Washington — The most remarkable story out of the November 2010 elections in the United States may belong to Hansen Hashem Clarke of Michigan — who in January 2011 will become the first Bangladeshi-American member of the U.S. Congress.
Clarke, a Democrat, will represent Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, which includes Detroit. Clarke’s road to the U.S. Congress is a fascinating individual story, but also one that mirrors the complex ethnic and social diversity of the United States in the 21st century.
Consider a summary of his background: Clarke is the son of a Bangladeshi immigrant father and an African-American mother. Although raised Muslim, he later became Catholic. His wife, born in South Korea, was adopted by a Catholic mother and Jewish father. In college, he majored in painting.
The midterm elections, which resulted in big gains for the Republican Party, saw a record number of candidates of South Asian background running for office, notably South Carolina Governor-elect Nikki Haley, daughter of two Sikh immigrants, and California Attorney General–elect Kamala Harris, daughter of an Indian immigrant mother and an African-American father. As with Clarke, the elected candidates will take their oaths of office and assume their positions in early January.
Clarke’s father, Mozaffar Ali Hashem, emigrated from the village of Sridhora, in the Sylhet area of Bangladesh, to Detroit, where he worked in a Ford automotive plant. He died when Clarke was only 8 years old.
In 2007, while a member of the Michigan Legislature, Clarke took an emotional trip back to his father’s hometown with members of the Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee.
At an outdoor reception during the visit, Clarke said, “I’m here not to receive your honors, but to thank and honor you. ... My father taught me to love myself — so I could respect everyone. He taught me that love and respect are based on an undying faith in God.”
Clarke plans to work on expanding trade with Bangladesh when in Congress, an issue he raised with Bangladeshi officials during his 2007 trip, he said in an interview with Voice of America in November.
On December 19, the New York Bangladeshi-American Community Council held a reception to honor Clarke. Council President Muhammad Mujumder called Clarke’s victory a huge achievement by a Bangladeshi American, according to the community news network Examiner.com.
In his remarks, Clarke thanked the Bangladeshi community for its support and paid tribute to the values and example of his father.
STRUGGLE AND EDUCATION
Clarke grew up in a poor, crime-ridden section of Detroit. After his father’s death, he and his mother lived on her meager salary as a school crossing guard, supplemented by food stamps, an assistance program that gives vouchers for food purchases. As a child, he witnessed the murder of a friend.
He recalled his upbringing in an interview with National Public Radio during the campaign. “I can never go back and save those lives,” he said. “But I can do something to help make it better for people now — as a congressman.”
Although teachers early on recognized Clarke’s intelligence and artistic abilities, he still struggled to complete his education. After taking classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts, he earned a scholarship to a prestigious private school, but couldn’t maintain his studies. Clarke returned to Detroit — only to be expelled from public high school for truancy — and earned his high school diploma through independent study.
Clarke won an arts scholarship to an elite school, Cornell University, but dropped out after his first year when his mother died; he was 19. Clarke called this the lowest point of his life in an interview with the National Journal. He lost both his scholarship and his car, was unemployed and survived with part-time jobs and public assistance. “I had no hope at all,” he said.
He recovered in part through the support of friends in the local community, who raised money so that he could continue his education, the Detroit Free Press reported. Clarke returned to Cornell, paying for his tuition through student loans and working at the university library. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in painting in 1984, and then graduated with a law degree from Georgetown Law School in 1987.
Clarke continues to paint “hauntingly impressionistic oils,” according to one political blog, and has donated a number of his paintings to charity. His wife, active in a legal education program, is also a talented jazz singer.
Clarke worked in political campaigns and public affairs jobs after law school, eventually becoming chief of staff to U.S. Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan. He later served three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives and two terms in the Michigan State Senate.
When he decided to run for Congress in 2010, Clarke faced a formidable opponent in a powerful, long-time incumbent whose family had become entangled in charges of corruption. He defeated the incumbent during the primaries and won the November 2 general election with 79 percent of the vote.
“There has been a culture of politics in Detroit for decades that people go into politics ... to take care of yourself and your family,” Clarke declared during the campaign. “One thing I’m trying to change is that culture.”
At a time when conservative Republicans will be taking control of the House of Representatives, Clarke is a liberal Democrat who represents one of the poorest congressional districts in the nation.
In his victory statement before cheering supporters in November, Clarke said, “I first ran for office to help save neighborhoods like the one I was born and raised in. I also wanted to offer hope and opportunity to people. ... I will continue to fight to change the system so that government serves the public, not the politicians.”