Even before the November 2 election, Democratic state Sen. Hansen Clarke was at work as the likely new representative of this Detroit-based district, holding meetings with federal agency officials who are in a position to help the city’s tattered economy. Clarke became a sure bet to win the heavily Democratic seat when he dispatched 14-year incumbent Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in the August Democratic primary. Kilpatrick had been hurt by a storm of negative publicity surrounding her son, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
Clarke grew up in a rough inner-city Detroit neighborhood. His father died when he was 8; and when he was 9, he witnessed a murder. His mother, Thelma, scraped by with jobs as a school crossing guard and a housekeeper, and she pushed her son to excel in school. Recognizing that he was gifted artistically, she got him into classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts when he was in the third grade. Clarke later was accepted at Phillips Exeter preparatory school in New Hampshire on a scholarship. But he didn’t adjust well and returned to a public high school in Detroit, where he eventually was expelled for lack of attendance.
Clarke earned his high school equivalency degree through an adult-education program, and was accepted at Governor’s Academy near Boston, another elite school, which his mother thought would help him get into a better college. This time, he worked hard at his studies, and his mother paid his tuition out of lottery winnings. Clarke’s skills in portraiture earned him a scholarship to Cornell University, where he studied painting. But in his first semester, his mother died unexpectedly, affecting him profoundly. He dropped out of school and went back to Detroit. In an interview, Clarke described this period as the lowest in his life, when he had “no hope at all.” He lost his scholarship and his car; he was unemployed and surviving on public assistance. Eventually, a close friend of his mother’s rescued him—warning him over dinner one night that he was going end up living on the streets.
Clark found a job through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, and he asked the chairman of Cornell’s art department for a second chance. To put himself through school, he worked as a librarian and took out student loans. When the university considered cutting back needs-based scholarship programs, Clarke got his first taste of politics. He ran for the student seat on Cornell’s governing board, beating a young Ann Coulter, who went on to become a prominent conservative pundit. Clarke argued to the board that scholarships were “how guys like me got a chance.” Later, while getting his law degree at Georgetown University in Washington, Clarke helped raise money for Missouri Democrat Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign. He eventually became chief of staff for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
In 1990, Clarke ran for the first of three terms in the Michigan House. He went on to serve two terms in the state Senate. In office, he fought for legislation to help Detroit’s public schools, including bills providing higher pay for teachers and rewarding students for good grades. He also worked to lower automobile and home insurance premiums for Detroit residents and to help stem the flood of home foreclosures that followed in the wake of the economic downturn in 2008.
In the 2010 election season, Clarke initially weighed a race for governor but opted instead to challenge Kilpatrick. Her political capital had been depleted by several months of scandal involving her son, who was indicted for fraud and jailed for violating probation. Kilpatrick highlighted the federal money she had brought to the district over her years on the Appropriations Committee. Her campaign raised $636,000 to Clarke’s $375,000. Still, Clarke won 47 percent to 41 percent, and in the general election easily defeatedRepublican business owner John Hauler.