Meet Hansen Clarke: The Dems' Rising Star From Detroit

Although George W. Bush and the Republicans partied hardest on election day 2004, one of the most far-reaching developments was the election of the previously obscure Barack Obama to the U.S. Senate. Most observers expect fall 2010 to bring more disappointment for the Democrats and their supporters. But the election will likely elevate to the national political stage one of the most intriguing figures the party can put forward.

Like Obama at the start of 2004, Detroit's Hansen Clarke is currently a state senator serving an urban district. But his stunning Democratic primary victory over incumbent Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick last week puts him in line to become Detroit's junior congressperson alongside the stalwart John Conyers.

With a camera-ready face and youthful smile that belie his 53 years of age, Clarke speaks with force and passion about the crises and opportunities Detroit is confronting. He is the perfect conduit to spread the story of an underdog city rising from the ashes of industrial decay.

While Clarke is unlikely to follow Obama's ascension to higher office, his life is just as (if not more) reflective of the multi-ethnic identity and grassroots politics taking shape in twenty-first century America. Clarke is the son of a Muslim immigrant father and an African American mother. The former came to the U.S. from India (what is now Bangladesh) at a time when most Asians faced blatant discrimination and were deemed ineligible for naturalized citizenship.

In a starkly segregated city, Clarke's father found a home within Detroit's black community but passed away when his son was only eight. As a result, Clarke was raised by a single-mother on Detroit's Eastside just as the city's five-decades-long crisis was sinking in. Clarke himself is married to a Korean-born woman who was adopted by her Catholic mother and Jewish father. His faith in the strength of unconventional family relations was likely solidified by the fact that he was effectively adopted by his neighbors, who sponsored his Cornell education after his mother also died prematurely.

The national media have just begun to take note of this remarkable and uplifting story. See, for instance, this article by NPR's Frank James citing a post by local political analyst Jack Lessenberry.

But all of this multicultural talk would not mean much if it were not paired with Clarke's fresh and invigorating approach to politics. Although he certainly benefited from the scandals surrounding the Kilpatrick family, his victory symbolizes that Detroiters are not satisfied with business-as-usual. With a campaign war chest dwarfing that of Clarke, Cheeks Kilpatrick touted her powerful position on the House Appropriations Committee and the barrels of pork she has brought home.

Detroiters want and deserve their share of public funding. But through repeated failures and broken promises, they have learned that the government is an undependable patron and that solutions cannot emanate from above. Clarke is the favored politician of many Detroit activists who are working to create new models of local economy, education, community, and sustainability.

He celebrated his win by chanting "Power to the people!" His slew of canvassers were bolstered by the presence of homeless persons he enlisted while probing every corner of the district both to spread his message and listen to his constituents. And he is an artist who understands the role of creativity in movements for social change.

Drawn from his African American and Asian American roots, Clarke's life of struggle reflects the courage to "make a way out of no way." In his unsuccessful 2005 challenge to mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose questionable use of expensive bodyguards and security cars signaled coming scandal, Clarke stood out from the pack when boldly declaring he didn't need special protection from Detroit's streets because he "grew up on the corner of Mack and Baldwin."

To be certain, Detroit's struggles have reached a titanic scale, and Clarke is no lone savior. But in a time of rising diversity and widening disparities, America needs politicians like Clarke who are true to their community roots.

His upset victory can serve as a symbol of the emphasis a growing number of Detroiters are placing on participatory democracy over representative democracy. They eschew the false hope of "quick fixes" proffered by conventional politicians, such as casino gambling, urban gentrification, and overly subsidized corporate relocations.

What they demand are new political leaders who will support and encourage the self-determining initiatives of grassroots organizers and neighborhoods. Therein lies the hope for a new American majority.

(Full disclosure: I have lived in districts represented by Clarke for most of the past decade. Earlier this year, I contributed to Clarke's campaign, one of the few times in my life I've given money to any politician. I have never asked for any personal support from Clarke, but like many Detroiters, I have been impressed by his repeated willingness to support grassroots organizations I consider crucial to the city's revitalization.)