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Congressman Hansen Clarke: Shaking Things Up


There was a time in Hansen Clarke’s life when the thing he wanted most in the world was to be a Congressman, back when he was twenty-five years old or so.

This year, that happened. He beat Detroit incumbent Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick in the Democratic primary a year ago, and then won an easy victory in his district, centered on his native east side of Detroit. Ever since, he’s been going a mile a minute.

“You know everybody told me that I needed to get experienced Washington staffers,” he said. But then “I found out what they knew how to do was tell me why things couldn’t be done and tell me I shouldn’t try.”  Clarke’s an easygoing guy.

But he has small patience for that kind of attitude. Early on, someone told him that drafting and developing a complex piece of legislation could sometimes take up to a year. “I don’t have a year,” he told me.  “Neither does Detroit or the nation.”

But Clarke told me he had learned an important lesson. He said he was now getting things done because he didn’t know that he couldn’t do them. This happened last month with the administration’s Homeland Security budget. The budget zeroed out funds for Detroit.

It said that homeland security money could only be spent in the nation’s ten largest cities. Clarke thought that made no sense. Detroit is the nation’s most economically important border crossing. He offered an amendment to change it. Freshman congressmen aren’t supposed to do that. Someone told him he would anger the leadership. But he didn’t care, and ran around the floor personally lobbying congressmen, including Tea Party Republicans. Many then realized this would mean their cities would be ineligible too.

And Clarke‘s amendment passed by a sizable margin. Now, the Department of Homeland Security can spend money wherever it thinks the need is greatest. Hansen Clarke is a dynamo of energy. Though he is fifty-four, he has the energy of a twenty-four year-old athlete. He has so many ideas that he sometimes forget to eat.

He told me he doesn’t expect his every bill to become law. “What’s important is that they are talked about. It’s not always important to win.” What’s important, he says, is to make a difference.  He thinks consumer debt is as big a problem as the national debt, and on television, cut up his own credit cards on the House floor. I wondered whether he was at last living his dream.

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” he said, “but I’m not in love with being a congressman.” The trappings of power aren’t moving him the way he thought they would. That doesn’t mean he wishes he weren’t in office. What he likes is doing something to try to help people. When you are in Congress, he added, others pay attention to you.

In his ideal world, he told me, the country’s economic crisis will settle down and he will eventually return to his first love -- painting, canvases that are Picasso-like creations with bright colors.

Clarke knows he is unlikely to ever have a top leadership post, and that’s fine with him. My guess is that Washington would be better off with a lot more who felt the same way.

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