Alum fights for D.C. rights on radio

Like many GW students, alumnus Mark Plotkin wanted to run for office. After working on several Democratic campaigns, he ran for a D.C. City Council position in 1986 and lost. In his concession speech, he lamented, “The people have spoken – the bastards.”

That wry sense of humor may not have made Plotkin an elected official, but it has made him a thorn in the side of many politicians as he pushes for D.C. voting rights.

Plotkin hosts his own weekly show, “The Politics Program with Mark Plotkin” on WTOP radio and regularly writes for The Georgetowner in his “You Take the Cake” column. A typical day, he said, includes attending mayoral and City Council press conferences, talking to a variety of sources and walking around the city. He said he prepares “as little as possible” for his show.

“Plotkin is a fine example of a GW graduate who pursued his dream with gusto and has succeeded,” said Michael Freedman, GW’s vice president of Communications.

Freedman, who worked for CBS radio before joining GW, said he has known Plotkin for about four years because of their similar career tracks.

“I love what I do,” Plotkin said. “It’s not a job to me.”

Plotkin came to GW in 1964 from Chicago knowing that he was interested in politics but not sure about career plans. All of the language requirements in the international affairs school prompted him to quickly switch into the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences as an American history major.

He said he knew hardly anything about GW when he applied but was drawn to the city. All that mattered was “location, location, location.”

Plotkin praised the department and its faculty, but one professor’s vendetta against him was “my bitter aftertaste,” he said. He explained that a professor of medieval history tried to stop him from graduating because he wrote about his opposition to the Vietnam War in a comprehensive exam then required to graduate.

“I still look at that as something so personal,” Plotkin said. “He used personal political feelings to judge my academic competence.”

“I was very opposed to the war,” he added. Plotkin expressed his opposition by writing Hatchet editorials, participating in protests and naming GW’s intermural basketball team the “Fulbrights,” in support of Sen. J. William Fulbright, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a GW alumnus.

Plotkin’s efforts to make a statement paid off when Fulbright attended a basketball game, and a photograph of the team with the senator was featured in Sports Illustrated.

A history professor lauded Plotkin’s character.

“Plotkin was a good student; a great guy. I don’t recall that he was outstanding,” said Peter Hill, Plotkin’s professor of early American history. “He was quite a character.”

Hill recalled Plotkin once attending class dressed as an ambassador to France, the subject of his research paper.

“Mark dressed the part when he came in wearing a frock coat and a top hat, much to the amusement of the class,” Hill said.

“I thought I’d play the part,” Plotkin said, remembering the scene.

“I was a wayward student except for in courses that I enjoyed,” he added. “I was mediocre at best.”

After graduating from GW, Plotkin taught at inner-city high schools in Chicago and Washington. He then turned to politics, working on the campaigns of Edward Kennedy, Morris Udall and Eugene McCarthy.

Plotkin said that as he worked on campaigns throughout the country, he noticed people taking their congressmen and senators for granted. Living and working in the District contributed to his awareness of the voting rights issue. D.C. residents have no voting representation in either house of Congress.

Plotkin described the lack of voting representation in D.C. as the “last chapter in the civil rights struggle.” Plotkin repeated these sentiments in his Freshmen Convocation address last month.

“We are truly the last colony,” Plotkin said. “It is because of partisan politics: Republicans and some conservative Democrats don’t want two District senators.”

D.C. Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka, an advocate of District voting rights, said Plotkin’s unique personality and journalistic approach have helped the issue’s political progress.

“He’s put people on the record such as the president’s folks. He ensures that people are doing the stuff that they want to do,” Zherka said. “He’s helped feed the fire.”

“I don’t know that I have seen or met many political commentators or reporters that are quite like him,” Zherka added.

Zherka said Plotkin has not had a direct impact on D.C. Vote but certainly helps the voting rights cause. Freedman agreed that Plotkin has made a definite difference in the District, citing his advocacy and “holding the feet of politicians to the fire in the debates on important issues.”

“You can run … but you can’t hide from Mark Plotkin if you’re a Washington politician,” Freedman said.

The next cause he will fight for involves baseball. Plotkin said he will crusade against naming D.C.’s new baseball team, formerly the Montreal Expos, the Senators – the name of the city’s last ball club, which left in 1971.

“We shouldn’t continue the hypocrisy and the dishonesty by calling them Senators when we’re deprived of senators,” he said.

Plotkin’s experience in politics involves more than just being a commentator and campaigner. Though he failed to win a City Council position, Plotkin was elected to the D.C. Democratic State Committee for Ward 3 and to his Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

Plotkin said he turned from politics to radio because he kept losing.

“Falling short of being in office, this was the next best thing,” Plotkin said. “I thought I would be in office and shape the course of life.”

Though Plotkin does not intend to run for political office, he said he could not turn down the opportunity if the city secured more representation.

He said, “Under the right circumstances, if Washington D.C. had more power and autonomy and we got representation, I’d seriously consider it.”

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