adults believe D.C. residents have the same constitutional rights as other U.S. citizens, including equal voting rights in Congress.

“The amount of ignorance on this topic is startling,” Zherka said. “The support is out there, but not enough people know about the problem.”

In an attempt to “boost overall awareness” concerning D.C.’s voting status and history, DC Vote has been working on penning a potential partnership with the Nationals that would include informative advertising and be part of a national education campaign, according to a DC Vote press release.

However, in a radio interview Friday, Nationals President Tony Taveras said he is legally unable to provide DC Vote with advertising space at RFK. The release said Taveras’ statement “is inconsistent with the law and with [the Nationals’] proposals to DC Vote.”

The details of the partnership were supposed to be finalized this week.

“We’re in the bottom of the ninth on these negotiations,” Zherka said in the release. “After receiving the best deal in history from D.C., this is no time for the Nationals to turn their back on D.C. residents and city leaders.”

In another education effort, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) submitted a letter Thursday to D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission Chairman Mark Touhey asking that a permanent sign promoting D.C. voting rights be erected at RFK before opening day.

“A major frustration of residents is the difficulty that a single jurisdiction has in telling the world about the invidious discrimination that applies only locally but results in a denial of basic human rights,” Norton wrote.

Robinson said Touhey is talking with Norton about her sign proposal and they are “looking at the legal implications of doing that.”

As opening day rapidly approaches, baseball will continue to be used as yet another outlet to spread the word about D.C.’s voting rights.

“What’s more American than baseball, apple pie, voting and democracy?” Zherka said. “Linking America’s pastime with democracy makes a lot of sense to people.”

In hopes that it might make sense to Congress, Hlinko made a personal pledge to Members.

“If Congress finally gives us voting rights, somehow I will personally get a ticket for every Member of Congress [to a Nationals game],” Hlinko said.

“I don’t think their seats would be as good,” Panetta responded, as Hlinko attempted to multiply the amount of the cheapest seats at RFK by the number of Members.

“$3,500 for democracy, I could do that,” he said.

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