U.S.

Rep. Hansen Clarke and Detroit's New Renaissance

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A person walks by the former premises of Packard Motor Car Company in Detroit. The company ended production in the late 1950s. Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek

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.” Young, whose motto was “Reward your friends, punish your enemies,” embodied the latter approach and passed it along to the Kilpatrick clan. Clarke, on the other hand, is a Capraesque reformer with an almost boyish belief in the power of the people.

Not long after the election we spent a day together as Clarke made the rounds of his district-to-be. Our first stop was a mission where Clarke addressed a crowd of some 200 homeless Detroiters. Clarke said that he sees himself in the faces of the street people. His mother, who worked as a school crossing guard, sent him away to school with winnings from the street numbers. When she died, while he was at Cornell University, he left college and drifted, unemployed and living on food stamps. Eventually he pulled himself together, returned to Cornell and then went on to law school at Georgetown, but he says, “All my life I’ve been afraid that I’m going to wind up on the streets.”

For decades, the people of Detroit have been looked down upon by their more prosperous neighbors. But at the mission, Clarke had a startling message for his audience: in the face of economic hard times, they had something of great value to offer the suburbanites. “The people out there were making six figures a year and now a lot of them are in foreclosure,” he said. “They think this is the end of the world for them, but you and I know better. People like us are strong, not despite what we have been through, but because of it.”

The speech won Clarke a standing ovation and three separate benedictions. One of the ministers praised Clarke as “a humble spirit,” and I couldn’t help wondering if it was a sly reference to the fall of the House of Kilpatrick.

In 1996, when Michigan State Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick first won a seat in Congress, her place in Lansing was filled by her 26-year-old son Kwame. A former offensive lineman and captain of the Florida A&M football team, he cut a striking figure. In 2002 he became the youngest mayor in the city’s history, and he confided to reporters that he first saw his potential after reading the story of King David. Seven long, bitter years later he was comparing himself to another Biblical figure: Job. “It is good that I have been afflicted,” he told a radio interviewer.

The wounds were self-inflicted. Kilpatrick surrounded himself with an intimidating, 21-member security detail and spent a lot of time inspecting the city’s nightlife. Shortly after he took office, a story began circulating of a wild drug-and-sex party at the mayoral mansion. Supposedly the mayor’s wife, Carlita, had walked in, caught her husband in the act of being entertained by a stripper named Tamara Greene, and beat the woman bloody.

Kilpatrick denied the party ever took place, but suspicions that he was lying were fueled when he fired the deputy chief of police, Gary Brown, who was looking into the affair. Brown and another officer filed whistleblower suits against the city. Greene was shot to death in her boyfriend’s car, and the crime went unsolved. Text messages between the mayor and his chief of staff that allegedly could have shed light on the rumored party and Greene’s death went missing.

The officers won a settlement worth more than $8 million, which was paid by the impoverished city. In 2008 Kilpatrick was charged with eight felony counts, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the missing text-message case, and was sentenced to pay the city up to $1 million and spend 120 days in jail. Today Detroit is led by Dave Bing, a former Detroit Pistons all-star turned steel magnate who is, like Clarke, a good-government reformer.

Later in our day together Clarke had scheduled an unusual meeting, with the Business Leaders of Michigan (BLM), on the 17th floor of the Renaissance Center, a gleaming tower in the heart of downtown. He’s eager to make clear that he doesn’t automatically subscribe to the big-government orthodoxies of his party. “I’m a Democrat because I believe tax dollars can be used for the common good,” he said, “but between Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes I come right down the middle. As a progressive I want to pay down the debt. I think it can be done by cutting some taxes, and by putting people back to work.”

“You sound like a Republican,” I said.

Ordinarily, these are fighting words on the east side of Detroit, but Clarke didn’t flinch. “Actually, some people see me as a raging populist,” he said, a reference to the bill he introduced in the Michigan State Senate to suspend home foreclosures for up to two years. He plans to offer similar legislation in Washington, but not as a free ride. “I don’t want to protect deadbeats. And I think it is essential to meet with and understand the kind of people who create jobs.”

Officially, the BLM is nonpartisan but its focus on lowering taxes and reducing government regulations puts it on the other side of the moon from the average Detroit politician. In the same sincere tone he had used at the mission that morning, Clarke tried to ease suspicions at the meeting. “I want to be an ally of this organization,” he said. “This is a great opportunity right now, everybody being so bad off.”

His interlocutors exchanged glances—unsure, it seemed to me, of what the congressman-elect was getting at. “We’ve got to have bipartisanship,” said Al Glancy, the venerable former chairman of the board of the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., as Clarke nodded in agreement. “Our economic problems go beyond any one district.” Clarke suggested forming a caucus with other Michigan freshmen congressmen (all of whom are Republicans) or even representatives of other Midwestern industrial states. “Too often the goal in Washington is to defeat the other side,” Clarke said. “We have to work together.” He asked Glancy if he would set up an event for him in the wealthy, predominantly white suburb of Grosse Pointe. Glancy seemed surprised. “You know, your predecessor never came out there,” he said. “You’ll have an easy act to follow.”

Clarke didn’t react to the barb. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick is, despite her son’s problems, still a respected figure in Clarke’s world. He also refrained from badmouthing the ex-mayor, who was in jail for a parole violation and preparing to defend himself against federal tax and fraud charges. Neither of us knew at the time that Kilpatrick, his father, Bernard, and three associates were about to get hit with yet another federal indictment, this one containing 38 charges of corruption. On the day I left town, the Detroit media reported another Kwame Kilpatrick rumor, that he is using his time behind bars to write an autobiography. As for Clarke, he is hardly contemplating a message to posterity yet. “Sometimes, I’m asked how I want people to remember me,” he told me. “I say, ‘I hope they won’t.’ I want them to be busy in the present, enjoying their lives.”