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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.
“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.
“I want to change that whole perception. Who cares what that person’s title is? That person works for the taxpayer,” he said. “I wanted to have less of a hierarchy and more of a team approach, and I thought departing from these unnecessarily hierarchical titles would be one way to do it.”
His unique background gives Clarke a kind of new-age populism that he said connects the laid-off auto executive in upscale Grosse Pointe, Mich., to the man digging in a Dumpster in Clarke’s old neighborhood.
“It shows me this one thing,” he said, leaning forward intently in his chair. “Everybody’s the same. We all want the same thing. We want those values that are in our preamble to the Declaration of Independence, those guarantees to the life, the liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”
Correction: March 14, 2011
The article misstated the name of Rep. Hansen Clarke’s (D-Mich.) wife. Her name is Choi Palms-Cohen.