May 5, 2007
Clarke’s political career began with defeat of the GOP’s favorite racist and hatemonger
It was a night of irony at the Livingston County Democratic Party’s 24th annual Edwin B. Winans Dinner Saturday evening at the Hamburg VFW Post as Sen. Hansen Clarke brought his message of diversity to a county that has an undeserved reputation as a racist community because of a few misguided bigots.
The ironic part is Clarke, who has made it his life’s work to help the less advantaged and promote racial harmony, began his political career when the son of a single parent working as a school crossing guard in Detroit’s eastside ran for the student seat on the board of trustees at an Ivy League school. He decided to run for the seat because he was troubled by how few minority students there were on the Cornell University campus, and he beat another undergraduate from a rich, well-connected family. That undergraduate was named Ann Coulter.
“She was so laid back when I ran against her,” Clarke said. “I think that election changed her.”
Clarke was raised alone by his mother on Detroit's lower eastside after his father passed away when he was just 8 years old. While in the third grade, an observant teacher recognized his artistic ability that promoted him to take art classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and it eventually led to a scholarship to Cornell where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Clarke then graduated from Georgetown University Law School. After he received his law degree he returned to Michigan to practice law. He was elected to his first of three terms in the Michigan House in 1990. He unseated an incumbent in the Senate in 2002, and he was reelected last November. In 2005 he was a candidate for Mayor of Detroit.
Clarke’s mother was African-American and his father was an Indian and a Muslim. Clarke said he, like many people outside of Livingston County, knew of Livingston County’s reputation as a community that promotes racism and devalues diversity, but he said he felt it was important for him to come to the county to encourage the people who are trying to change the county’s reputation for the better.
“Diversity means accepting people of all persuasions,” he said. “When your economic club invites people like Ann Coulter it doesn’t help the reputation of Livingston County.”
Despite the warm reception Clarke has always received from the Livingston County Democrats he has met at various functions like the state party conventions and events in Lansing, Clarke said the county’s reputation inevitably causes him top slow down a bit when driving through Livingston County on I-96.
“This is one of the very few times I have spoken outside of Detroit,” he said. “I grew up on the lower east side, and I have always been elected out of Detroit.”
Clarke has made it his mission to represent the disadvantaged and the more vulnerable in society, and he said that is because of the influence of his mother on his life and the effect her sudden death had on his life. Clarke said she passed away while he was a freshman at Cornell, and he was so devastated he dropped out of college and returned to Detroit during a time of high unemployment to work odd, menial jobs. When he finally returned to Cornell he had lost his scholarship, and he had to work to pay his tuition. He said that has helped him understand what the people of Michigan who have lost jobs and are losing their homes are going through.
“I don’t think people realize how vulnerable we really are,” he said. “I had a great mom and a great scholarship; in just an instant I didn’t have those things anymore.”
Clarke said with all the talk of Livingston County being a place controlled by Republicans with very few Democrats he was surprised at the estimated 100 people who showed up at the dinner.
“Sen. (Valde) Garcia mockingly told me when he heard I was coming here, ‘you should have a good crowd of about 12 people,’” he said.