State Sen. Hansen Clarke is seen in Detroit on Aug. 4. Clarke, who defeated longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, says he will fix old, blighted neighborhoods like the one he grew up in.
State Sen. Hansen Clarke is seen in Detroit on Aug. 4. Clarke, who defeated longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, says he will fix old, blighted neighborhoods like the one he grew up in. Carlos Osorio/AP
State Sen. Hansen Clarke, the Democratic nominee for Michigan's 13th Congressional District, crouches low into the passenger seat of the Ford Taurus he says he just finished paying off, and glances at the boarded-up buildings near his boyhood home.
Earlier this month, Clarke defeated seven-term incumbent Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in the primary by running on a platform of targeting tax dollars to impoverished neighborhoods like the one he grew up in.
But Clarke says he avoided the area during the campaign — until now.
"It's tough, man. I mean, it's tough," he says. "People say, 'Well, Hansen Clarke gets emotional.' All my damn friends got murdered. How am I not to be emotional?
"How am I not to be emotional when my one friend that's living has never been able to work a day in his life because he was thrown in the trunk of a car after he was robbed?"
It doesn't take long in the old neighborhood for Clarke to find his friend, Bernie Ramos, across the street from Clarke's now-abandoned home.
"I was giving up everything, and they still chose to shoot me," Ramos says. "So they shot me in the head twice from the back seat. Thank God I'm still here. They weren't expecting for me to make it — said I'd be a vegetable."
Ramos says no one in this predominantly black neighborhood had a problem with Clarke's father, a Muslim from India who worked in a Ford foundry and died when Clarke was 8.
Clarke's mother -– an African-American Christian -– supported them on a school crossing guard's paycheck and eventually helped find a scholarship for him to attend Cornell University. Soon after he went off to college, she fell into a coma and died.
"I lost everything. I lost my scholarship in college. I came back here, you know, I got into business. Then I lost my business," Clarke says.
Clarke thought returning to college could be the only way out, but he was living on food stamps — until they, too, were cut off.
On a front porch near Clarke's old house, Doris Forte remembers how her mother took up a collection from people around the neighborhood to get Clarke back in the classroom.
" 'If I have to take a loan out or something,' she said, 'I'm going to try to help Hansen,' " Forte says. "She seen his mind was definitely on trying to do something with his life.
"At the time, I don't think you had politics on your mind, did you? You was going to college for, what was that? Art. Yes."
Clarke earned an arts degree from Cornell and then morphed into a law student at Georgetown University.
He headed home, ran for the state Legislature in 1992 and caught the eye of Inside Michigan Politics editor Bill Ballenger, who says he finds Clarke to be a bit unique.
"He's an artist. I mean, he's a painter, for heaven's sakes," Ballenger says, laughing. "How many painters are running for Congress or being elected to Congress? Probably Hansen Clarke is the only one."
Clarke says he will fix his old, blighted neighborhood by delivering the kind of government housing and retraining programs that he says helped him when he was a kid.
"I can never go back in time and save those lives, I can never go back in time to save these homes from being demolished, I can't go back in time to stop my friend from being shot in the back of the head twice at point-blank range," Clarke says. "But I can do something to help make it better for people now, though — as a congressman."
In heavily Democratic Detroit, Clarke's election to Congress is almost assured. Compared with what he went through in the old neighborhood, the partisan battling Clarke could face in Washington isn't too daunting.