“Everything I’d worked for I lost. Everything I’d been taught, I did, and that didn’t work,” he said. “So I just knew it was over for me.”
He credits a priest and his godmother for nudging him back onto the right path. But he also credits the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which created a job for him working with truant high school students. He realizes now that the program shaped his belief in good government.
“It hit me a year ago when I was thinking about running for office,” he said. “As a bunch of these guys in Congress I didn’t know made a difference for me, I know I can do it for these people that I’m representing.”
From Staffer to Politician
He enrolled at Georgetown law school — driven by the thought of being able to protect himself against people like the lawyer that burned him — and graduated in 1987. He came to the Hill, working as chief of staff to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), but quickly turned to a political career of his own, joining the Michigan state House in 1990 and the state Senate in 2002. He better acquainted himself with Detroit voters when he challenged Kwame Kilpatrick (D) in the 2005 Detroit mayoral primary, which he lost.
“I’ve known him in all kinds of capacities. He’s a really dedicated public servant,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) said. “I don’t know what his middle name is. But if he doesn’t have one, I would say it should be ‘energetic.’ He has an immense amount of energy, an immense amount of commitment.”
Last year, Clarke filed to run for governor but reconsidered and instead challenged then-Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Kwame’s mother, in the 13th district Democratic primary.
Clarke lacked big-name support, and even Conyers supported Kilpatrick. But the stain from her son’s downfall (he was indicted on charges of federal tax evasion and went to jail in 2008) helped Clarke beat the seven-term incumbent.
He has since joined the Congressional Black Caucus, which Kilpatrick once chaired. He received a cool reception for knocking off one of the group’s favorite members, CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said, but they understand the nature of politics, and the awkwardness has since dissipated. Clarke is now regularly seen sitting in the CBC’s usual corner of House floor.
Titles Are Unnecessary
Trained as an artist, Clarke has been toiling in abstract watercolors for the past few years. Often, he shuns the strident rhetoric of a Congressman and speaks gently and conceptually. He values “nonlinear thinking” and said his art helps him better represent his constituents.
“Art gets me outside of that construct, so it allows me to be open to things that ordinarily I wouldn’t be,” he said. “I’m staying connected with the energy I have with my surroundings so that I’ll be more effective as a representative of people, all their different points of view.”
Being a chief of staff taught him that the position is somewhat unnecessary, he said. He shuns traditional titles in his D.C. office and instead has a “senior adviser/counsel” who also handles press inquiries.