Chafets, Zev, Newsweek
Byline: Zev Chafets
In a city whose politics have long been dominated by race, Rep. Hansen Clarke defies easy definition--in his person as well as his aisle-crossing politics.
In November, Hansen Clarke, the newly elected Democratic congressman from Michigan's 13th District, went to Washington, D.C. for freshman orientation. When he met with the Congressional Black Caucus, which he intends to join, he received what seemed like a cool reception. "Some of the members were probably upset because I defeated their friend Congresswoman Kilpatrick," he says. "And some seemed sort of unsure about where I belong."
It is hard to blame them on either count. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick is a former head of the CBC and a highly regarded colleague of many caucus members. And Clarke is not at all easy to pin down ethnically. His father was an undocumented immigrant from the part of India that is now Bangladesh, his mother an African-American with roots in the South. Hansen was born in Detroit and raised a Muslim, but his father died when he was 8, and after that he lost interest. ("I was the worst Arabic student in the mosque," he recalls.) He grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods on the east side and dropped out of high school, but was saved by his talent for painting. He attended Cornell on an art scholarship, once defeated Ann Coulter in a campus election, and eventually became class president.
In his early 20s, Clarke was baptized as a Presbyterian, converted to Roman Catholicism, and tried twice, unsuccessfully, to become a priest. "I felt I was one semester away from the seminary until I was in my early 50s," he says. Three years ago, at 52, he got married to a Korean orphan who was raised in America by Jewish and Catholic parents; the couple kissed for the first time at their nonsectarian wedding. Politically, he's a self-styled urban progressive who gets along just fine with Republicans, although it doesn't come naturally. "Over the years I've had to create the construct of a guy who can work with conservatives," he says. In the 13th District, where politics have been dominated for generations by narrow racial, religious, and ideological identity politics, Hansen Clarke contains multitudes.
Conventional wisdom is that Clarke beat Kilpatrick in the Democratic primary last June because she is the mother of the most unpopular man in the city, Kwame Kilpatrick, the onetime "hip-hop mayor" of Motown who now resides in the federal penitentiary in Milan, Mich. But Clarke, who never mentioned the ex-mayor in his campaign, believes that his victory is a part of the same anti-incumbent wave that brings a slew of Republicans into office this month. "Houses are vacant, there are no jobs, and everyone is scared. Voters figured out that the old-line leaders have been concerned with promoting themselves, not the public welfare. What I did was help people see through the rhetoric," he says.
If Clarke is right, what happened in the 13th District could have national implications. Detroit is a bellwether of urban politics. Since 1973, when the iconic Coleman Young first won control of City Hall, it has been a proudly black metropolis with a postcolonialist sensibility and a willingness to tolerate a great deal of corruption and misrule in the name of community solidarity. The Kilpatricks came to office as candidates of the machine Young put together. This was the year when the machine ran out of gas.
At the very least, Clarke's victory represents a swing of the pendulum. "Historically, Detroit--and other cities--have vacillated between two political cultures," says Lyke Thompson, a professor of political science at Wayne State University. "One is the moralistic reform style that sees government as a vehicle for doing good for the entire public. The other is an individualistic approach that regards government as a means for politicians to further their own ends and the ends of their close constituents. …