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May|June 2003
Lowball By David Newman
Political Capital By Brian Montopoli
Justice, Interrupted By Siddhartha Deb
Access Malibu By Benjamin Nugent
A Tree Grows in the Hamptons By Kim Lemon

Political Capital

By Brian Montopoli

WHEN THE COMIC NOVELIST AND LEFTY ACTIVIST TIM COOPER hit upon a plan to get the local politics of Washington, D.C., some national exposure, he brought the idea to his friend Mark Plotkin, one of the city's foremost local radio commentators and all-purpose provocateurs. Plotkin, who is 55, has lived in Washington for 38 years, but he operates like one of the hard-charging Democrats of his native Chicago, with a combination of tenacity and political cunning that forces his pet issues to the forefront of District politics.

As a radio personality, Plotkin is less than ideal: He has trouble finishing his sentences (" . . . because, and, even in the press release they had the seven deadly sins, I'm not making this up, that is . . . "), jumbles figures of speech ("We don't get no respect, you know, and attention must be paid . . . "), and repeats himself to the point of becoming his own worst enemy. But Plotkin's choice of causes—chief among them voting rights for D.C. citizens—has given him great credibility with his local audience, and his passionate advocacy in a city dominated by compromise has charmed listeners. With Cooper seeking to turn a left-field idea into a viable political movement, it was natural for him to turn to Plotkin.

Cooper had done some digging into election law and had come across a 1977 New Hampshire state law requiring its primary to come a week before that of any other state. But, he wondered, why not take advantage of the Granite State's precision and make the District's primary the first in the nation? Every fourth January, the national media invades New Hampshire (and Iowa, which holds early caucuses) to lavish big money and significant airtime on the voters who will place the first bets in the upcoming presidential race. Cooper realized that if the District of Columbia—a city with 572,000 residents, many of whom have nothing to do with national politics—could garner even a fraction of New Hampshire and Iowa's publicity, it would thrust D.C. residents and their local issues into the national spotlight.

Plotkin loved the idea. He realized that it would draw wide attention to the issue he has been sounding off about for decades: the District's lack of voting representation in Congress. "If we had any self-respect, we wouldn't stand for the way we're treated," he said. "There's a plantation mentality in this city—we accept crumbs, so nothing ever changes."

UNTIL 1960, D.C. RESIDENTS WERE TREATED AS WARDS of a depoliticized zone by Congress, ineligible to vote for president or administer city affairs. In the late '50s, Republicans, led by Dwight D. Eisenhower, became vocal advocates of D.C. voting rights, but the southern faction of the Democratic Party, which didn't want two additional northeastern-style, socially liberal senators, hobbled the movement. As D.C. became a largely Democratic city (Democrats now outnumber Republicans 9 to 1), the equation changed, and concern among Republicans kept D.C. from gaining full-fledged Congressional representation, though D.C. has had a nonvoting delegate in Congress since 1970.

In 1978, a constitutional amendment that would have secured such representation for D.C. passed the House and Senate, thanks to big Democratic majorities in Congress. But the amendment was voted down when it went to the state legislatures. A bill for D.C. statehood reached the floor of the House 14 years later, but that measure, with backing from only one Republican, came up 63 votes short. Four years ago, a constitutional law professor named Jamin Raskin tried a legal remedy, arguing that D.C. residents' lack of Congressional representation constituted a breach of the Fifth Amendment's due process and equal protection guarantees. His lawsuit failed in federal court—in a 2-1 decision—and the issue has since received little national attention.

Though the date of the D.C. primary has varied from year to year, it has generally come fairly late in the nominating season, drawing the city little attention. Knowing that a first-in-the-nation primary could attract leading candidates and reignite the voting debate, Plotkin called Jack Evans, a buddy of his on the City Council, to lobby for the idea. He also got an assurance from Mayor Anthony A. Williams of behind-the-scenes backing and, in tandem with Evans, got the entire City Council on board. All this happened fast. Only a day after Cooper came to Plotkin with the idea, Evans made a commitment on Plotkin's radio show to introduce legislation that would move the D.C. primary to January 13, 2004, two weeks before New Hampshire plans to hold its primary.

Not that there wasn't opposition. Within a week, the Democratic National Committee came out strongly against the proposal, largely because a shuffled primary schedule could alter the party's message. Given the District's heavily black electorate, Al Sharpton could very well be the victor in a rescheduled D.C. primary—an outcome that would force mainstream candidates like John Kerry and Joe Lieberman to address Sharpton's talking points, politically nettlesome issues like welfare and affirmative action.

The DNC is working to make sure that doesn't happen. Party officials have warned city leaders that, should D.C. go ahead with the proposed early primary, the committee will strip the city of as many as 30 of its 38 delegates at the party convention. The Republican National Committee has made similar promises, and Washington, D.C., Republican Committee chairman Betsy Werronen says that in the event the primary date is moved, she plans to opt out of the primary and hold a caucus in which local party members would choose their delegates.

The Democratic Party is threatening not to certify the results of any primary held before February 3, the beginning of the general primary season as specified by the national rules committees of both parties. (Iowa and New Hampshire have been exempted from this policy.) If the parties refuse to certify the results of the January primary, the city's residents would likely be asked to vote twice: once at a nonbinding first-in-the-nation primary, and later at caucus meetings sanctioned by the parties.

A high-profile action like censure by the parties would suit Plotkin just fine. Since each party's nomination is almost always wrapped up by the time of its convention, he shrugs off the threat of a loss of delegates, and he and Evans have vowed to lead a protest outside the DNC convention should D.C.'s delegation be excluded.

An even better outcome, Plotkin allowed, might be for the city's efforts to be halted by Congress, which has the final say over all laws in the District, including one that would mandate a change in the primary date. Political watchers believe Congress may intervene and call a halt to the city's attempted political coup.

If that happens, and the city chooses to disobey Congress and go forward with the primary, Plotkin hopes the confrontation will transform D.C.'s disenfranchised citizens into media darlings and force the issue of the District's second-class political status squarely into the national arena.

Any compromise that fails to move the primary to the front of the pack or generate significant publicity would be unacceptable to Plotkin. "This is not horseshoes," he insisted. "Almost doesn't count. We're just trying to find a way to get back to the starting line—to get what everyone else already has. That's what's so amazing and confounding and ridiculous about people being against it."

IN A DIFFERENT SETTING, PLOTKIN MIGHT NOT BE SO UNIQUE. Crusading Jewish left-wing journalists who forsake national politics for the local scene are a lot easier to find in cities like Chicago and New York. But Plotkin has a rare ability to elevate an issue in the public consciousness, and he probably has a greater impact on local politics than most of the city's elected officials. In 1995, when the city cut a deal with the federal government that let the feds occupy two-thirds of D.C.'s city hall in exchange for picking up the cost of building renovations, Plotkin went nuts, railing against the proposal with his trademark single-minded bombast. His audience grew increasingly frustrated with the campaign—listeners were calling the station to tell Plotkin to give it a rest—but the public pressure convinced Evans to write President Clinton asking him to intervene. The president did, and the whole of city hall was preserved for the District.

Months later, Plotkin successfully lobbied Clinton to mount D.C.'s then-new license plates, which featured the phrase "taxation without representation," on the presidential limousine, a move that significantly increased the visibility of the voting rights issue. (President Bush has since removed the new plates in favor of the old ones.) The guest list at a 2000 roast of Plotkin included an abundance of D.C. pols, including the current mayor, three former mayors, members of the City Council, members of Congress, and many prominent newsmakers and journalists. The comments of D.C. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton were typical of the evening. "Plotkin is a pest," she said. "He is, however, our pest."

Not everyone appreciates Plotkin's efforts. When Evans tried to secure support for his proposal from the D.C. State Democratic Committee, he was forced to face off with Donna Brazile, Al Gore's former campaign manager and an at-large DNC member who sits on the rules and bylaws committee. Flanked by DNC lawyers, Brazile argued that the plan was a gross violation of DNC rules.

"Getting this done requires work, not talk," she explained later. "Jack [Evans] and Mark [Plotkin] don't have an understanding of how you build a movement. This is a stunt. They want a confrontation with Congress, but they don't want to do the work to make [D.C. voting rights] a reality." The state committee voted against the proposal in a largely symbolic action that will have little impact on the legislation.

A few days later, however, at a town meeting before the City Council, all but one of 20 speakers were in favor of the plan. Plotkin says he will continue to push for the primary and the confrontation, regardless of the DNC's objections. "Of course it's a stunt," he said. "But it's a worthwhile stunt."

Brian Montopoli is a writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The Washington Monthly and The Washington City Paper and can also be found at www.brianmontopoli.com.

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