Michigan Congressman-Elect Ready For Orientation

Michigan Congressman-elect Hansen Clarke does not have the usual background for a politician. He was a high school dropout and taxi driver who likes to paint with oils. He is also seen as a Democratic up and comer. During his Washington D.C. visit for freshman orientation, he sits down with host Michel Martin to discuss his plans for the next two years.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going back to politics now and we are going to meet with one of the incoming members of Congress, who have been learning the ropes in Washington this week, in advance of their new session beginning in January.

Michigan Representative-elect Hansen Clarke is one. He will represent a good chunk of Detroit when he comes back to D.C. in January. He is a Democrat who may have been helped by anti-incumbent feelings nationally when he defeated Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in this year's primary. And then his Republican opponent in this month's midterms.

We last spoke with Representative Hansen just after the primary, and he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio now while he's in the middle of freshman orientation. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us, and congratulations once again on your victory.

Senator HANSEN CLARKE (Democrat, Michigan): Thank you, Michel. It's great being in your studio. And actually, this is, like, really, a cool looking studio. Too bad our listeners can't see it. And I won't give that shout out to metro Detroiters, so I won't do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Well, thank you, sir. Well, we'll be sort of being - staying on message. Staying on the message.

Sen. CLARKE: Right. Right.

MARTIN: So, if I could just get your first impressions upon arriving here. I noticed that you already had kind of an interesting experience, when you were misidentified in a picture as a being a Republican. The newspaper here, The Washington Post, misidentified you as a Republican. I was curious why you thought that happened.

Sen. CLARKE: I heard of that. Now, it could be, you know, yesterday I was actually sitting on the, quote, "Republican side" of the House. And, you know, people are people. I'm going to work with Republicans and Democrats because metro Detroiters right now are in a big financial problem. So, you know, whoever I can work with, that's what I'm going to do. And I don't think people are really concerned about partisan labels.

You know, I'm a Democrat. My dad was an immigrant from India, came here during the Great Depression. And because of Roosevelt's policies, he was a Democrat and, you know, that influenced me to be a Democrat. So I support the principles, but we got to work together right now.

MARTIN: Which is an interesting question because this election was, I don't know that it was extraordinarily, you know, nasty or intense. Everybody always thinks their election is particularly nasty or intense. But it does seem as though some very stark ideological divides were revealed here. I mean, many people say that they are here to hold Washington accountable. They ran on a, really, sort of very marked anti-incumbent, anti-Washington platform. Do you really think you can bridge these really, what seem to be very stark ideological differences about what you're here to do?

Sen. CLARKE: Yes. You can. As a matter of fact, the culture is the problem, but, also, government can be helpful. Here's what's important. For me, as a new member in orientation, it's to stay grounded. As soon as I got off the plane, immediately I'm met by, you know, congressional staff and Marines and I'm saluted at. You know, you're made to feel important. It's important, though, to realize that the people are not recognizing you personally. They're recognizing the power of the people that's vested in you as a member of Congress.

But unfortunately, if you stay here too long as a politician, you actually start thinking you're part of a privileged class. That's preposterous, it's wrong and I think that's why people are angry right now, especially in the city of Detroit. We, unfortunately, in my opinion, have had a political culture of electing folks who were there to be served by everybody. You know, living large, dressing sharp, riding in expensive cars, where people are facing foreclosure, dropping out of school, getting murdered, losing hope. You know, it's just preposterous.

MARTIN: But you're also coming to Washington, a very changed political environment both in Washington and in Michigan. In Michigan, all the top offices went to Republicans. And the legislature, one of the houses went Republican. In addition to that, when you first filed for office, the Democrats were in the majority in the House, as they are for a couple of more months. But when you come to Washington, they will be in the minority. And I wonder how that changes your sense of what you might be able to do.

Sen. CLARKE: It doesn't for me. I work less in the realm of traditional politics, which deals with seniority and committees and party affiliation. But, rather, I view my job as being an advocate directly for people, but also as somebody who's here to build alliances. Let me just give an example. We have a lot of people who are struggling to stay in their homes right now. And I know that if I can help them stay in their homes, that's good for their family, but it's also good for the neighborhood, because that home's not going to be vacated and destroy everybody's property values, but it's also good for the economy because usually that mortgage is backing up some security that's being, you know, invested by some pension fund.

But I also, on another tier, realize that I've got to build alliances within the region, even nationally, to keep schools open, to strengthen schools. That'll help our youth. It helps train adults in adult education. And, also, Michel, I rely on my personal experience a lot. I went through adult education. That's how I graduated out of high school. Now, even though I'm a Georgetown law grad here it was adult ed that got me through things.

But by building alliances between labor, businesses and other private entities, I'm working now with the U.S. Department of Education, with the mayor of the city of Detroit and other nonprofits to keep schools open in evenings, the weekends, extend the school year. That'll also reduce crime because it'll keep our young people off the street.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're visiting with Hansen Clarke, state senator from Michigan, Democrat, representative-elect. He's in Washington for orientation. We're talking about his plans for Congress when he comes here in January.

You did mention you have a very interesting personal biography. As you alluded to, your dad was in immigrant from the part of India that later became Bangladesh. Your mom was African-American.

Sen. CLARKE: Right.

MARTIN: They both died when you were a relatively young man.

Sen. CLARKE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you are an artist. You have a Bachelor's in fine art from Cornell.

Sen. CLARKE: Yes.

MARTIN: That was kind of your first love, if I can call it that.

Sen. CLARKE: Exactly.

MARTIN: And I wonder if you think you might find a way to bring your love of the arts to your work or at least find some way to make that a part of your life while you're here, with all you have to do.

Sen. CLARKE: Michel, I'm so glad you asked that. Because, yes, all that really impacts on my ability to be a good congressperson. I'm going to draw, sketch and paint throughout my tenure in Congress. When I'm using my imagination and I'm having to look beyond the surface of things, like looking at the color, line and shape and all that, that allows me to be more open-minded as an elected official to hear different views, but also, it opens me up - my spirit - so I can feel where people are coming from.

You know, I'm able to feel, like, where a military veteran's coming from when he says, look, I risked my life for this country, but now I get my meals out of garbage dumpster. I can actually feel somebody's struggle who used to make $300,000 a year, but they're not laid off as a auto executive in metro Detroit and they're facing foreclosure.

It's for me to be able to look beyond the differences of people and see the commonality. And being multiracial really did that for me. You know, I had a father who came from a country where he couldn't vote. He was born 100 years ago in British-controlled India. And that's why he came to the United States.

And my mother was from the north end of Detroit, Thelma Clarke. She was a cleaning lady, a school crossing guard. You know, she actually taught me the values I needed. She went and bought my art supplies. And when I, you know, messed up in high school and I had to graduate out of adult education, she saved up all of her winnings from the illegal numbers that she used to play -and I'm just saying this on the radio 'cause I want people to understand, be proud of who you are, because many times I didn't want to recognize my background.

I kind of dissed my neighborhood, you know, 'cause its the inner city and I was raised on aid and my mother was a lady that cleaned toilets for a living. But she saved up all that money and sent me to a prep school in Massachusetts and that gave me a chance to go to college right before she passed away.

So, yes, by me acknowledging who I am, especially those things where I felt like I was vulnerable in my life or things I wouldn't want to be proud of, that's who I am. It makes me a better member of Congress because I can relate to people and what they're going through right now. This is a great land. And at this point in time in history, I want to make sure that everybody has the opportunities that I had.

MARTIN: Hansen Clarke is a representative-elect from Michigan. He is a Democrat and he was kind enough to dash out of freshman orientation this week to come by and see us and tell us a little bit about what's on his mind. And we do hope you'll come back over the course of your term and check in with us from time to time.

Sen. CLARKE: I would love to do that. Thank you, Michel.

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