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Published: Friday, 8/19/2011

Against all odds, Mr. Clarke goes to Washington

DETROIT -- Forty years ago, if you had to pick a kid least likely to end up in Congress, you might have settled on Hansen Clarke.

His father, Mozaffar Ali Hashim, was an undocumented Muslim immigrant from India. His much-younger mother, Thelma Clarke, was an African-American woman who worked as a school crossing guard after Hansen's father died when he was 8 years old.

Mr. Clarke grew up in a tough neighborhood on the east side of Detroit. He soon abandoned Islam, became a Presbyterian, then converted to Roman Catholicism.

He thought of entering the priesthood, but got a lucky break when his mother won a pile of money through illegal numbers gambling.

She used the proceeds and a scholarship to send her son to prestigious Cornell University to study art. She died, however, and he dropped out and drifted for a while, before he pulled himself together and went back to school.

Somehow, the political bug bit him. He earned a law degree at Georgetown University in Washington while working as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat.

Next, he got elected to the Michigan Legislature. A year ago, he defeated incumbent Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in the Democratic primary in Detroit's 13th U.S. House District. That was tantamount to election.

Since he was sworn in last January, Mr. Clarke, an engaging, small dynamo of energy, has been going a mile a minute.

"They told me at the legislative drafting service that it can sometimes take a year to get the language right for a [complex] bill," he said, talking rapidly over an early dinner, forgetting the cup of gazpacho and salad in front of him. "A year! I don't have a year!"

Mr. Clarke is 54, but looks and acts much younger. His wife, a Korean-American jazz singer and former legal researcher named Choi Palms-Cohen, sighs when he admits to sometimes sleeping in his Washington office.

"I don't always intend to live like this, once we get past the nation's economic crisis," he says, after an interviewer pleads with him to eat. He thinks he has a plan that might save Detroit, if he can persuade various governments to pass legislation.

His scheme would involve having the government sequester all the corporate and personal income taxes the city sends to Washington, perhaps $2.5 billion a year, and put them in a special account to be administered by the Secretary of the Treasury.

Those funds would be used to rebuild Detroit. In return, the city would drop its income tax on residents and nonresidents.

"I've talked to VC [venture capitalists] who say something like that would really lure them to the city," he said.

Making that happen might sound like the longest of shots, and few congressmen would go out on a limb with such an ambitious package. Mr. Clarke doesn't mind.

"I don't care whether it passes or not -- or if it makes me look good," Mr. Clarke said. "What's important is to get the idea out there."

Jaded observers may be tempted to dismiss him as an over-excitable, naive freshman legislator who will soon discover reality. Mr. Clarke knows this.

"When I came here [fellow members of Congress] told me I had to hire experienced Washington staff people," he said. "But I found out what they knew how to do is tell me that things couldn't be done, explain why they couldn't be done, and tell me not to try."

Though easygoing, the new congressman has little patience with that attitude.

Mr. Clarke was assigned to the homeland security committee. Freshman lawmakers traditionally are supposed to be seen and not heard. But last month, when he saw next year's proposed budget, Mr. Clarke was shocked.

Detroit, which has been getting millions of dollars for homeland security since 9/11, was zeroed out. The new budget said the money could be spent only in the nation's 10 largest cities.

"This is the most economically important border crossing in the nation," he said. When the bill was passed, he offered an amendment to change the wording.

"They said, don't do that, you'll anger the leadership," he said. "I didn't care. They put it up on the board, you know, and it was losing, big-time."

So Mr. Clarke ran around the House floor, buttonholing dozens of members, including Tea Party Republicans.

In the end, he won by an impressive 273-150 vote. Now, the Homeland Security Department can spend funds however it sees fit.

When he was a young man, he confided, he thought being in Congress would be the best job there was. But he's changed.

He will run for re-election next year. But he confides: "I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm not in love with being a congressman.

"The trappings of power, the Capitol, even the White House, don't move me," he said. "What I am in love with is the chance to do something for people, and when you are in Congress, they listen to you."

How does he want people to remember him? "I hope they don't. I hope to get to a time when it doesn't matter if I am in Congress anymore."

Then, he plans to go back to painting -- large, brightly colored canvases reminiscent of Pablo Picasso or Joan Miro.

His district used to be the home of Vernors, Detroit's signature soft drink, whose slogan was: "Deliciously Different." That's an apt description of Hansen Clarke's style.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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