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When Mayor-in-Waiting Anthony Williams faced the D.C. press corps last month after inking a public accountability pact, the city’s glib political newcomer allowed WAMU radio political commentator Mark Plotkin to begin the cross-examination.
“What’s it gonna be, Mark, an update on the District Building?” Williams chided the abrasive, die-hard Democratic-pol-turned-radio-personality.
Williams’ quip satirized Plotkin’s well-worn practice of quizzing D.C. politicians on his pet peeves, without regard for the issue or event at hand. Too wrapped up in his own agenda to react to the put-down, Plotkin snapped at the bait.
For the umpteenth time in this campaign season, he asked where Williams would set up city hall. The candidate took the bait back, pledging to move the mayor’s office back to the Wilson Building and re-establish the historic structure as the seat of local government once renovation is completed next year.
Former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly deserted the dilapidated District Building six years ago and moved her administration into the current, nondescript city hall at 441 4th Street, which she pretentiously dubbed One Judiciary Square. Plotkin has been on a crusade ever since to force city leaders to reclaim the building situated at the corner of 14th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, the nation’s Main Street.
If given the opportunity, Plotkin surely would have raised the other issues in his personal accountability pact. As anyone who attends local press conferences knows, his questions are better telegraphed than one of Gus Frerotte’s intercepted passes:
•What have you done for home rule lately?
•How committed are you to preserving rent control?
•How soon can the District expect statehood under your watch?
•When will you get in the face of congressional overseers and demand more self-governance for the District?
Since its debut nine years ago, commentator Plotkin’s regular screeds on The D.C. Politics Hour have become the savored main course on the Friday luncheon menus of the District’s political cognoscenti. Of course, there’s not much else for them to chew on: It is the only show that focuses on D.C. politics.
So complimenting Plotkin’s show is a lot like saying District Cablevision is the best cable TV franchise in the nation’s capital. The local cable monopoly has gotten away with its high rates and poor service because, like the Plotkin Hour, it has had no competition.
The Plotkin Hour, however, can be compared with itself. And the current version lacks the freshness, spontaneity, and variety that made the show such a welcome staple early in this decade. Back then, Plotkin’s views didn’t sound so dated, and the guests spouted some interesting rhetoric not found in other media. All that changed a few years ago, though. Pop in a tape of a broadcast from 1995 or 1996, and it sounds like last week, with Plotkin pushing his same set of pet peeves on whoever is in earshot.
Plotkin refuses to critique his own performance. “I like the program,” he said. “I show up every week.”
The sheer force of Plotkin’s quirky and often strident personality, combined with the acquiescence of the show’s producers, has made the weekly broadcast a parody of the “me” journalism so widely practiced in this city. The show becomes particularly unbearable when Plotkin has well-informed, articulate guests on board. One insightful comment by the guest of honor is enough to prompt an hour-long filibuster by the insecure “esteemed commentator.”
These days, Plotkin, a former fundraiser and operative for the Democratic National Committee, spends five minutes of show time trying to convince listeners that he sparked the post-Democratic primary debate over keeping white candidates from gaining a majority on the D.C. Council. Never mind that the issue had been raised by Washington Post columnist Colbert King and by this publication well before Plotkin asked Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. about the possibility Sept. 16.
When he’s not boasting of his reportorial accomplishments, he’s quoting from his widely circulated monthly columns in Legal Times, reprints of which appear at coffeehouses all around town. If nothing else, Plotkin may earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the journalist who has cited himself most often as his main authority.
The show’s producers apparently realize that too much Plotkin can be too much, period. Kojo Nnamdi, current host of the show, landed the coveted job last summer largely because his bosses liked the way he kept Plotkin in check during his test week, according to one producer. Former host Derek McGinty also provided a much-needed balance and check on Plotkin’s agenda.
The show also suffers from an elitist perspective pushed by Plotkin and his hand-picked guest journalists that increasingly has no connection with the daily experience of most city residents. The irrepressible commentator lives in Ward 3, in a rent-controlled apartment that one day he’ll probably want preserved as a historic landmark, like the District Building. D.C. has a better chance of getting statehood than Plotkin’s landlord has of getting a new tenant.
Many in his starting rotation of guest journalists also hail from the white enclave of Ward 3or the suburbs. WRC-TV Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood, who holds the record for most appearances on the Plotkin hour, is a longtime resident of the white enclave. Washington Times columnist Adrienne Washington, another frequent guest, lives in Northern Virginia.
The three of them don’t hesitate to chide District voters for disrespecting home rule by backing an outsider like Williams, who became the chief financial officer as part of a congressionally imposed scheme to break Barry’s stranglehold on the city.
“Tony Williams really should have been, to people who have a sense of place, offensive,” Plotkin stated in the Sept. 18 broadcast.
The guest that day, political essayist and newsletter publisher Sam Smith, another Ward 3 resident, also lamented Williams’ Democratic primary victory as a sign of a depressed and demoralized electorate beaten down by Congress.
Easy for them to say.
It never occurs to Plotkin & Co. that the electorate may be depressed by two decades of failed government and lack of services. Unlike Ward 3 residents, most D.C. citizens living east of Rock Creek Park can’t walk to a local coffee shop, restaurant, grocery, or movie house. Those residents can’t send their kids to well-run public schools, and they can’t wander outside at night, because drug dealers own the corners.
Plotkin has already declared that Williams will be nothing more than “a colonial governor” unless he goes to Congress immediately after being sworn in next January and demands the return of home rule. Rather than the lofty goals of statehood and autonomy from Congress, most D.C. residents at this point will settle for economic development, safer streets, and clean neighborhoods.
But, Plotkin insists, no one in this town
“It should be a primary concern that people don’t have a vote in their national legislature and don’t have control over their own affairs,” he said. “[LL seems] to think that we are supposed to earn our democracy back by good behavior.”
The issue, however, is not good behavior, but good performance.
Williams, more than his rivals, holds out the promise of better government service. That’s why 9,000 residents signed his nominating petitions, why he collected more than $1 million in donations in five months, and why he got 50 percent of the vote in the September primary.
And control board chair Alice Rivlin’s pre-election signal that the control board stands ready to return big chunks of D.C. government to the next mayor is the kind of endorsement most District voters have been waiting for.
Plotkin & Co. still view the city through the fading Barry prism. They can’t fathom the newcomers who will engineer the next phase in this ongoing experiment with self-government.
Too bad voters this week couldn’t vote for a new crop of pundits to go along with the new guard at city hall.
Oops, come to think of it, LL doesn’t think that would be such a good idea after all.
THE NEW BOSS
Hundreds of Anthony Williams’ supporters and hangers-on flocked to the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel Tuesday night to celebrate the mayoral victor’s continued defiance of the District’s conventional thinkers. Throughout this stormy election season, Williams repeatedly discredited the soothsayers who scoffed at his mayoral chances.
A newcomer with ties to the despised control board who had unceremoniously fired a couple of hundred incompetent city workers stood as much chance of becoming mayor as Barry had of becoming Librarian of Congress, they harrumphed.
With such political prognosticators, D.C. politicos should be careful when hiring campaign advisers.
A few blocks away, at the Capitol Hilton Hotel, conventional thinkers presided over an Election Night wake for At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz. Like Williams’ primary foes, Schwartz had tried to convince voters that three decades of D.C. place-holding counted for more at the ballot box than Williams’ three years of budget-balancing.
Bitter Schwartz backers weren’t about to abandon their conventional thinking just because their candidate had gotten stomped better than 2-to-1 at the polls.
“I think folks are going to regret this, much like they did with [former Mayor] Sharon Pratt Kelly,” predicts D.C. Republican leader Harry Singleton.
There they go again. To put a stop to the nonsense, LL reminds the skeptics: Williams is coming into the mayor’s office with years of experience managing municipal government agencies in St. Louis, Boston, and D.C. Kelly prepared for her disastrous tenure by schmoozing with community types for PEPCO.
But conventional wisdom won’t die easily in the District. Nor will Williams go without a cadre of sideline critics waiting for him to fail. No D.C. pol, not even the 1978 version of Barry, has been able to hold together the diverse coalition of whites, blacks, Hispanics, gays, public-housing tenants, and well-heeled Ward 3 residents who filled the Mayflower’s ballrooms this week to fete Williams’ victory.
Even Barry ally and deposed Department of Human Services Director Vernon Hawkins got to share the stage with the next mayor. LL hopes Hawkins enjoyed his moment in the spotlight. That may be as close as he gets to the next mayor.
D.C. residents thought they had ushered in a new era in 1990 with Kelly. This time, though, reform-hungry voters have more than just a new face to hang their hopes on: Williams has a history of delivering.
For those who have waited nearly a decade for better schools, responsive government, and a more livable city, Williams pledged in his victory speech, “Help is on the way.”
Please send it via express mail.
•Defeated mayoral contender Kevin Chavous delivered a stern message to the Democratic party organization on the Ward 7 councilmember’s home turf last weekend. Chavous, who saw his mayoral ambitions thwarted by a successful draft-Williams movement that started in his home ward, told the Oct. 31 gathering of the Ward 7 Democratic Club that political bickering and bitter divisions among ward residents had come to an end.
The second-term councilmember vowed before the 60 or so Ward 7 Democrats to heal the political wounds opened in the ward by the heated mayoral campaign. But his message fell on deaf ears.
Soon after Chavous departed the dais, a slate of Williams supporters pulled off a surprising coup, sweeping all of the club’s offices in a write-in campaign. The coup, unknown even to the councilmember as he addressed the audience moments earlier, provided another setback for Chavous, and may open the way for a serious challenge when he faces council re-election in two years.
“At the last minute, we learned that the people running were not supporters of Tony Williams,” said longtime Ward 7 political activist Lorraine Whitlock, who has never been a Chavous supporter. “I felt the need to have people in places where there are Democrats who are supporters of Anthony Williams.”
As for Chavous’ message about healing, Whitlock said, “It was aimed at all of us who drafted Williams. He more or less said he’s going to run us out of Ward 7.”
Chavous has been finding life a lot tougher and lonelier since he lost the Sept. 15 Democratic primary to Williams. Last month, he requested an extension to file his Oct. 10 campaign finance report, stating, “Due to the outcome of the election, I do not have the staff and computer equipment to complete the report.”
Chavous has since told the Office of Campaign Finance that he has obtained a computer and the necessary software but needs a few weeks to learn how to use them.
•Democrat-turned-independent Beverly Wilbourn, who emerged in the final days of the race for two at-large D.C. Council seats as the vehicle to preserve the council’s slim black majority, showed she is no novice at D.C. political warfare. The newcomer sought to capitalize on the Washington Post’s endorsement by running posters in Ward 3 that carried her name, but not her photo.
Her posters on the city’s predominantly African-American east side featured her mug prominently. The racial dividing line was 14th Street NW, where both versions of Wilbourn’s posters adorned light poles.CP
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