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Fighting the power



Thirty years ago, there was hope Detroit was poised for a comeback. The population had fallen, but at 1,203,339 people, we were still the nation's sixth largest city. Times were tough, but there was hope. Chrysler had loan guarantees from the government and was about to introduce the K-car, the vehicle on which the corporation was pinning hopes for survival.

GM was breaking ground for the Poletown plant where Dodge Main once stood. Coleman Young, just in his second term, was still full of energy. Michigan had a Republican governor named Bill Milliken who was more committed to the city's survival than many Democrats.

In fact, that summer, for the first time ever, the GOP held its national political convention in Detroit, nominating the most right-wing candidate since Barry Goldwater. When they left town, possibly leaving a few stunned delegates still lost in the Renaissance Center, few experts really expected Ronald Reagan to win.

Virtually nobody had ever heard of freshman state legislator Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, or her 10-year-old son Kwame, who even then had decided he was going to be mayor of Detroit. Fewer still had heard of Hansen Clarke, 23, who had wanted to be an artist, but then, confused, dropped out of college after his parents died. Later, he'd go back to graduate with high honors from Cornell, and then Georgetown law school.

Thirty years later, the once-little boy is in prison; his mother is in Congress; and Hansen Clarke, now a state senator, has a good chance of taking her seat in the Aug. 3 Democratic primary less than two weeks from now. Detroit's battered citizens should hope he wins.

There is little evidence that Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick cares much about her constituents. She does lease, with taxpayer dollars, an expensive vehicle to tool around the district in, true. (Clarke said he would lease a van instead to take seniors grocery shopping.)

What CCK really cares about are Washington power games, as when she helped Nancy Pelosi bounce John Dingell from his position as head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Are you running because the scandals have left CCK vulnerable? I asked Clarke last week. "Oh God, no," he said.

Clarke says he's running because it's the best way he can think of to do something to help one of the nation's poorest districts, and to push his signature issues, which include delaying foreclosures and reforming the auto insurers and banks to limit discrimination against the poor.

Personally, he is more intriguing than the average pol. For one thing, he and his wife are a rainbow coalition in themselves, people for whom there are no simple and easy boxes on the census form.

Hansen had a Muslim father from Bangladesh and a mother who grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit. Hansen was raised Muslim, then converted to Roman Catholicism.

His wife, Choi Palmer-Cohen, was born in South Korea and was adopted by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. What is she today? By day, a staffer at the Center for Continuing Legal Education in Ann Arbor. When she gets the chance, however, she's an impressive jazz singer, belting out Ella Fitzgerald tunes. Clarke is an artist himself, executing, in his spare time, hauntingly impressionistic oils.

These days, however, neither of them have spare time. They are working energetically to beat Kilpatrick on Aug. 3. And if the latest EPIC/MRA poll is correct, they seem on course to do it. Last week's poll found Clarke ahead, 44 to 31. Granted, the Clarke campaign paid for the poll – but this is a reputable polling firm.

Nobody ought to be too surprised that CCK is in trouble. Two years ago, when her son Kwame was still clinging to the mayor's job, she barely got by Mary Waters, 39 percent to 36 percent, and only made it then because Martha Scott drained off some anti-Kilpatrick votes.

This time there are also four other names on the ballot, but the only one with a chance to put an end to this chapter in Detroit's shame is Hansen Clarke, and most voters appear to know that.

Circumstances have steadily worsened for the Kilpatrick clan over the last two years. These days, Kwame is wearing a jumpsuit, sent back to the state can this spring for parole violations.

Worse, he may eventually trade it in for a federal prison uniform; he was just indicted on 19 felony counts.  His mommy, aka the congresswoman, was hauled up before a grand jury this spring, though perhaps only about the prisoner she once called "y'all's boy."

Kwame Kilpatrick once told me he decided to be mayor of Detroit when he was 8 years old. Clarke, now 53, took a little longer to find himself. "What I knew was that I wanted to help people," he told me one sweltering afternoon last week. "How to best do that was the question."

When he was 8, his daddy died, plunging his mom into utter poverty. She and Hansen survived on the pittance she made as a school crossing guard.

He walked the streets with Wayne State law professor and mayoral candidate John Mogk in 1977, learning about the city. Now, he wants the chance to help a few hundred thousand others. He knows it isn't a sure thing; the four lesser-known candidates on the ballot will help drain the anti-CCK vote. But money is coming in now; he has ads on the air.

When he got into the race, one friend was horrified, saying, "Hansen, why are you doing this? She has so much power!" Clarke laughed. He'd gone from food stamps to Georgetown law. He knew about impossible dreams, and he knew something else too.

"Politicians don't have the power. People do."

We'll find out Aug. 3 what that means.

Picking on foreigners: 
Frequent readers of this column may recall that I've often written about Freedom House, which gives shelter to persecuted immigrants who are seeking asylum in this country. These are not illegal immigrants, but people who have legally protected status under federal law.

Freedom House, located in an old convent near the Ambassador Bridge, always has been very careful about who it allows to stay there. For many years, immigration officials have understood this, and essentially gave Freedom House no problems.

However, there's a new ugly spirit of immigrant bashing in the land. Deborah Drennan, Freedom House's executive director, says Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials lately have been hassling Freedom House and its residents.

"We are afraid to walk two blocks north to our community garden, or to take our children to the park to play, for fear CBP will stop us and, without understanding the law, motorcade us to the detention center," Drennan said. They are also worried about the refugees taking public transportation to mental health and English language classes.

Last week, one of the residents who already had been granted asylum was detained for three hours, Drennan said, and not even allowed to make a phone call, even though a computer check showed the man, who is from Iran, is legally in this country.

Our ancestors were all immigrants once. Is this the kind of nation we want to be?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at

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