Rep. Hansen Clarke turned 54 this month, but the Michigan Democrat’s boyish looks, silver braces and pitch-black hair make him easily mistakable for a man in his 30s.
The freshman legislator, however, is far removed from his 20s, when he nearly gave up hope. Clarke was jobless and aimless on Detroit’s east side. He had lost his parents, his college scholarship and a burgeoning business.
“I was on food stamps at the time. That was so humiliating for me,” Clarke said. “My mother ... she really thought I was going to be able to do something for myself, for the community. And I end up ...” He trails off. “It was just devastating for me.”
Three decades later he wears a Congressional pin and no longer needs food stamps — and he is now consumed with trying to resurrect the city that nearly ruined him.
The normally affable Clarke talks in muted tones of this dark chapter in his life; he seems hesitant to even discuss it. But representing a city with a double-digit unemployment rate and one of the country’s highest crime rates, Clarke conceded his rags-to-Representative story could inspire the impoverished population he serves. That, after all, is why he came to Washington, D.C., in the first place.
“That’s not really in my job description as a Member of Congress,” he said. “But I take that on personally as probably the most significant role that I have: to represent people in a way that provides them with hope.”
Clarke has a back story to rival President Barack Obama’s now-famous upbringing.
Born to an Indian father who died when he was 8, Clarke’s African-American single mother raised him in a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood on a school crossing guard’s salary. Brought up Muslim, he later converted to Roman Catholicism. His wife, Choi Palms-Cohen, was born in South Korea and adopted by Catholic-Jewish parents.
Clarke said he remembers watching the deadly Detroit riots of 1967 at 10 years old.
“I could’ve gotten shot on the street corner that morning. But it didn’t happen,” he said. After a long pause, he added: “It could be God’s will right now that it didn’t happen. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
As he approached college age, his mother helped him secure a scholarship to attend Cornell University and study visual arts. She would not see him graduate. She died during his first semester.
Though her intent was to remove him from the crime-addled city, his grades faltered, he lost his scholarship, and he returned to Detroit to try to run a small baked-goods delivery venture. But he was double-crossed by a lawyer, he said, and ended up losing the business. Then he hit his lowest point.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.